Scots will vote on whether or not to become an independent country on September 18 next year, it has been announced.

The long-awaited date for the historic ballot was announced by Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, who said the ‘historic day’ would help to decide the nation’s future.

Mr Salmond announced the date as the Scottish independence referendum bill was published.

He told the Scottish Parliament he was ‘honoured’ to announce the date.

‘I believe it will be the day we take responsibility for our country, when we are able to speak with our own voice, choose our own direction and contribute in our own distinct way,’ he said.

Leaving the United Kingdom and becoming a separate country would give Scotland a ‘new, more modern relationship with the other nations of the UK’ that would be a ‘true partnership of equals’.

He said: ‘I believe on September 18 the people of Scotland will vote “yes” to create a better country than we have now, one we can pass on with pride to the next generation.’

The bill is ‘the most important legislation to be introduced’ since the devolved Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, the first minister said.

He said the legislation is important for what it would allow Scotland to achieve ‘with the powers of an independent country’.

The vote is taking place after the Scottish National Party won an unprecedented majority in Holyrood in the 2011 election.

Mr Salmond said that in the ballot the people of Scotland would have a choice.

He said: ‘Next year the choice facing the people is one of two futures. A “no” vote means a future of governments we didn’t vote for, imposing cuts and policies we didn’t support.

‘A ‘yes’ vote means a future where we can be absolutely certain, 100 per cent certain, that the people of Scotland will get the government they vote for.’

But Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, said Mr Salmond was delaying the vote for 18 months because he knew if it was staged now he would be ‘routed’.