The referendum on independence will be "the most important decision by the people of Scotland in 300 years," Alex Salmond has told Parliament.
The First Minister made the comment as he launched his Government's consultation on the referendum with a statement at Holyrood on Wednesday afternoon.
He told MSPs the document set out the question the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration intended to put to voters.
Mr Salmond said the question was "short, straightforward and clear".
He said: "The question is 'Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"'
And, he added, it was important that the vote should meet "the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety".
The First Minister announced the Electoral Commission would be appointed to regulate the referendum.
He said eligibility to vote in the referendum would be determined by residency, telling MSPs: "The people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to decide its future."
However, he said the Scottish Government proposed extending the franchise to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
Mr Salmond said: "It is right that our young people should have the chance to play their part in decisions about their community and their country.
"If a 16-year-old in Scotland can register to join the army, get married and pay taxes, surely he or she should be able to have a say in this country's constitutional future?
"In our consultation today we are, therefore, seeking views on our proposal to extend the right to vote in this referendum to 16- and 17-year-olds who are eligible to be included on the electoral register."
'Fair and democratic'
He also said the referendum could include the option of greatly-enhanced powers for Holyrood - dubbed devo-max.
The Westminster Government and opposition parties in Scotland want voters to be given a straight choice on remaining in the United Kingdom or becoming independent.
But Mr Salmond said if there was "wide support" for devo max, it was "only fair and democratic" that that should be included in the ballot.
He said: "The Scottish Government's position is for independence. Therefore, that option will appear on the ballot paper in a straightforward manner."
However, he added: "If there is an alternative of maximum devolution which would command wide support in Scotland, then it is only fair and democratic that option should be among the choices open to the people of Scotland.
"We will not, as the UK Government seems to want, eliminate that choice simply because it might be popular."
The SNP administration in Edinburgh had already announced autumn 2014 as its preferred date for the vote.
Mr Salmond said the date was "the soonest that the referendum could be held in a way that meets the high standards which the people of this country have a right to expect".
While Westminster insists the Scottish Government does not have the legal authority to hold a referendum, Mr Salmond said his Government had "set out in the past how the Scottish Parliament could hold a referendum which we are satisfied would be within its present competence".
He added: "In order to ensure that the referendum is effectively beyond legal challenge, we are willing to work with the UK Government."
The First Minister continued: "The next two-and-a-half years promise to be the most exciting in Scotland's modern history. And at the end of that period, in autumn 2014, people the length and breadth of our country will have their say in Scotland's independence referendum.
"Independence, in essence, is based on a simple idea: the people who care most about Scotland, that is the people who live, work and bring up their families in Scotland, should be the ones taking the decisions about our nation's future.
"No one else is going to do a better job of making Scotland a success. No one else has the same stake in our future. The people of Scotland should be in charge."
'A partnership of equals'
Independence would allow Scotland to become a wealthier and fairer nation, Mr Salmond said, imagining a country that "speaks with its own voice, stands taller in the world and takes responsibility for its own future".
He said the United Nations had formed when there was 50 independent nations in the world, telling Parliament there are now close to 200.
"Scotland's journey, our home rule journey, is clearly part of a bigger international trend," he said.
"After all, independence is what we seek as individuals - whether it is buying our first car or our first home. It is the natural state for people and nations around the world. Not being independent is the exception."
He concluded: "With independence we will have a new social union with the other nations of these islands. We will continue to share Her Majesty the Queen as head of state.
"But we won't have our young servicemen and women dragged into illegal wars like Iraq, and we won't have nuclear weapons based on Scottish soil.
"Independence will create a new, more modern relationship between the nations of these islands - a partnership of equals.
"I want Scotland to be independent, not because I think we are better than any other country, but because I know we are just as good as any other country.
"Like these other nations, our future, our resources and our success should be in our own hands."
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