LONDON (Reuters) - The two biggest backers of Scottish independence, lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir, appealed on Thursday to both sides in an increasingly bitter debate to stop smears and personal attacks, reversing a decision not to go public with their views.
The Weirs, who have donated 3 million pounds ($5 million)from a 2011 Euromillions lottery prize of 161 million pounds to the independence campaign, said they had decided to speak out as they feared the referendum could leave Scotland "fragmented".
With opinion polls narrowing ahead of the Sept. 18 vote, although the nationalists remain several points behind, the debate has become more heated and both sides of the political divide have voiced concern about online abuse and threats.
Some attacks have been so vitriolic that the Church of Scotland has said a healing process needs to start now to stop the divisions damaging Scottish society after the referendum.
In a letter to the Scotsman newspaper, the Weirs said they decided to make their public appeal for restraint because the abuse they have received had become so bad.
"On Sept. 19, irrespective of the outcome, we all have to live together. That will only be possible if both sides of the campaign, the politicians and the media, take responsibility for their behavior and language," wrote the couple, an ex-nurse and cameraman, who became the UK's biggest lottery winners in 2011.
"It is time for all sides to stop the smears and personal attacks before a line is crossed and attitudes adopted that cannot easily be healed," they added.
A spokeswoman for the Weirs said the couple would not comment further after breaking the silence they adopted in 2011 in a bid to try to live out of the public eye.
The Weirs' appeal comes as concerns mount about the deep rifts opened up in Scotland by the debate over whether to break away from the United Kingdom after more than three centuries.
Businesses have faced tirades of abuse for raising the potential risks of independence, and singer David Bowie was attacked on Twitter when he urged Scotland to "stay with us".
The abuse has come from both sides. A 25-year-old man is due to go on trial in August accused of threatening on Twitter to assassinate the leader of Scotland's ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond.
The Weirs said nobody should be vilified for their views.
"Differences can and should be expressed but decently, with honesty and integrity ... Otherwise, in a race to the bottom of the political barrel, we will all be the losers," they wrote.
One of the leading women in the Church of Scotland, the Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton, said the church was neutral about the vote but was aware that the outcome could prove divisive.
"We need to change the tone now so we make it more of a considered conversation. We must listen to each other rather than being dominated by the current adversarial debate," she told Reuters.
Spokesmen for both the pro-independence campaign Yes Scotland and the pro-UK Better Together said nobody should be attacked because of how they plan to vote in September, stressing the need for courtesy and respect.
The main British political parties are campaigning for Scotland to stay inside the United Kingdom, which also comprises England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Editing by Gareth Jones