THE road to the independence referendum promises to be many things – long, dramatic, exciting, frustrating and full of twists and turns.

But the Sunday Herald has discovered the first two years of the journey will also – quite literally – be lawless, with a complete absence of rules potentially allowing foreign lobbyists and cash to shape the biggest vote in Scottish history.

The UK's Election Commission admitted Scotland was now entering "uncharted waters", in which any person or group, here or overseas, will legally be able to campaign for a Yes or No vote in 2014 without registering with the oversight body.

There will also be no restrictions on overseas donations and no rules forcing campaigners to say who gives them money or how they spend it.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, last night described the situation as "clearly worrying" and called for all the participants to agree a set of protocols to regulate their conduct.

The reason for the virtual wild west is the unprecedented gap between the start of campaigning on the ground and the legislation which will finally put the referendum on a legal footing.

In previous referendums, there has typically been a very short period between the announcement of the vote and the creation of the rules.

The 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution was held just four months after Labour's election win made it possible, and just six weeks after the necessary legislation was passed.

But the independence referendum is different.

Although the Scottish Government has identified October 2014 as the likely date, and the Yes campaign launched last month, in a strict legal sense the referendum doesn't yet exist.

It won't be until the end of 2013 that legislation setting out the rules will clear Holyrood.

And after that, ministers have indicated that only the closing 16 weeks before the vote will be "regulated", meaning campaigners must register with the Electoral Commission and follow tight rules on donations and spending.

Until then, it is an absolute free-for-all. With no rules in place, there is none to break.

The main Yes and No campaigns – and any other campaigns that spring up – are able to spend as much as they like, accept money from any source, including foreign donors, and are not obliged to declare their income or expenditure.

Existing political parties will still be governed by general rules on donations and spending, but the arms' length campaigns, even if they get most of their money and support from the parties, currently exist in a legislative vacuum.

Both Yes Scotland, whose website is already taking donations from around the world, and the No campaign say they will voluntarily follow the rules which apply to political parties.

This would mean refusing foreign donations over £500 and self-publishing the names of donors.

But they could change their minds at any time, while others who join in can do as they like.

There are also no sanctions for failing to disclose information or massaging the figures.

An Electoral Commission spokeswoman confirmed that, because there was not yet legislation governing the 2014 referendum, campaigners would be free to accept foreign donations and were under no obligation to account for their finances.

"Essentially there are no rules in place to regulate them at the moment. At the moment, the referendum doesn't exist legally.

"It's quite unusual because there's such certainty [about a date] although legally it doesn't exist. It's kind of strange. So we're in uncharted waters, I think it's probably fair to say."

Under electoral law, political parties can only accept donations over £500 from "permissible donors", who are individuals on the UK electoral roll, registered companies incorporated in the EU which do business in the UK, and trades unions.

This is designed to stop big foreign donations.

A spokesperson for Yes Scotland said: "UK political parties are prevented from accepting donations over £500 from overseas. Yes Scotland is voluntarily matching both that restriction and all the other rules on party and election finance."

The No camp said it would act likewise.

Graham said of the current free-for-all: "It's disturbing this very crucial area up to the referendum proper is going to be unregulated, and you won't know who exactly is funding it.

"The participants should organise discussions with the Electoral Commission and agree protocols on the approach that would apply."

Americans urged to back 'independence declaration'

The referendum is generating considerable interest abroad, particularly among the "Scottish diaspora" in American and Canada, where online campaign groups have already been formed.

Indeed, Alex Salmond began his speech at the Yes Scotland launch with a phrase targeted at an American audience: "We unite behind a declaration of self-evident truth. The people who live in Scotland are best placed to make the decisions that affect Scotland."

It was a knowing echo of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which runs: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Three Tartan Army fans recently registered a non-profit group in Texas called Americans for an Independent Scotland to help educate the US public about what independence would mean for Scotland. It is raising cash for use in the US, and says it has no plans to spend it in Scotland, although only "at the moment".

Pete Reid, a 36-year-old Glasgow-born lawyer who set up Americans for an Independent Scotland with friends Malcolm Boyd and Colin Reid in March, said the aim was to raise both awareness and money.

"Americans go to school every day and learn about independence and celebrate independence. They relate to it, it's relevant to them.

"Some of our goals include bringing over speakers from Scotland to speak at universities or have debates and to place an ad in a major newspaper, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

"The overall goal is to educate people in America about what's happening in the hope that the people of Scotland can see that the world is ready for an independent Scotland – and that America is ready to do business with an independent Scotland, that America's accepting of it, and there's not going to be any hurdles there."

yes scotland sets up campaign 'schools'

YES Scotland, the cross-party campaign for independence, is to set up "YES schools" to drill volunteers in how to sell separation to a sceptical electorate.

Announcing yesterday that 4200 people had already volunteered to help in its first week, Yes Scotland said it hoped to have 1000 community "ambassadors", or cheerleaders, established by the end of the year, and 10,000 by the time of the referendum in late 2014. Importing the US presidential campaign model, Yes Scotland said it wanted to set up local organising offices around Scotland, with at least one in each of the 32 council areas.

Yes Scotland said its schools would teach volunteers positive campaign methods, and equip them with basic arguments in favour of independence, with the teaching done both at "away days" and online.

But Conservatives said the concept smacked of "mumbo-jumbo". MSP Jackson Carlaw, deputy Scottish Tory leader, said: "This sounds like further indoctrination from Alex Salmond, with so-called ambassadors armed with nothing more than assertions on what a separate Scotland would look like."

A Scottish Labour spokesman added: "If the [Yes Scotland] get this right it will be the first thing so far on their whole campaign."