Election '97: Kennedy fights for his northern life

the tussle for votes in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
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The notion of a Highlands and Islands group of Labour MPs wielding a kind of crofters' block vote at Westminster sounds at first like revolutionary talk brought on by too many single malts downed in front of a peat fire.

But perhaps not. Labour candidates in the west of Scotland believe this election offers the best opportunity for decades of reviving the home- grown radical movement which grew out of the crofter uprisings of the 1880s. Now, as then, land reform would be top of its agenda.

Two of the putative group are defending seats held in the last Parliament; Calum Macdonald in the Western Isles and Brian Wilson, Labour's campaign co-ordinator.

Lying south of the Clyde, Mr Wilson's Cunninghame North constituency could hardly be described as "Highland", though it does include the Isle of Arran. He is, however, a driving force behind the group, a founder of Skye's West Highland Free Press, who could be a voice in a Labour cabinet.

"There has always been a distinctive Highland agenda - land ownership and transport are the main issues - but it is very rare for us to have an opportunity to push it to national prominence," Mr Wilson said.

The last time the Highlands had two Labour MPs and their own party in office, the big spending Highland and Islands Development Board was set up. There has been no comparable initiative since.

The three other potential group members are in Liberal Democrat constituencies. James Hendry, an Inverness solicitor, probably stands least chance. He is up against the veteran Bob Maclennan in Caithness, Sutherland, and Easter Ross, though interestingly when Mr Maclennan won the seat in 1966 it was for Labour. He switched to the SDP in the 1980s.

Then there is David Stewart, a social worker and councillor in "too-close- to-call" Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber. The retirement of Sir Russell Johnston has left the seat a four-way marginal on paper but most pundits think the SNP's Fergus Ewing, solicitor son of Winnie "Madame Ecosse" Ewing, is edging ahead.

Most Labour hopes are pinned on Donnie Munro, front man for the Gaelic rock band Runrig, who is challenging Charles Kennedy in Ross, Skye and Inverness West.

Boundary changes have cost Mr Kennedy natural voters in East Ross and added Labour wards in Inverness, the SNP's Margaret Paterson is likely to pick up votes in her home area of Dingwall, and there are malicious whispers that after 14 years as an engaging television star for a party unlikely to gain power he might prefer to concentrate on broadcasting. His dismissal of the rumour is unprintable, nevertheless he does not seem convinced by the "Oh you'll be okay" confidence he hears on doorsteps.

Mr Munro is not only a native of Skye, with nearly a quarter of the seat's 56,000 voters, but has cult status among the young right across Scotland. Some 50,000 watched the band at an open air concert by Loch Lomond in 1991.

Watching him argue Labour's case at cottage doors on the island of Raasay, off Skye, in his black coat and boots, he looks like an Amish preacher come to call. His message certainly has a religious fervour.

Just as he believes Runrig's music has given Gaeldom a greater cultural confidence, now, aged 42, he wants to help empower the Islands and Highlands politically.

"We have been in a backwater politically for too long. The Liberals may appear inoffensive and quasi-independent but over 30 years they have proved utterly ineffectual," he said.

For inspiration, Mr Munro had only to look across the Sound of Raasay to Braes, on Skye, where a memorial commemorates the last battle fought on British soil.

In 1882 crofters incensed by rents fought a pitched battle with a squad of sheriff's men. Several people were imprisoned and fined at Inverness. But though the battle was lost, the campaign was a success. Crofters secured rights of tenure and for a time elected their own MPs - a piece of misty- eyed history which just might repeat itself.