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Voting for a new Britain: Skye voters likely to bag a Munro

Eddie Stiven, who hopes to be a job-share MSP for the Highlands and Islands Alliance, waiting to catch the ferry to Skye Colin McPherson

"IT'LL BE a Munro; the question is which one? It's pretty close." Ferryman Roddy MacLeod is stating the politically obvious as his fully laden boat - three cars, a van and a bike - crosses the swirling narrows between Glenelg and Kylerhea on the Isle of Skye.

Will Mr MacLeod's first representative in the Scottish Parliament be Donnie Munro, Gaelic rocker turned Labour politician, or John Farquhar Munro (no relation), the veteran Highland councillor standing for the Liberal Democrats?

The question illustrates the fascinating intimacy of elections in the sparsely populated glens and islands of the north-west. Mr MacLeod has known Donnie - no one used his surname - since the former Runrig star was a child.

His affection for the Skyeman is plain, though he is scathing of Donnie's mouthing of New Labour mantras. On the other hand, John F Munro is Mr MacLeod's neighbour in Glenshiel.

Politics in the vast Ross, Skye and Inverness West constituency is different. A well-known face and local roots matter as much, if not more, than party labels. Businessman Jim Mather, the Scottish National Party's challenger to the two Munros, was dismissed by Mr MacLeod as a "Clydesider".

Priorities are also different. With high petrol and diesel prices, ferries and poor-to-non-existent bus services, transport is the key complaint of remote communities, followed by the shortage of affordable housing and the endless travails of fishermen and farmers.

A new party, the Highlands and Islands Alliance, is promising to give the region its own distinctive voice at Holyrood and has put forward a prospectus with a radical edge that harks back to the Highland Land League of a century ago. It has an outside chance of winning one or two seats via the regional "top-up" list, and as a grassroots movement chiming with highlanders' independent spirit at least complicates the outcome.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat who sits for Ross, Skye and Inverness West at Westminster, is certainly not taking anything for granted. His majority was halved at the 1997 general election when Donnie Munro made a first foray into politics. Mr Kennedy is both popular locally and respected as a national figure and his vote will not automatically transfer to John F Munro.

The word in Lib Dem circles is that if Mr Kennedy, the young pretender, cannot deliver the Holyrood seat for the party, it will damage his chances of succeeding Paddy Ashdown as UK leader. Whatever the reason, self-interest or party loyalty, Mr Kennedy has been busily pressing the flesh on behalf of the 61-year old Highland councillor.

Donnie Munro is also campaigning with greater determination. "I'm here to finish the job I started last time round," he said, knocking on the doors of whitewashed cottages by Loch Carron. He is shaking literally hundreds of hands each day, having decided the face-to-face approach is better than addressing meetings of the already committed.

He has been trying to bury his past with Runrig. "Last time there was confusion whether I was still with the band," he said. He is now rector of the University of the Highlands and Islands and works at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic medium college near his home at Portree. His campaign leaflet makes no mention of Runrig.

Capturing the Skye seat would turn dream into reality for a group of Scots who see Labour as the natural party of the crofting and fishing communities. "For too long Labour has been hemmed in by a perception of it, and perception of itself, as the party of the urban areas," says Donnie. It holds the Western Isles at Westminster and, to some surprise, captured Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber in 1997.

But claims to be inheritors of the flame of the land warriors who took up arms and engaged in rent strikes in the 1880s sit at least as easily with the Alliance. It wants to break up big sporting estates, put a ceiling on the amount of land any one person can own and insist on an obligation of permanent residency.

Lorraine Mann, who heads the Alliance list, is well known as an articulate opponent of nuclear waste dumping. For her, land reform is about things that make a difference to people's everyday lives, such as housing and jobs, as well as big issues such as freedom and democracy.

"Individuals, families and communities should have control over their own lives, rather than being beholden to some faceless, unelected offshore trust or absentee landowner."

If Ms Mann wins a seat she wants to be a job-share member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) along with Eddie Stiven, a marine safety consultant and playwright from Glenelg who is second on the list. "We are very much a community-based party and don't want to have to up-sticks and move full- time to Edinburgh," he says. Upping sticks, either in enforced clearances or as economic migrants, is the sorry story of the Highlands that Mr Stiven and the Alliance want to reverse.