MSPs gather today in Holyrood for the final four months of the first Scottish Parliament since home rule, and face a marathon effort to complete their crowded legislative programme.

With 22 bills still at various stages of the legislative process and only 12 working weeks - which means only 24 plenary sessions - left to the end of the March deadline, there will be enormous pressure on MSPs and ministers, most of whom are already preoccupied with saving their seats on May 1.

All parties are geared up for an unrelenting slog with little prospect of a break. Their February week off has been cancelled and the Easter recess falls during the election campaign.

This means that, in theory, bills will have to be despatched to Buckingham Palace for royal assent at almost the rate of one per working day of the parliament - a pace surely too fast even for the most hard-working MSP.

Holyrood's business bureau meets today, having already hinted that Wednesdays, when the parliament meets for half a day in plenary, could become all-day sittings, freeing up several hours a week.

Just how many will depend on the willingness of Sir David Steel, the retiring presiding officer, to stretch debating time. He is already known to favour full and proper scrutiny of legislation rather than approving bills on the nod.

Sir David has warned of ''a most almighty rush'' to clear the legislative deck, indicating that some bills might have to be held over for the new parliament after the summer.

Ministers point out that only half of the bills are government-sponsored and will receive priority.

''We are confident we can complete our legislative programme on time,'' an executive spokesman insisted last night. This does not bode well for bills sponsored by back benchers or committees which, the spokesman said a touch ominously, ''will be looked at''.

With the opposition Nationalists lately showing signs of catching Labour in the crucial (for the SNP) regional list polls and moving closer in the constituencies, according to NFO System Three for The Herald, a fractious four months of Scottish politics is in prospect.

Both Labour and the SNP expect the first three months of 2003 to be a phantom election campaign before the real thing is formally declared in April, soon after parliament rises.

Some of the proposed new laws are controversial, especially the flagship land reform bill, whose radical cutting edge is likely to be blunted before it reaches the statute book. To the dismay of some, but relief of others - notably the landowners - MSPs are likely to remove the clause that would have forced them to sell to tenant farmers. Most MSPs appear to accept that this was one reform too far, and it is now likely tenant farmers will have only the right of first refusal.

The most complex piece of legislation is the Mental Health Bill, which could face up to 1400 time-consuming amendments. It is another flagship bill and like most of the 22 bills is promoted by the governing Labour-LibDem coalition.

To lose it or even see it put off for another parliament would be a huge embarrassment. It is, therefore, likely to be given priority along with new plans for tackling crime, including offences motivated by religious bigotry, in line with the determination of Jack McConnell, the first minister, to make Scotland a safer and more secure place.

Another bill, the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion (Scotland) Bill, had been scheduled but was withdrawn last month after being overtaken by UK-wide legislation.

Ministers insist they can meet the deadline - but the various opposition forces are unlikely to pass up any chance to make life awkward for the first minister and Jim Wallace, his LibDem deputy.

Many MSPs are curious to see if Mr Wallace and the LibDems will now start putting strain on the coalition by distancing themselves from Labour. Some LibDems are concerned voters will see little point in supporting them if another Labour-led government is a foregone conclusion.

The prospect of strife delights the SNP and Tories and adds spice to the next few weeks in Scottish politics.

The 22 bills

1 Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill - To establish healthy tenanted sector for ''new blood and ideas'' while promoting agriculture and sustaining rural communities and the environment.

2 Building (Scotland) Bill - Follows death of Australian waitress struck by falling masonry in Edinburgh. It will make building controls more responsive to public and industrial needs and ensure more consistent standards.

3 Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill - Introduced by Karen Gillon, convener of the education, culture and sport committee, the work of the commissioner would cover all children and young people up to the age of 18 and those over 18 who have been looked after under the Children (Scotland) Act.

4 Council of the Law Society of Scotland Bill - Aims to cut time to handle complaints against lawyers.

5 Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill - Dealing with high-risk offenders through new sentencing and orders for lifelong restriction.

6 Debt Arrangement and Attachment (Scotland) Bill - Makes provision for a national debt recovery scheme to allow people to repay multiple debt by instalments free from the threat of enforcement action. To replace poindings and warrant sales.

7 Dog Fouling (Scotland) Bill - Proposes on-the-spot fines and will be backed by an advertising campaign encouraging people to clean up after their pets.

8 Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill - Would create ''a basis of equality'' between Gaelic and English in the Highlands and Islands. It would force public bodies to treat both languages in the same way and give people the right to demand Gaelic services.

9 Homelessness etc (Scotland) Bill - Would tackle ''head on'' the problem of rough sleepers and others with no home. Following on from the efforts to deal with homelessness through the Housing (Scotland) Act passed in 2001.

10 Land Reform (Scotland) Bill - Meant to remove ''outdated feudal and land tenure laws'' while bringing in new laws for a fairer and more modern system of land ownership.

11 Local Government in Scotland Bill - To improve public services through better delivery and community involvement. It will be backed by the modernising government fund (MGF).

12 Mental Health (Scotland) Bill - To improve the lives of those with mental difficulties who are said to account for 30% of all GP consultations.

13 National Galleries of Scotland Bill - Seeks to acquire land in Princes Street Gardens for the Playfair project.

14 Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill - To set targets for the amount of agricultural land to be farmed organically.

15 Proportional Representation (Local Government Elections) (Scotland) Bill - Seeks to introduce proportional representation in local government elections by means of the single transferable vote.

16 Prostitution Tolerance Zones (Scotland) Bill - Aims to allow local authorities to designate an area where soliciting and related activities will be exempted from prosecution under criminal law.

17 Protection of Children (Scotland) Bill - To increase safety of Scotland's one million children under 16 by setting up index of adults not suitable for work with children. Those on index will be disqualified from such work.

18 Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill - Establishing independent Scottish commissioner for public appointments and reform and modernisation of the appointments process.

19 Robin Rigg Offshore Wind Farm (Navigation and Fishing) (Scotland) Bill - Seeks to create exclusion zones in the Solway Firth to help prevent collisions between vessels and windfarm structures.

20 Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Bill - Sets out permitted fishing methods and ban on explosives for destruction or taking of fish.

21 Title Conditions (Scotland) Bill - Would mark the final step in the abolition of the feudal system as well as simplifying the law in respect of real burdens on property.

22 Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Bill - Important reforms to secure sustainable use of Scotland's water resources.