TO its many visitors, Angus presents a peaceful picture with its douce market towns set amidst farming country.

From a political perspective, however, this is a war zone, the arena for one of the hottest contests in the General Election.

In an earlier incarnation as Angus South, the seat had been solid Tory territory, until the SNP's Andrew Welsh took over its tenure from October 1974 to 1979. Eight years later, he took the, by then Angus East, constituency back from the Conservatives, dispatching Peter Fraser, now Lord Fraser of Carmyllie. At the last election, however, Mr Welsh's already slender majority in Angus East was reduced to just 954, making it the SNP's shakiest seat.

Since then, matters may have become even worse for the nationalists. The new constituency of Angus has been shaped by substantial boundary changes which, according to one analysis, may have effectively cut the majority to just 473. That would make this the Conservatives' sixth most gainable seat in Britain, requiring a swing of just 0.5%.

However, the nationalists argue that recent ballots prove they are continuing to enjoy strong support.

They retained control, and pretty convincingly, of local government in Angus in the elections for the new unitary councils two years ago. More recently still, in February this year, they successfully defended one of the council seats against a Tory challenge in a by-election.

Arbroath, Montrose, Car-noustie, and Monifieth all remain in the new constituency but it has lost Brechin and Edzell while gaining Letham, Longforgan, and Invergowrie, as well as the Sidlaw area of Dundee.

Despite its attractive rural image, Angus suffers many of the same problems found in more densely populated places. Arbroath has long suffered one of the worst unemployment rates in Scotland, so jobs are a major issue in the election campaign here. So, too, are local government funding and education, along with concerns over the NHS such as the level of services provided at Arbroath Infirmary.

Top of the list, however, in this SNP-Tory clash is the constitutional future of Scotland.

Arguing the case against independence is Conservative candidate Sebastian Leslie, a Kirriemuir-based executive search consultant who has business experience in Eastern Europe and acted as treasurer for the Thatcher Foundation's Prague operations in the early 1990s. ''France and Germany would be delighted to see the UK split because it would make us less powerful and easier for them to tell us what to do,'' says Mr Leslie, who describes himself as a pro-European but opposed to a federal Europe.

Unemployment is the other issue he highlights, saying: ''In Angus, we have an SNP council that does not have the experience or the skills to attract inward investment.''

He points out that while the Conservatives came second in February's Carnoustie by-election, they achieved a 1.6% swing which, if repeated across the constituency, would be enough to win Angus.

''There is a perceptible swing away from the SNP, and the boundary changes help us. This is a winnable seat.''

Mr Welsh, of course, disputes all these claims. For a start, he denies that the new boundaries benefit the Tories: ''This is an SNP seat and will remain so. The population has changed and in places which the Tories used to regard as strongholds, people are voting SNP because they like what they get.''

While he, too, stresses the importance of getting people off the dole queues and into work, he defends the local authority. ''I am very proud of Angus Council. It has made great strides in bringing industry to the area.''

Mr Welsh adds that Angus has had ''a raw deal'' from central Government, with millions of pounds of funding removed through local government reorganisation and other Conservative policies.

Labour's candidate is one of the party's youngest in Britain, 23-year-old Catherine Taylor, a rising star in its ranks who is the Young Labour representative on the national executive.

The post-graduate student says: ''People in Angus are suffering just as much as people in other areas. Only the Labour Party can get rid of the Conservative Government and fulfil the promise of a Scottish parliament.''

On her prospects in the contest, Ms Taylor says: ''I am going to fight a good fight and see what happens. We have a strong campaign going here.''

The Liberal Democrat candidate is Arbroath GP Dick Speirs, a member of Angus Council and a former Tayside regional councillor.

He is ''delighted'' by responses to a survey of voters conducted by his local party, including ''a clear majority'' backing the Lib Dem policy of increasing income tax to invest in education.

Mr Speirs predicts: ''I don't think the Tory vote will be as good as it used to be. We expect some of those votes will come to us. We could also get some of the people who voted tactically for the SNP last time to make sure the Tories were kept out.''

So, will the Conservatives be ''kept out'' in the new seat? It will be a close result but the nationalists must be favour-ites to win.

1992 SNP majority: 954 (2% of electorate)

Notional SNP major-ity: 473 (1.1%)

(Estimate by Plymouth University's Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher after taking account of boundary changes to the seat since 1992)

1992 result: Welsh (SNP) 19,006; Harris (Con) 18,052; Taylor (Lab) 5994; McLeod (SLD) 3897; McCabe (Green) 449. Percentage poll: 74.5%.

Notional result: SNP 17,274 (39.2%); Con 16,801 (38.1%); Lab 5708 (12.9%); SLD 3878 (8.8%); Other 449 (1%). Percentage poll 74.9%