ONE of the genuinely refreshing features of the election campaign in the Highlands and Islands has been the continuing ability of ''Highlands and Islands Alliance - Cairdeas'' to come up with original policy ideas.

First there was job sharing, then a Highland bank; a community owned airline; councils using planning powers to encourge supermarkets to use local produce; a job specification for MSPs; an assembly of all Highland MPs, MSPs and MEPs to listen and talk directly to the public over policy development; a watchdog to make quangos and the public sector in the Highlands and Islands more accountable. It produced a prospectus, not a manifesto.

To a large extent this has all been fronted by two or three activists: anti-nuclear campaigner Lorraine Mann, her job-share partner, playwright/marine consultant Eddie Stiven, and former Black Isle councillor Bryan Beattie who is not standing for election but has put in a power of work spreading the HIA's message.

They have become the public face of the HIA, but there are others. The second job share pair for example are Anne Baxter from Bunnessan on Mull; and Peter Hunter who works for the Low Pay Unit.

At number eight and number 10 of the gender-balanced list, there appears another two names well known in the west. Arthur Cormack from Portree is one of Scotland's most celebrated Gaelic singers and an organiser of the Feisean movement. His friend, writer, broadcaster, and photographer Cailean Maclean, is from South Uist but is now living on Skye. Both are founding directors of the Aros Centre ouside Potree.

Arthur Cormack had always voted SNP, while Cailean Maclean had supported both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party at different times.''In fact I actually voiced the Labour Party's party political broadcast in Gaelic for radio at the last election.''

But both are clear that, if Holyrood is going to work, then it must be different. ''If it is just to be a series of Russian dolls with Holyrood a smaller version of what we have just discarded in Westminster, then it will be a complete waste of time. At the moment the four main parties are behaving as normal, shouting each other down so loudly the voters can't hear anything. For parties supposedly committed to democracy, they show scant regard for free speech.

''If they are left to it, they will be baying at each other in Holyrood as well. It doesn't happen elsewhere in Europe and it must not be allowed to happen in Edinburgh. It will if we have any party with an overall majority.

There must be co-operation between the parties and representation of smaller parties will help this.

''We would want to be there to present a distinctive voice from the Highlands and Islands, on issues from fuel to land to Gaelic, but working with others.''

Arthur Cormack agrees: ''Look at their response to our job share idea.

''Politicians who claim radical credentials, but their instinctive reaction was 'it's not allowed' or 'it can't work.' No consideration given to its merits at all, just dismissed out of hand because they hadn't thought of it.

''The only one with an open enough mind was Canon Kenyon Wright, because he genuinely wants Holyrood to be different.''

Neither Cormack nor Maclean had even been members of a political party, never mind considered standing for election, before they joined ''Cairdeas'', the Gaelic for fellowship of kinship which they both automatically use when refering to HIA. It was the campaign against the Skye bridge tolls which led them into active politics, as Arthur Cormack remembers well.

''I had just spent a night in police cells in Dingwall when I was first approached about joining. I had been arrested in Portree because I had not appeared for trial at Dingwall Sheriff Court for refusing to pay the bridge tolls.When something like that happens to you it does make you think a lot more and realise that we all have a responsibility. It certainly helped me decide to get involved in Cairdeas.''

Cailean Maclean was also influenced by the bridge campaign. He said: ''I think Skat (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls) changed the way I looked at everything. Before the bridge I held fairly moderate opinions and had a lot of faith in our political institutions. I believed that Scottish justice was about as good as you could get and was quite proud of it. That has all changed.

''We want to make sure that the new Scotland is genuinely different, that there is fresh thinking. We just hope that some of the people of the Highlands and Islands will give us their second vote to allow us to make a start.''