COAXING its temperamental, grating, gearbox, I once drove a minibus of opera singers on a tour of the Highlands where locals would lovingly open ancient village halls for their show and lay out pyramids of home-made sandwiches.

One singer asked to move to a different B&B as her room had recently been painted, and she feared lingering fumes would affect her vocal cords. I told her she was being a diva. She thought it was a compliment.

I wondered if the singers only signed up so that they could put on their CV that they had appeared at the Carnegie Hall, omitting the fact it was Carnegie Hall, Clashmore, and not New York.

It may sound an unsophisticated trip, but one hall on the north coast silenced everyone as on stage was a Steinway piano, one of the most celebrated manufacturers in the world, which made the accompanist swoon. I think it had belonged to the BBC but when their Inverness studio closed it was sold to the hall committee by a helpful chap who perhaps had not explained to London bosses the pedigree of the old joanna they were flogging off cheaply.

The BBC once filmed a Highland tour of the Calum Kennedy Show where the wily Calum would collect each night's takings and pay the performers only if enough people had attended. On the fateful night that John F Kennedy was assassinated, Calum's show was in Thurso and someone rushed into the Pentland Hotel to announce "Kennedy's been shot!" Drummer Billy Thom slammed down his pint and wailed: "We'll never get paid now."

But such ramshackle days are gone, I realised, when I attended the launch in Glasgow of The Touring Network which is using technology to link some 90 venues in the Highlands and Islands, profile the acts and performances, help artists construct tours, and show that a vibrant arts scene in the North can be just as important attractions to Scottish tourism as whisky, shortbread and golf.

Their website shows that this week alone there is Scottish Ballet in Ullapool, Nordic fiddlers in Findhorn, a tribute to Johnny Cash in Stornoway, and singer/songwriter Stu Larson in Aviemore, with the explanation that "Stu has no fixed address, no job and few possessions - just a handful of generous friends who let him sleep on their floor or couch as he ventures on playing his music across the world".

Most of the venues are still run by local volunteers, many it has to be said who are incomers to the area. It is not that they want to usurp the locals, but engage with the local community.

Jenny Macfie for example had worked in the arts in London before life's twists took her to Drumnadrochit where a local asked if she would like to go on the local hall committee. She now programmes the shows at Glenurquhart Public Hall, and while the economics of doing so would make an accountant faint, Jenny has helped produce some magical nights.

"The audience is so attentive and knowledgeable. You can get a real connection between the performers and the audience, unlike in London where they sit back and say, 'Come on then, impress me'. My audience says 'Let's do this' and their energy goes right up to the performers on the stage," she says.

The shows are a bit different. Stand-up Bill Bailey still talks about the night in the Highlands he had to pick the winners for the raffle. A tip from Jenny about the raffle. "There's always a bottle of bubble bath. It's the same bubble bath donated at every raffle. You should never open it."

It is this energy which attracts the performers even though they might only be in front of a handful of people. Playwright Alan Bissett, who has appeared on stage during tours, says: "Whether it's 150 people one night or just 20, they are all listening, all paying attention, and ready to speak to you after. You go into the bar after your show where you are invited into the community. When the bar closes someone will say, 'We're going to Tam's. Do you want to come?' That tends not to happen at the Edinburgh Festival."

Or as singer Karine Polwart puts it: "It's much more enriching in the Highlands rather than scooting up and down the M6." And she means enriching, not just in terms of the scenery, but in the engagement with the local population, many of whom are singers and musicians themselves who talk knowledgeably about their craft.

The renaissance in challenging theatre touring the Highlands came in the seventies with 7:84 Company's The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil which opened people's minds to the exploitation of the oil firms and the comparisons with the Clearances.

Strange to think that 40 years later oil was pivotal in the referendum debate. Perhaps it's time that the Cheviot, The Stag is updated and tours the Highlands again. There is The Touring Network to ensure it would find welcoming venues.