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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK

River deep, mountain high

Scotland's geography presents particular problems

BBC Scotland News Online's Mick McGlinchey reports

If the great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson was alive today, he might have to eat his words.

BBC Scotland's Rob Flett reports from Orkney, a far-flung constituency
The author who once proclaimed "Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary", would receive short shrift from the armies of candidates and officials engaged in the Scottish Parliamentary elections.

While the politicians and party workers slog it out at the hustings, the returning officers and their thousands of staff are busy at their own work, preparing for decisive elections in the most diverse of lands.

Polling stations as small as caravans with electorates of less than 50 must be opened, mountains negotiated and islands hopped to pick up the ballot boxes on election night with the aim of making those estimated declaration times on 6 May.

[ image: The highs and lows of voting in Scotland]
The highs and lows of voting in Scotland
James Smith, returning officer for the South of Scotland region revealed something of the sheer scale of operation which faces him and returning officers throughout Scotland on polling day.

Mr Smith is responsible for the nine South of Scotland constituencies and regional list which will return nine first-past-the-post MSPs and seven from the regional list.

Highest station

On election day, 8,000 people will be involved in the voting operation and Mr Smith says keeping everything running depends on adapting to a host of challenges, not least the environment.

Wanlockhead, in the Lowther Hills, is reputed to have the highest polling station in Scotland at 1,351ft above sea level.

Places like the former mining community can often be cut off in characteristically unkind weather, but Mr Smith and his staff will be hoping for nothing more than a bit of mist in early May.

However, it is the polling stations in the valleys which can often pose more of a problem.

[ image: Collecting ballot boxes is a hard job]
Collecting ballot boxes is a hard job
He said: "Some of the village halls in the valleys have no telephones and mobile phones don't work so we have to make regular visits to check things."

The same problems arise elsewhere in Scotland, such as at Auchleven, which despite being only three-quarters of an hour's drive from Aberdeen, is still without a telephone line to the village hall.

And the lofty locations of Tomintoul and Cabrach provide similar heightened challenges for officials in Moray.

Collecting the ballot boxes can resemble a military operation rather than an exercise in democracy.

In the Western Isles, for instance, helicopters and boats must be used when doing the rounds.

The helicopter crew's duties include picking up two boxes from Barra and the flying to Benbecula.

Causeway crossing

A box is taken from remote Eriskay with 121 voters to Ludag on South Uist in a 15-minute journey by launch and then to Benbecula across the causeway between South Uist and Benbecula for pick-up by the helicopter.

The situation has been complicated by the need for three ballot boxes at each polling station on 6 May - two for the Scottish Parliamentary elections and one for the local government elections. This means extra capacity is required for transport.

Orkney, meanwhile, fares somewhat better because of its ferry system. After polls close, three launches are used to go round the islands to pick up boxes but once again the weather can disrupt the process.

[ image: Glen Orchy: Few voters]
Glen Orchy: Few voters
An equally diverse approach to reaching voters in remote areas is employed in Argyll and Bute.

Ferries are used to collect ballot boxes near the mainland at Bute, Lismore and Luing and a helicopter is used to transport boxes from Gigha, Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Tiree, Coll and Mull to Lochgilphead.

In Shetland, voting on the remote islands of Fair Isle, Foula, Papa Stour and Skerries is entirely by post.

At the close of polling, council ferries will be used to carry the ballot boxes from the islands of Bressay, Whalsay, Yell, Unst and Fetlar, which with 77 voters has the smallest electorate of these islands, to Lerwick and the counting centre at the town hall.

Many of the polling stations in Scotland serve very small communities.

Candidates for polling stations with the lowest number of voters include Eigg, Raasay and Inverie on Knoydart

The population in each of these three locations is around 60, with between 20 and 30 of people eligible to vote.

Also in the running are Bridge of Orchy Hall and a caravan at Lochbuie on Mull, both of which have 46 people on the roll.

The caravan and mobile polling station, which bears more of a resemblance to a mobile building, may rank as the smallest polling stations in Scotland.

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