By Tomas Weber,
Published by Wired, 31 January 2023
A tiny Scottish village is betting its future on rocket launches. But the plan may threaten the fragile landscape—and a tenacious billionaire’s ambitions.
In the village of Melness, a frayed twist of bungalows and old stone buildings on Scotland’s desolate northern shore, April is a month of new beginnings, when the dark and strung-out Highland winter finally unfurls into a tentative spring, and pregnant ewes balloon like airships in the wind-swept hills. As the 2015 lambing season neared its start, the villagers began the usual preparation of their small plots of rented land, called crofts, for farm and pasture. Behind the crofts and croft houses was the bog: an immense, bronze-hued ocean of deep peat, stretching into the horizon.
For Dorothy Pritchard, a retired schoolteacher and chair of the Melness Crofters’ Estate, an organization that owns and manages the crofting land, this spring would be stranger than usual. Over the past several weeks, she had been mulling a plan that could upend the town’s quiet routine.
On the last day of the month, she walked into the estate office, a dirty, white bungalow opposite the village nursing home, for a meeting with the estate board. Many of the members were from families that had been working the land for generations, and Pritchard sought to preserve their way of life. As the crofters took their seats on plastic chairs around the table, Pritchard announced that she had an idea. It might sound crazy at first, she cautioned, but give it an open mind: How about building a spaceport on the empty peatland out back?
The estate office rang out in guffaws. Rockets lifting off in nebulas of smoke from the bog, inclining to their flight path over Tommy’s shop in Talmine, cracking the sound barrier over the summer wildflowers on Achininver Beach? It was hard to imagine. And there were concerns. Melness, made of nothing but mountains and peat and sea and weather, was a tranquil place. Would rockets not ruin it? Would they have to fence off the common grazing land? Would they have to leave their homes on launch days? Would it be safe?
Pritchard told them she’d initially shared their fears. When she first envisioned rockets taking off, she pictured a boggier, less clement Cape Canaveral: explosions, showers of fiery debris. Behind the Melness houses, on the far side of a grassy ridge, unrolled a section of peat bog called the Moine. Although the land might not have looked like much to outsiders, it was part of a massive, irreplaceable sink of carbon that had accumulated over millennia, holding almost as much carbon dioxide as the UK emits in a year—and areas of it are highly combustible.
Pritchard was reassured, though, by the fact that the project had government support. It had come to her through the local development board, in conjunction with a UK effort to elbow its way into the global space industry. Building a commercial spaceport in Melness—one of three proposed vertical launch sites in rural Scotland where there is good access to polar orbits—could help the UK become the first country in Europe to launch a small satellite.
Pritchard’s own hopes for the spaceport were humbler but no less urgent. In it she saw a way to preserve Melness’ crumbling future. Her father had been a crofter who, like many in the village, worked at the nuclear power plant down the coast and built offshore oil rigs. She’d started lambing at 8 years old, and her childhood memories were crowded with weekend dances that once surged with dapper teens from Strathy to Durness. By 2015, though, the oil industry was declining, the nuclear plant had been deactivated, the dance halls were empty, and the school rolls were dwindling. The town was down to a single hotel, a single store, a single nursing home. Every year, Pritchard saw her former students reach their late teens and flee to the cities down south: Inverness, Aberdeen, even Edinburgh. Keeping youngsters on the good side of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope, the two peaks that overshadow Melness, had become her obsession.
The village had already cycled through several failed economic projects, including a leisure center, a wind farm, a new pier, and a tropical shrimp farm. Worse, in the absence of a self-sustaining industry, it was being steadily transformed by an outsider—the Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who owns the fast-fashion company Bestseller.
Povlsen is the richest man in Scotland and its largest private landowner. He has acquired thousands of hectares of land around Melness, citing a mission to rewild the landscape and repair the damage caused by overgrazing. But his ideas for developments—including a brewery, an events space, and luxury resorts for “forest bathing”—are targeted at ultra-wealthy ecotourists. In the eyes of many locals, his investments bring to the fore the ballooning cost of real estate in the area.
Pritchard asked the estate members to consider the spaceport. It offered Melness a new vision for the future, she told them. It could give them a decent rental income and reliable employment. It could mean a revival of this place after a deep winter.
After some hesitation, the board agreed to explore the idea. Pritchard was hopeful. At the same time, she knew the spaceport might not be enough to save Melness. There was a chance that it would bring disaster.
On a high rock between Melness and its sister city Tongue stands the stout ruin of Castle Varrich. The castle is on the territory of Clan Mackay, a Highland clan with roots in the Middle Ages. The Gaelic origin of Mackay, the area’s most common family name by far, is Mac Aoidh: son of fire.
Pritchard is a Mackay on her mom’s side, and her worries about the depopulation of the Highlands reach back as far as her family’s history. Much of Scotland’s land is owned by wealthy individuals—a higher percentage than any other country in Europe. From the late 18th century, landowners mercilessly drove Highlanders out of townships along the fertile inland valleys to make room for sheep, which turned a greater profit than farming. This campaign of occasionally violent dispossession is known as the Highland Clearances.
In Sutherland, the county that contains Melness, the Duke and Countess-Duchess, together with Patrick Sellar, the notorious “factor,” or manager, of the Sutherland Estate, were particularly cruel in their administration of the evictions. The Clearances reached their crest here in 1819, a year known in Gaelic as bliadhna na losgaidh: the year of the burnings. The homes of the members of Clan Mackay, sons and daughters of fire, were scorched to the ground.
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