Insight: The battle to build UK's first spaceport in Sutherland

Sutherland “space crofters” Dorothy Pritchard and Wilma Robertson are standing on the Mhoine - a peat bog stretching from Loch Eriboll to the Kyle of Tongue - and talking about rockets.

Dorothy Pritchard on the Moine near the proposed Spaceport.
Dorothy Pritchard on the Moine near the proposed Spaceport.

Situated on the western periphery of the Flow Country, the Mhoine is a vast, desolate landscape rendered in the palette of Georges Braque: fifty shades of browns and greens, and so sodden you want to lift it up and wring it out. Flanked by Ben Hutig, Ben Hope and Ben Loyal, it bears within its sphagnum mosses and dubh lochans (black pools) traces of every geological shift from the Ice Age on.

To gaze on this featureless expanse is to grasp the concept of Deep Time; to glimpse the world as it must have been on the First Day; to appreciate the infinite power of nature and the ephemerality of man.

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And yet – if Pritchard and Robertson prevail – the land, which belongs to the Melness Crofters Estate, will soon be in the vanguard of the UK’s burgeoning space industry. Around once a month from late next year, Prime rockets made by aerospace company Orbex will shoot skywards from the marshes, bearing small satellites up over the North Atlantic Ocean and into orbit.

Peat cutting on the Moine near the Spaceport site.

Peering through the gloom, it is a mind-boggling thought; like a gleaming cyborg emerging from primordial soup. “I still can’t get my head round it sometimes,” says Pritchard, “that this could be the site of the country's first commercial spaceport.”

She sees the £17.3 million venture as a tourniquet to stem the flow of people from the area. The lease of the land, by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), would provide much-needed income for the estate, while the vertical launch site would, it is claimed, create 40 jobs and stimulate the local economy.

But there are obstacles to overcome. For all its drabness, the Mhoine is a haven for wildlife. Scattered among the mosses are white tufts of cotton grass and the yellow stars of bog asphodel. Greenshanks, golden plover and red-throated divers breed on some of its lochs.

Peatlands also soak up carbon dioxide and play a crucial role in combating climate change. The Mhoine is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) while the wider Flow Country – 200,000 hectares of blanket bog across much of Sutherland and Caithness – is bidding to become a Unesco World Heritage Site. And so, though planning permission for the spaceport has been granted, there are those who still hope to thwart it.

Wilma Robertson and her dog Bruiser stand in front of her croft.

In the last few weeks, they have fought the proposal at the Scottish Land Court and a Judicial Review. Both judgments are pending.

The objectors include three of the 59 crofters and protest group Protect the Mhoine, headed by retired physics teacher John Williams, who moved to Melness from Kent six years ago. But the most powerful objector is Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen the largest shareholder in the fashion retailer Asos and the owner of the Jenners department store building in Edinburgh. He is Scotland’s richest man and owns an estimated 230,000 acres here, more even than the Duke of Buccleuch.

The Melness crofters have had control over their estate since it was gifted to them by absentee landlord Michael Foljambe in 1995. But Povlsen has bought up most of the land around them – the neighbouring Ben Hope, Ben Loyal and Strathmore estates are all his.

To some, he is a positive force, restoring landscapes, promoting biodiversity and refurbishing dilapidated buildings, such as Lundies House in Tongue, which he has turned into a boutique hotel. To others, he is a traditional laird trying to impose his will on the indigenous population under the cover of environmentalism.

Allan Mackay and Kirsteen Mackay with dog Ruby.

Povlsen has already unsuccessfully opposed several wind farms in Sutherland. Now he has thrown his weight behind opposition to the Melness spaceport while investing £1.4m in a rival project in Shetland. Not only is he behind the Judicial Review, but, it emerged last week, he paid the legal fees for the three dissenting crofters at the Land Court.

The Battle of the Mhoine, then, is not only a fight for the survival of one community, it is a microcosm of Scotland’s wider land debate. It pitches locals against incomers; the environment against the economy; preservation against progress. It raises questions about the commodification of “wilderness” and the balancing of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

“There is a history of rival visions for the Highlands – the tension here is to what extent do these visions coalesce and diverge?” says Calum MacLeod, policy director for Community Land Scotland. “What factors are shaping what is done in Sutherland? Whose vision takes precedence and why?”

If you look down on Melness from the other side of the Kyle of Tongue, you see the crofts, a necklace strung out along the north-east coast of the Mhoine. At Mid Town, where Robertson and Williams are next door neighbours, the houses sit on one side of the road, the patches of land on the other.

The Sutherland spaceport, also known as Space Hub Sutherland or UKVL Sutherland, is planned to be the first spaceport of the United Kingdom.

Where the moorland has a bleak beauty, the beaches are bright, the water crystalline. At Talmine, the wreck of an old skiff lies like the skeleton of a beached whale, its ribs poking up out of the pebbles. At Skinnet, when the tide is out, the sand stretches across the Kyle, smooth as butter.

All the women – and it is mostly women – who are driving plans for the Spaceport have roots in Melness and Tongue going back generations. Their crofts were passed down by parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their ancestors lie in tiny Melness cemetery, where the gravestones stand like chess pieces in the shadow of Ben Loyal.

The rain is bouncing off the ground, so we are chatting in the Ben Loyal Hotel, which is co-owned by Robertson’s daughter, Sarah. Last year, she and her business partner installed glamping pods in the grounds to attract tourists driving the North Coast 500. But both Covid and Brexit have affected trade.

Pritchard, the chairwoman of Melness Crofters Estate, and Robertson, its secretary, went to Melness Primary together, then Golspie Secondary, and then to university. They got jobs, married, lived elsewhere before returning home to Sutherland. Over the years, they have seen their community decline.

Pritchard has now retired. But as a teacher at Tongue Primary, where the children of Melness now go, she mourned every departure, celebrated every birth. “I remember when the MacPhails left with their four boys – that was a huge loss,” she says. “But another day a wee boy came in and said, ‘Mum’s pregnant again – she’s having twins’. I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Aye, I saw the scan’, so I ran straight to the office and shouted out the good news.”

When Frances Gunn, of UpNorth! Community Development Trust started school in 1964, there were 60 children in Tongue Primary and 30 in Melness. By the time her daughter went in the 1980s , there were 30 in Tongue and Melness Primary had shut. Today there are just 18 pupils in Tongue Primary. “We are losing breeding pairs,” she says. “It’s a downward spiral.”

Orbex rocket

Melness’ history is one of displacement. Its population grew in the early 19th century as the Duke of Sutherland cleared his tenants to make way for sheep. Those who didn’t emigrate to the New World were pushed to Scotland’s coastal fringes.

Today, life remains precarious. It is impossible to make a living out of crofting alone. And while the tourist industry is a boon, most work is low-paid and seasonal. “People want the kinds of jobs that allow them a certain lifestyle – a car and foreign holidays,” says Gunn. But those are increasingly hard to come by.

The oil and gas industry, which sustained the Highlands for several decades, is in decline and Dounreay is being decommissioned. “Three buses a day used to ferry workers to and from the nuclear power station,” Gunn says. “Now there can’t be more than 30 people along the whole of the north coast employed there.”

Highlanders are still crossing the Atlantic. Another of Robertson’s daughters, Suzanne Mackay, a science graduate, made the journey two years ago with her husband Richard and their three children. They had lived in Tongue and worked in Dounreay, but Richard’s career had progressed as far as it could. He was offered a job at a nuclear plant in Canada. “My daughter was devastated. We all were. She didn’t know if it was the thing to do or not,” Robertson says.

Ever since they were gifted their estate, the Melness crofters have been looking for ways to reverse the trend: to keep young people from leaving, and attract new families in. In the 2000s, a plan for a community wind farm fell through.

When HIE first mooted the spaceport, they were wary – Cape Canaveral, but 23 miles from Cape Wrath. But then there were those who dismissed the oil industry in the 1970s.

Pritchard says they agreed it could be the boost they needed “but not at any cost”. They worked with HIE to make sure it would have as little impact on the environment as possible. One of the things they insisted on was that only the core facilities would be permanently fenced off so the sheep could continue to roam on the Common Grazings. On launch days, they will be cleared from a wider exclusion zone, with the crofters compensated for the inconvenience.

The spaceport will take up just 13 of the estate’s 10,700 acres and be carbon neutral. “Cape Canaveral it is not,” Pritchard says.

The following day, she and Robertson take me on a tour. On the Mhoine, they point out where the control centre, launch pad, antennae park and new entry road will be located. Later, we pore over projections which demonstrate how little will be visible from various viewpoints. At Talmine, Pritchard tells me how money gained from the scheme will be used to upgrade the pier, adding a second, more gentle slipway.

Like the townie I am, I ask to see the slabs of machine-cut peat which have been lifted to dry. They are propped against each other like the first storeys in multiple houses of cards. Crofters have a right to cut peat for fuel, but only from historic peat banks. Any peat removed to create the spaceport will be used to restore and re-wet the 76.5 hectares damaged by decades of such extraction.

“There is no-one more invested in the Mhoine than us,” Pritchard says. “Why would we do anything that might risk destroying it?”

Chris Larmour, Orbex’s congenial CEO, remembers the first time he met the space crofters. It is easy to imagine him ambling into the Ben Loyal Hotel like Mac, the oil executive from the film Local Hero, and immediately falling for the landscape and the people.

Both he and they tell me the story of how he gazed at the scenery and blurted out: “Why would you want to build a spaceport here?” “I said, ‘Just look out of the window’,” Larmour recalls. “They replied, ‘We know it’s beautiful and we get a lot of tourists because it’s beautiful, but tourism is not enough’.”

There are Local Hero overtones, too, to the company’s commitment to building eco-friendly rockets – although, of course, flaunting their green credentials is the best way to win over sceptics. “Do you know that space rockets create the same amount of black carbon as the entire global aviation industry, even though there are only 120 launches a year?” Larmour asks. “Our rockets create zero black carbon. We are building something future-proof whereas others are going to have to adapt.”

Orbex’s Prime vehicles are 19m tall, with a 1.45m diameter. Made of carbon fibre, they can carry payloads of up to 150kg and reach a speed of 8,000 metres a second.

Larmour says they are designed so no debris will be left on land, sea or space. “The first section accelerates the rocket through the atmosphere, then falls back into the water from which it is recovered and reused,” he says. “The second deploys the satellites in space and burns up on re-entry.” The rocket engines are created by 3D printers and they burn biopropane fuel and liquid oxygen, a combination Orbex claims will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 per cent compared with rockets burning kerosene.

Larmour also points out that many of the satellites the rockets carry into orbit will be used to monitor evidence of climate change: “They will look at ice patterns in the Arctic, forest fires in South America, algae blooms in the oceans and other evidence of climate change.”

Critics have challenged the claim the spaceport will create 40 new jobs. But Orbex is already bringing jobs to the wider Highlands. It now employs more than 40 people at its factory in Forres, and Lamour says the company has submitted a planning application for a new building that will employ 300-400 more. “We have hired 35 people since December. A significant proportion of those have been local, and an intern we took on from university 10 months ago has now been offered a full-time job. The next stage will be to offer apprenticeships for more production-oriented roles.”

The spaceport itself will be owned and operated by HIE, but Orbex has just taken on its first employee in Melness: crofter and estate director, Kirsteen Mackay as spaceport preparation manager. Mackay formerly worked at Lundies House.

“It’s fair to say we won’t be providing a lot of jobs directly because the work is highly specialised, but I can see four or five, maybe 10 if some of our engineers want to relocate there,” Larmour says

“But you don’t just turn up with your rocket and launch it the same day. Your rocket arrives, the technicians arrive to work on the rocket, then the customer arrives and then they integrate their payload. The spaceport will need people to run the administration and the finances, people taking care of security and logistics, site management and marketing. It’s going to be a day-to-day business.”

Larmour is a good salesman. But not good enough to convince Williams, whose opposition to the spaceport is fierce and implacable. His group, Protect the Mhoine, has 14 local members and a lot of support further afield. “I think our furthest away supporter lives in Paraguay,” he says.

From his garden wall, he rails against the project on environmental, safety, aesthetic grounds. “The failure rate for human-carrying rockets is 6 per cent,” he says. “Sure these ones are small, if you consider something slightly bigger than a V2 small, but that amount of propellant combined with that amount of liquid oxygen could still do a lot of damage.”

Williams is worried a rocket might go off-course and land on Orkney or the Faroe Islands; or that it might spark a peat fire like the one which burned 22,000 acres of hill and woodland around Strathy in 2019.

He talks about the potential impact on birdlife: snipe, greenshank, and red-throated divers, along with the sea eagles, which do not nest on the Mhoine, but fly over it. “They don’t take kindly to human interaction. If you start messing with the peatland, they won’t hang around for long,” he says.

As for jobs, he says random and inflated figures are being bandied around. “Would you like to pick a number?” he asks. He believes if Orbex are looking for specialists, they will recruit from elsewhere. “They won’t be recruiting crofters’ sons,” he says.

Williams’ fears are genuine, but there is a wider culture clash playing out here, too: the tension that exists between those who live and work in the Highlands, and those who retire there.

He sees the space crofters as a clique who want to line their own pockets while wrecking the view he moved north to consume. They see him as a man with little stake in the community; a man who wants to deprive them of the comfortable living he made throughout his working life.

“We are not against retired people coming here, not at all, but what often happens is after a few years of retirement they get ill,” Pritchard says. “The nearest hospital is 100 miles away, so they sell up to be closer and then someone else comes. It’s a revolving door.”

Williams’ assessment of the crofters is more brutal. “A lot of the people who were cleared went abroad and their descendents are in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and doing very well,” he says. “You could argue that those who remained were the ones who didn’t have the energy to get up and go. They stayed behind and grumbled. And they have been grumbling ever since.”

Williams has powerful allies. Those who opposed the initial planning application included celebrities like TV presenter Chris Packham, 13-year-old Finlay Pringle – Scotland’s answer to Greta Thunberg – and the RSPB, although the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its objection.

And, of course, there’s Povlsen. His reputation as an environmentalist was established at Glenfeshie, where he culled large numbers of deer, allowing native woodland and species to regenerate and flourish.

He and his wife Anne have a particular vision for the Highlands. Some call it “rewilding”. He prefers “the realisation of ecological potential on a landscape scale”.

Povlsen rarely gives interviews but last week Tim Kirkwood, chief executive officer of Povlsen’s conservation company Wildland Ltd, defended his policies: “We all have an equal responsibility to do more to cherish the natural environment and stand up for its protection – and that responsibility is only growing as we come to a fuller understanding of how ecosystems like the Flow Country are key to meeting the global challenge of fighting climate change and biodiversity loss.

“What we have tried to do is ensure that this vulnerable, beautiful part of Scotland benefits from the full protection of laws and regulations already in place to protect, not exploit, the natural environment.”

Others, however, accuse Povlsen of using Scotland to offset the carbon footprint he has created elsewhere. And they point to apparent contradictions in his ideology. Why, if he is concerned about pollution, has he invested in the Shetland spaceport? Why is Wildland Ventures Ltd, the sister company of Wildland Ltd, the majority shareholder of the congestion-generating North Coast 500 Ltd?

Magnus Davidson, who researches interactions between the environment, the economy, and society at the University of the Highlands and Islands, is exasperated by the marketing of the less-populated parts of the country as “wild places”.

The concept of “wilderness” has been contested ever since the native Americans, who had managed the land in the west for centuries, were cleared out of Yosemite Valley to create the National Park.

In 2014, Scottish Natural Heritage drew up a map of “wild land” in Scotland. But Davidson points out some of that land is clearance country. “My daughter’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side was cleared from the slopes of Ben Loyal at Loch Coulside – land that now belongs to Povlsen,” he says. “It is defined as wild land to be protected from development, but I look and I see rubble on the ground. People used to live there.”

Kirkwood said Wildland Venture Ltd invested in the rival spaceport because it understands the potential benefits to the economy but believes the Shetland site, a former RAF base at Unst, is a more appropriate location.

And he denied Povlsen commodifies “wilderness” for the consumption of rich tourists at the expense of local residents.

“Our approach is to look for balance; to encourage practices that support environmental recovery in and around protected areas and create more biodiversity on a large scale, while allowing new sources of spending and wealth to flow into remote rural communities,” he said. “We are creating opportunities for all – visitors, locals, rich or otherwise.”

But Davidson sees Povlsen as one more laird accruing land as power. “He owns those estates because of the status they bring,” he says.

“He uses his concentrated land wealth to try to dictate developments outwith his estates, whether that’s ploughing a million and a half quid into an opposition spaceport, opposing neighbouring renewable energy developments or taking judicial reviews. He is just a traditional landlord with a veneer of environmentalism.”

Back in Talmine, Lara Gunn, daughter of Frances, is strolling along the strandline with Nell, 22 months, and four-week-old Kit in a sling. She had been working in digital marketing with Lloyds Bank in Bristol and London, but moved home two years ago just before the birth of her daughter.

“I wanted to raise my children here. It is so beautiful and has always felt like home, but my career is too important to me to give it up,” she says. “I am lucky because I can work remotely, but there are many other jobs where that would not be possible.”

Some 3,500 miles away, Suzanne and Richard Mackay are settling into their new life in Petawawa, southern Ontario. “We miss home especially since the pandemic has prevented us from visiting,” Suzanne says on a Zoom call. “But, because there weren’t many young families, we had to make a two-hour round trip to take the children to clubs. Here we have gymnastics and football five minutes from our front door.”

Both of them support efforts to bring the spaceport to Melness. “The potential benefits for the area of having another major employer in science and tech are huge,” Richard says. “We would definitely like to come home some day given the right opportunity.”

The space crofters hope the verdicts of the Land Court and the Judicial Review will clear the way for an inaugural rocket launch next year. It is an event that will require careful planning. Space travel tends to capture the public imagination. It is likely to draw a large crowd.

The final frontier. So long as it is done sustainably, Pritchard too regards rockets soaring into orbit from the Mhoine as a source of wonder and a potential salvation.

“Some people want to preserve the world in aspic,” she says, “but a place that is bereft of its people has lost its soul. We can’t stand still and let our community die. We have to look to the future.”

Orbex Prime
Chief Executive of British aerospace company Orbex Chris Larmour poses for a photograph during the unveiling of the company's new Prime Rocket at their new headquarters and rocket design facility in Forres in the Scottish Highlands on February 7, 2019. - The Prime Rocket is designed to deliver small satellites into Earths orbit. (Photo by Michal Wachucik / AFP) (Photo credit should read MICHAL WACHUCIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife Anne Holch Povlsen
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