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Blast off: Spaceport plans divide remote community

Some residents have left their homes over bid to build UK's first spaceport in Sutherland.

By Iain Ramage

Plans for the UK's first rocket launch site have bitterly divided a remote Highland community.

The A'Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland was chosen by the UK Space Agency earlier this year as the site for vertical rocket and satellite launches.

However, some local residents have already reluctantly decided to leave their homes, while others told STV News they could follow suit.

On the other hand, those who support the £17.3m project point to the fact it's already created jobs and will help the area thrive.

They say the potential of a spaceport is astronomical in a corner of the Highlands with a tiny, scattered population.

One native crofter and former teacher considers the project a community life-saver.

Dorothy Pritchard, chairwoman of the Melness Crofters Estate, said: "We've had an economic decline here. There's the decommissioning of Dounreay. The oil jobs are contracting.

"Those are the sort of things that have supported our community for the past 40 years and those are in decline.

Dorothy Pritchard is excited by the potential of the spaceport.
Dorothy Pritchard is excited by the potential of the spaceport. STV

"And it's tremendously worrying where new jobs are going to come from, so it does excite me that there's potential for a considerable amount of jobs for this area."

Crofters own the site and backed the launchpad proposal in a ballot, but there's been fall-out, with a reportedly explosive debate both within and beyond crofting circles.

John Williams, a retired physics teacher who lives a little over a mile from the site, considers the technology risky and claims it would "industrialise" an area with a fragile eco-system.

"I would like to stay here but if the rocket range is built, I don't know. I've seriously considered moving, perhaps to Caithness or to west Wales where I also have some relatives," he said.

Gordon McEwan, another resident drawn to the area by the stunning scenery, lives within a mile of the proposed site and is also worried.

John Williams has considered moving away from the area.
John Williams has considered moving away from the area. STV

He said: "If this rocket establishment actually comes to fruition, myself and my family will not be here because it will ruin the place completely - and that's not why I came here with my family in the first place.

"This beautiful place is why I came here. Peace, quiet, clean air, wildlife - so I'd be gone."

The project developer, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), said the project would create employment and other economic benefits for the region and denies its plans have sown division.

Further consultation events will be held this month, in Thurso, Skerray, Tongue, Durness and Melness.

HIE expects to submit a planning application for the project in December or January.

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