Stornoway’s selection as one of 8 possible locations for a Spaceport will have caused old SYs to chuckle to themselves recently, for it’s not as if the space race is a new phenomenon in these parts. Older readers will remember well the heady days of the 50s, 60s and 70s when the different parts of the Western Isles expended vast amounts of money and peats in the race to conquer the great beyond. But the Outer Hebridean quest to explore the even outer-er reaches of the cosmos goes back much further than that. It’s also widely acknowledged that Outer Space was named after the Outer Hebrides.
Even in ancient Pictish times, feusagach weirdo druidy types regularly made use of rockets for ceremonial purposes and the celebration of special occasions such as the summer solstice and the Barvas communions. Remnants of their circular stone launchpads remain to this day and prove a popular draw for equally feusagach weirdo druidy types.
The possibility of using similar means to actually send man into space was explored by the French writer Jules Verne in his 1865 novel “De la Tern á la Lune” (From a Tern to the Moon). Written while boarding in the Haldane Hostel during his time studying at the Nicolson Institute and inspired by the local bird-life, the novel’s protagonists were fired to the moon via an enormous gun strapped to the back of a freakishly oversized Arctic Tern flying at high altitude to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull. His French publishers refused to let the book see the light of day until he removed the bit about the Arctic Tern and retitled the story. Still, his years at the Nicolson were productive as it was during this time he wrote another Science Fiction novel about cloning one of his teachers in an underwater laboratory: “20 Dina Leagues Under the Sea”.
It was in the post-war years that the Space Race truly took hold. In 1945 the victorious allied powers were scrambling over each other to grab Nazi rocket scientists for their nascent space programmes. Stornoway Town Council were no exception, although given their meagre resources they were unable to capture any of the big names. After the Russians and Americans had taken their pick, Stornoway could only get Bhehrner Bhon Branahuie, an enthusiastic Gaelic scholar who had banned the use of the letter “V” while heading up Germany’s unsuccessful Bh2 programme in the dying days of the Third Reich.
The fleekeen Uibhisteachs got a head start with their rocket range in Benbecula, but due to their exposure to prevailing westerly winds and proximity to the Dark Island Public Bar, they could only get their rockets to go sideways.
Meanwhile, the Rubhachs were desperately trying to beat the townies into space. Unable to procure liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel they improvised with methane derivatives from runny slurry and launched Spoot-nik in 1957. Later that same year, in order to reinstate their cosmological dominance, they launched a second Spoot-nik. However, this time, the chief engineer’s collie Dìleas had snuck inside the satellite prior to launch and inadvertantly became the first living creature to orbit the earth, much to the Rubhachs’ delight.
The Rubhach domination of the Space Race came to a head in 1961 when Yuri Gagarrabost became the first Leòdhasach in space aboard Portvoller 1. The Townies weren’t going to take this lying down, though, and in 1963 the Leader of Stornoway Town Council, John F. Kennedy (whose path to office was cleared when his brother Calum won the Mod Gold Medal in 1955) promised that a Townie-led Space Mission would put a man on the moon by 1970. His claim became a stunning reality when Apoileagan 11 was fired from the launchpad at New Street, Back, in 1969.
Hundreds of islanders huddled around their television sets with bated breath as they watched the events unfold live on BBC Alba. Two crew members climbed out of the Command Service Module, the Calumthelady, and entered the landing module, which broke off from the larger craft like a Presbyterian schism, and soon afterwards settled on the lunar surface.
The lunar module had been nicknamed in such a way as to rub the Rubhachs’ noses in the fact that the Townies had got to the moon first, so imagine the delight at mission control when they heard the words, “The Eagleton has landed!”
The first man to have the honour of setting foot on the moon was Commander Neil Arm-Strond (whose parents came from Leverburgh), although his crew-mate Buzz Aldredsroad had a better claim to Towniehood having been born under a tree out the back of the Castle Grounds.
Despite all the jubilation, space travel came at a cost. Many tragedies occurred along the way, and some were narrowly avoided, such as the ill-fated Apoileagan 13 mission, when a bottle of 4-Crown (which had been brought on board to celebrate the mission’s success) exploded half way to the moon, prompting the Commander to radio back to base, “Uisdean, we have a problem”. Incredibly, the crew managed to improvise a repair to their craft using only fuidheags, old copies of the Scottish Farmer and 5 feet of rusty rylock fence wire.
To this day, some conspiracy theorists refuse to believe that Stornoway really landed a man on the moon, claiming that the grainy footage seen on BBC Alba was all faked up at a secret site on the East side of Harris and pointing out the similarity of the Lunar and Hearach landscapes. However, the majority of experts dismiss the theory, pointing out quite rightly that in 1969 it would have been a lot harder to mount an expedition to Harris than it would have been to reach the moon.
Although the Townies and Rubhachs dominated the space race, other parts of the islands tried to get in on the act. The West Side in particular was keen to get some glory, going so far as to hold a competition to pick who would be their first astronaut. The competition was won in 1989 by Tolsta Chaolais resident and former employee of the Shawbost Mill, Helen Siarman. Siarman’s first mission was conducting experiments on Gaelic Radio presenters aboard the MIRERIMÒR space station.
Barra fish-factory billionaire and part-time Catholic Priest Richard Brahanseer announced in 2004 that he was intending to enter the private space-travel market. Brahanseer was convinced that Barra was the most suitable of all the islands for a space base because it was so near to the equator, and because the local clergy would have no objections to Sunday launching. He went so far as to build a base on the Tangasdale machair in 2006 and began test flights with a heavily modified Twin-Otter. Sadly, the venture was doomed to failure when the grazings committee evicted him for causing too much erosion, and Virginmary Galactic went out of business.
Only time will tell if the Outer Hebrides will ever revisit its glory days of travelling into the vast, empty unknown and to go where no man has gone before, but signs are encouraging, especially after former Comhairle leader George W Bùthsheumais in 2004 gave his blessing to resuming manned missions to the moon and eventually, Maaruig.