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Scottish Space

Scotland, the northernmost nation within the United Kingdom, is at the forefront of the UK’s space utilisation strategy. However it has featured extensively in the imaginary of space flight, in particular in the imagination of British writers. Here I take a look at the long history of Scotland in Space.

Scotland’s Engineering Legacy

Scotland, seen from space (source: NASA)While much of Scotland is rural, rich in natural resources and wild landscapes, the region has long been known for its scientists and engineers.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh was established in 1783 for “the advancement of learning and useful knowledge”. It formed a cultural and intellectual hub for the region and promoted innovative scientific investigation, especially during the nineteenth century. Edinburgh became host to a Royal Observatory and a strong scientific research culture [1]. Both Edinburgh and the city of Glasgow on the opposite coast were primarily sea ports in this period - allowing both for an influx of ideas and for development of the growing industries associated with sea trade. Glasgow, on the banks of the River Clyde, became well known for its metal work and industry. Indeed, by 1914 it was producing a third of British shipping and "Clyde-built" became synonymous with high quality construction of ocean-going vessels. In 1857, its own learned society, the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, was founded.

The expertise of Scots extended to early innovations in rocketry. The little-known engineer William Leitch has been credited with one of the first scientific descriptions of the use of rockets for interplanetary flight in an essay published in 1861, just after moving from Glasgow to Queen’s University in Canada. His work is believed to have influenced rocket development in the United States, including perhaps rocket pioneer Robert Goddard [2].

Scotland also saw an early test of commercial rocketry - although in this case it was the work of a foreign engineer. In 1934, German innovator Gerhard Zucker tested a prototype process designed to deliver post by rocket between the small island of Scarp and the larger one of Harris in the Western Isles of Scotland. Unfortunately, the metre-long rocket failed, destroying the post it was meant to be delivering.

Film poster for Rockets Galore (1958)Built in 1957, the South Uist test range or (Deep Sea Range) in the Outer Hebrides was a more serious affair, designed for testing nuclear missiles, and operating for many years as a rocket test site. Local opposition to this military site inspired Rockets Galore! (film 1958, dir. Relph; based on a 1957 novel by Scottish writer and nationalist Compton Mackenzie). This was a much less successful sequel to the film Whiskey Galore!, and described the activities of local residents on the fictional island of Todday who try to resist the construction of a rocket test range through non-cooperation and acts of petty vandalism. While this testing range and the associated narrative focused on military rockets, the development of such was intimately associated with rockets for space utilisation.

Perhaps naturally given its long technical legacy, Scotland became known for its engineers, both civil and military, particularly in areas of transportation, and engineers in many areas of literature were portrayed as Scots. Of these, of course, the most famous is Montgomery Scott - chief engineer of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek, popularly known as Scotty and canonically hailing from Aberdeen. Canadian actor James Doohan is reported to have tried out several different accents before settling on the one for which he became famous - reputedly because the best engineers were from Scotland.

Introductory illustration to Hell Ship by Arthur J Burks in Astounding, August 1938

So ubiquitous are Scottish engineering staff, particularly in shipboard contexts, that they became almost necessary accessories for a starship, as seen for example in the broad Scots-speaking Josh McNab, chief engineer of the Mars-bound spaceship Arachne in the (quite honestly, not very good) short story "Hell Ship" by Arthur J Burks (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1938) and countless similar stories in the pulp magazines. McNab trained on sea-going vessels before switching to space and is the kind of engineer who listens to his craft and, indeed, talks to it:

"Ye're the purrtiest thing," said Josh, looking the Arachne over from the rim of the ship, his grey eyes glistening with pride. "Purtier than the bonniest lassie that ever coom oot o'Scotland, save one!"

Another fictional Scottish engineer can be found in the 1950s comic Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. While the majority of space activity in the Dan Dare universe launches from the north of England, we see evidence for the Scottish inventor trope in the form of Galileo McHoo, who rules as laird of his small clan from a hidden asteroid base. Appearing in the story Safari in Space, McHoo has built upon the engineering genius of his father and uncle as the chieftain of the interplanetary Cosmic Shipping commercial empire, and has spent decades innovating and building an innovative new starship. While his motives are questioned, and he is forced to resort to kidnapping to get the attention of Dan Dare’s team, there is no questioning the engineering prowess of McHoo and his clan. 

As the characters in Safari in Space point out, test pilot Daniel McGregor Dare was canonically half-Scottish himself. Building on the military as well as technical traditions, other Scottish characters featuring as test pilots include Jet Morgan in radio SF drama Journey Into Space, who was taught to observe the sky in Edinburgh by his uncle, and spoke in a dense Scottish accent as a youth.

Scotland’s Space Race

During the 1950s and 60s, there was extensive interest in the use of Scotland as a rocket launch site, particularly from the writers of juvenile science fiction 

Cover image of Satellite 7 by Angus Macvicar, showing the wild landscape of a scottish islandAngus McVicar was a prolific writer, born in the Argyll area of Scotland. While he wrote in several genres, he is well remembered for his science fiction aimed at young readers. In particular, he is known for his Lost Planet series (1953-1961, starting with The Lost Planet), although he also wrote other science fiction including Satellite 7, and the two books in the Atom Chasers series. Notably, his books were amongst the earliest science fiction adapted by the BBC, with The Lost Planet and Satellite 7 both broadcast as radio plays, and two of the Lost Planet novels adapted for television (now sadly themselves lost). 

The stand-alone juvenile novel Satellite 7 tells the story of a teenager and his elder brother who are shipwrecked on a Scottish Hebridean island called Shuna, described as lying thirty miles south-east of Barra. They discover that the island is home to a secret government rocket research establishment, complete with a radio telescope used for satellite tracking and rocket launch pads, under the supervision of chief engineer Roderick McIntyre. It hopes to launch Britain’s seventh satellite - one that will orbit the Moon and return to Earth. Unfortunately the boys discover that it is less secure than its military guardians would hope.

The Lost Planet (1953) and its sequels also focus on a young narrator, in this case a sixteen year old Australian who, upon being orphaned, is sent to the care of his scientist uncle. Dr Lachlan McKinnon not only has his own estate in rural Scotland, at Inverard, but is using it to develop a space rocket, leading an international team which includes archetypally Scottish engineering foreman Jock Ferguson. Rather than targeting the Moon, they launch for Hesikos, a rogue planet that executes the rather unlikely manoeuvre of rapidly approaching the Earth and then stopping nearby to allow for extended exploration and interaction with its human-like natives.

Front cover of Kings of Space by W E JohnsAngus McVicar wasn’t the only writer of books for children that fixed on Scotland as a launch site for British space. In fact the Kings of Space books (1954-1963, starting with Kings of Space itself) by English writer and former First World War fighter pilot Capt W. E. Johns hold some remarkable similarities to the McVicar Lost Planet series. His protagonists are a father and son who get lost while hiking in Inverness-shire and seek shelter at Glensalich Castle. Here they find maverick scientist Professor Brane and stumble across his privately-built experimental spacecraft - the Spacemaster. Joining him, they head off to explore the Moon, Venus and Mars, before discovering a civilisation amongst the asteroid belt (in the novels, these people originated on Mars, but migrated after the destruction of the fifth planet created the asteroids and destroyed Mars’ climate). In a fairly lengthy series of (increasingly unscientific and bizarre) sequels, the professor and his crew search for a habitable planet to ease the population burden on Earth. As with the other examples above, they face opposition from the representatives of foreign powers and others determined to secure the professor’s secrets.

While MacVicar and Johns were the most prolific writers of fiction in which rockets and other space missions launched from Scotland, they were by no means the only ones. Radio dramatist Peter Elliot Hayes used a Hebridean island called Skara as a location for a Jodrell-bank-inspired radio telescope (run by Professor Campbell McLaren) and alien encounter in its 1961 BBC radio serial, Orbit One Zero. Amateur astronomer and astronomy populariser Patrick Moore also wrote a large number of fiction, as well as non-fiction, books during his career - again aimed largely at a juvenile audience. His main series involved the human exploration and exploitation of Mars, and involved rocket launches from the Anglo-Australian Woomera site. However his early stand-alone novel, Wheel in Space, is interesting here. The book follows a young student who, touring Scotland on his motorcycle, is turned back from visiting a rocket launching site, but promptly finds himself rescuing the kidnapped nephew of the site’s director Professor Drake. Drawn in to the international rocket development effort at the base, he finds it has been subject to sabotage attempts from “Disruptors”. Firmly on the Professor’s side, the young visitor helps to unmask the saboteurs and ensure the success of the first mission to the Moon. 

Moving from literature to television, another fictional Scottish island, this time Buchan Island, is the launch site for the experimental rockets of Professor Wedgewood and his team in the 1960 children’s television drama Target Luna (the series is now sadly lost, although scripts survive) and its sequels Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus (1960-1). Written by Malcolm Hulke (who would later write for Doctor Who), the premise here follows the familiar pattern above, with young protagonists (in this case the professor’s children) finding themselves launched into space due to unlikely circumstances [3].

By contrast, the television serial A for Andromeda (1961) and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough (1962) were written primarily for an adult audience. Developed by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and John Elliott, they described the receipt of a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence by a radio telescope. Following its instructions, an advanced computer and an artificial life form are created. The project and the created young woman, Andromeda, are kept isolated at the remote Thorness military rocket research establishment in the north of Scotland, clearly based on the South Uist Deep Sea Range. From here, satellite tracking and interception are undertaken. The novelisation captures the barrenness of the location effectively:

No one ever went to Thorness for fun. The quickest way from London took twelve hours, by air to Aberdeen and then by fast diesel across the Highlands to Gairloch on the west coast. Thorness was the first station north of Gairloch, but there was nothing there but a small decaying village, the wild rocky coast and the moors. [...] It was all green and grey and brown and prone to clouds, and apart from periodical noises from inside the camp, it was a silent place. (A for Andromeda, Hoyle & Elliot, Gollancz masterworks edition, pg 58)

The remote location, selected for security, adds to the isolation and dislocation from wider human society in the novel and in the television series it was based on. The second series relocated the action instead to the Middle East, but the impact of the scientists’ work on the climate around Scotland remained relevant.

The striking landscapes, remote regions and industrial cities of Scotland continued to feature in science fiction as a location for dystopian, political, environmental and psychological science fiction after the end of the space race. On television, the environs of Loch Ness were frequently used for science fictional stories of alien or technological interventions. However the investment of UK military rocketry in the Woomera test range in Australia through the 1960s, together with the dominance of the superpowers in space and the general decline in the interest in crewed exploration rocketry in the 1970s, seem to have led to a hiatus in fictional launches from Scotland. This was a trope that would not reoccur for some decades.

Scotland and New Space

Over the last two decades and more, the paradigm for future space utilisation has shifted from primarily military and government controlled efforts, to more civilian and commercially motivated spaceflight efforts (albeit still largely reliant on government and military contracts). This commercial space flight paradigm is sometimes known as New Space or the New Space Race, and perhaps unsurprisingly, has seen a return to Scottish space in science fiction.

Front cover of The Sky Road by Ken Macleod.Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books imagine a future of large-scale commercial and civilian space utilisation. The last book of the series returns to Earth: The Sky Road imagines a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity is only beginning to return to the stars. The book is told in chapters that alternate between two epochs in history. The first is a world ravaged by war and revolution, and in which a communist republic in Kazakhstan, and its cynically-disenchanted dictator, resists a world government takeover from a substantial population who have migrated to space. The second is a much more distant future living out the legacy of this conflict, in which electronics are considered a dark art, mechanical engineers viewed with suspicion, and the first spaceship to be built on Earth in centuries is under construction in the north of Scotland. Much of the plot hinges on the question of whether or not a large scale space-debris formation event (a Kessler syndrome or ablation cascade) was triggered at the end of the first epoch.

The book makes extensive use of its landscape and setting, both around the construction site in Strathcarron, and in a much-changed Glasgow (complete with ancient university). It leans on Scotland’s engineering and shipbuilding history, portraying it as the natural site for construction of a heavy fusion torchship.

Cover image of the anthology Scotland in SpaceMany of MacLeod’s other works are set in whole or in part in Scotland, and MacLeod is one of a number of successful Scottish science fiction writers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that also includes others such as astronomy populariser and writer Duncan Lunan, and bestsellers Charles Stross and Iain Banks. The legacy of Scottish science fiction writers, of course, extends much further back with earlier authors including David Lindsay, Robert Duncan Milne and others. Although most of their stories are not themselves based in Scotland, they reflect a Scottish upbringing and cultural background. This has been reflected in a number of recent anthologies and story collections of science fiction either written by or about Scotland. These include Starfield, edited by Duncan Lunan in 1989, and Scotland in Space, which combines short fiction with astronomical and space utilisation critiques, edited by Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas in 2019. The stories in this latter anthology take a mixture of views of Scotland’s role in the future of space. While Welcome to Planet Alba by Pippa Goldschmidt anticipates disaster at Scotland’s first spaceport and a future as a franchise tourist centre for a Chinese Mars mission, A Certain Reverence by Laura Lam portrays Scottish culture as a key element in the successful contact between human and alien, and Far by Russell Jones imagines an “inflation drive” which enables Scotland to pursue its goal of ultimate independence… but at the cost of severing ties with the Earth entirely. In each case, Scotland’s own sense of identity and its place in relation to the rest of Earth are fundamental to defining its place in space. 

Recent years have also seen a resurgence of commercial narratives of Scotland in Space, but this time from a science factual rather than fictional perspective. As part of a refocus on developing internal rather than international capacity, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and Scottish government are supporting development of vertical and horizontal launch spaceports across Scotland including: Shetland, Sutherland, Argyll, Prestwick, and the Outer Hebrides. Despite government backing, all of these are primarily commercial operations with a focus on delivering Earth-orbit commercial satellites or security resources. Notably, all are active in communicating with the public and stressing the planned increase in skilled jobs, and work in the surrounding infrastructure, as well as communicating the advantage of Scotland’s northerly latitude for launches into polar and highly inclined orbits. Their strategy materials all stress the potential for Scotland to take a major role in commercial space utilisation.

Why Scotland?

So why does Scotland have such a recurring place in our narratives of a space-based future?

Well, as a high latitude site which is nonetheless kept at moderate temperatures by the gulf stream, it does certainly have an advantage for launching satellites that pass over the poles or into solar orbits - both important sectors of the market, particularly with the rise of satellite megaconstellations. However the bulk of the satellite market still remains focussed on geosynchronous orbits. By their nature, these must occupy a relatively narrow band over the equator - for which Scotland is relatively poorly sited as a launch site.

However, given a limited range of latitudes within the confines of the British Isles, Scotland certainly has other advantages. Perhaps the most important are those related to its landscapes and the resulting, relatively low population density compared to other regions in the UK. The large areas of wilderness and moorland allow relative privacy to any site, and permit only a relatively small population to be affected by noise, pollution, nuclear fall-out in the atomic rocket case, or other restrictions in the military case. Indeed, the same arguments have driven a great many extant military developments in the north of the country. These factors are particularly relevant to the Hebridean islands with their small populations and surrounding moats of ocean. As one of the characters notes regarding the eponymous Satellite 7 in MacVicar’s novel: “This lonely island was chosen as its launching-ground for security reasons.” (pg 99)

Of course, all of these advantages can be countered with disadvantages. The populations, while small, are often vibrant communities with their own distinctive identities and customs - as was emphasised, for example, with scenes of an English air force officer being introduced to a village ceilidh on the small island of Todday in Rockets Galore.

Front cover of The Lost Planet by Angus Macvicar

The sense of alienation between those communities and the imposed spaceports can be substantial - not least when the authorities in the rocket sites are often shown as non-local, and often as English. In The Lost Planet, before ever encountering the rockets, the protagonist meets a local who is less than complimentary about his uncle:

“The fact is”, he said. “We’re kid of old-fashioned in the Highlands, and when Dr McKinnon put up a big electric fence all round his estate and threatened us with the police if ever we came near him - well, it put us against him a wee bit.” - The Lost Planet, pg 9.

The same sentiment, combined with environmental concerns against pollution and effects on the local ecosystem, can be found in Rockets Galore and in Patrick Moore’s Wheel in Space where another local tells us that:

“A national disgrace, it is. A hundred square miles right in the middle of Cathness-shire, and they go and wire it off for their heathenish rockets and suchlike. If I had my way, I’d lock up the lot of ‘em.”


“Those daft folk who fire off guns and poison the air. We’re told that they’re trying to build a platform in space, or some such madness. Just let me have a few words with that Professor Drake! He’s no right to take a single square foot of Scottish soil, even if he - “ (pg 8)

Such opposition is as much a feature of today’s spaceport dialogue as it was in the 1950s and 60s. And many of the arguments remain the same. While the threat of nuclear fall-out from hypothetical engines is less than may have once been believed, the awareness of the risks of pollutants and the need for sustainable development is higher than ever. Thus the current spaceport initiatives make efforts to stress their environmental credentials, as for example:

Orbex is committed to supporting ESA’s Clean Space initiative, and is developing one of the most environmentally-friendly space launch vehicles ever built. Our careful approach to environmental impact reduction dramatically improves the carbon footprint and lifecycle impact of the Orbex launch vehicle and Prime is poised to become the first in a new generation of ultra green launch systems.

Inevitably, any rocket development - in Scotland or elsewhere - must balance concerns over impact on the site against the possible advantages to come from employment, infrastructure and larger scale social and political benefits. This balance for Scotland has been weighed by authors across the last seventy years, building on centuries of both industrial and science fictional innovation. In most of these visions, the result is clear: Scotland has gone to the stars, taking humanity with it.

“Clyde-built” was, for many decades, a term with connotations of excellence. It is as unlikely that the lone-wolf scientists, backyard launching fields and privately-launched pioneer rockets imagined in yesteryears will lead our new space race as it proved in the first. Nevertheless, the rise of commercial spaceflight, and the continued commitment of governments and private funders to Scottish space, raises the possibility - however remote - that “Scotland-launched” could become a similar criterion for quality in the future.

 “Scottish Space”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog. 28th January 2024.


[1] As an interesting aside, in the context of science fiction, an indication of Scotland's scientific standing can be found in the decision of the American producers of the 1959 film Journey to the Centre of the Earth (dir. Levin) to shift the home of the protagonists from Hamburg (as in Jules Verne's original novel) to Edinburgh, and to show Prof Lindenbrook teaching at the university there in the 1880s. [Return to text]

[2] The history and role of William Leitch is discussed in a recent biography of him by Robert Godwin, who has championed this often overlooked figure. [Return to text]

[3] Other contemporary examples with a very similar teenager-caught-up-in-experimental-rocket plot can be found in Bruce Peril’s Rocket to the Moon and James Muirden’s The Intruder, in which the launch sites are a secret base in the Pennine hills of northern England and the Woomera test range in Australia, respectively. Dan Dare, mentioned in the context of the McHoo engineers above, mostly featured adult characters but also launched rockets from Northern England, in this case the sands of Formby. [Return to text]

All views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the University of Warwick. Images are sourced from public websites and used here for commentary and criticism.