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The Great Outdoors: From longboat to space ship, Shetland’s spectacular Isle of Unst is flying high

© ShutterstockUnst
The Isle of Unst is Shetland's most northerly island.

There’s “up north” and then there’s Unst, the most northerly of Britain’s inhabited islands. Part of Shetland’s North Isles – along with Yell and Fetlar – at 19km (12 miles) long and 8km (5 miles) wide, Unst has all you could want for an island adventure.

The Vikings of nearby Scandinavia would stop at Unst and by around AD700 many had settled, with modern Unst home to the remains of more than 60 longhouses.

Anyone interested in the lives of Vikings should stop at Haroldswick for the longhouse reconstruction, as well as the longboat there – a reconstruction of the vessels in which the Vikings travelled to Unst.

Unst is spectacular – soaring cliffs looking out to sea, beautiful beaches and fantastic walks, like the stunning 2.6km (1.5 mile) coastal path at Easting Beach. Unst is also home to a vast array of seabirds, many of which can be can found at the Hermaness National Nature Reserve in the north of the island.

Gannets, puffins and guillemots can all be spotted, while the isle is famed for the number of great skua, known as “bonxie” by locals.

But it isn’t just wildlife that makes Unst so special. Indeed plans to send rockets carrying satellites into orbit from the island recently received a major boost from a legal ruling.

When an objection by a company owned by billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen was thrown out, it was hailed as an important step in the bid to develop the UK’s first vertical launch spaceport in the far north.

The decision kept the £17.3 million Space Hub Sutherland (SHS) project, on the A’Mhoine peninsula, with other launch facilities in North Uist and Unst, in pole position in the region’s mini space race.

With Scotland aiming to win a £4 billion share of the global space market by 2030, there are also plans to develop launch facilities on North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, and on the island of Unst.

Povlsen’s Wildland company, which owns tens of thousands of acres neighbouring the SHS site, had said the development will be “completely inappropriate for such an environmentally vulnerable area and the habitats it sustains,” a view shared by many people.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which is leading the project, argues that it will “provide high- quality local jobs and create vital infrastructure to support the growth of the UK space sector in Scotland”.

Plans to send rockets carrying satellites into orbit from the Highlands recently received a major boost from a legal ruling.

When an objection by a company owned by billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen was thrown out, it was hailed as an important step in the bid to develop the UK’s first vertical launch spaceport in the far north.

The decision kept the £17.3 million Space Hub Sutherland (SHS) project, on the remote A’Mhoine peninsula, in pole position in the region’s mini space race.

With Scotland aiming to win a £4 billion share of the lucrative global space market by 2030, there are also plans to develop launch facilities on North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, and on the Shetland island of Unst.

Mr Povlsen’s Wildland company, which owns tens of thousands of acres neighbouring the SHS site, says its view that the development will be “completely inappropriate for such an environmentally vulnerable area and the habitats it sustains,” is shared by many people.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), which is leading the project, argues that it will “provide high- quality local jobs and create vital infrastructure to support the growth of the UK space sector in Scotland”.

The Scottish Government-funded agency also says that care for the natural environment has always been a “key part” of its plans.

In Moray, rocket maker Orbex is finalising a detailed planning application for a factory employing workers in Forres as it prepares for regular commercial launches from SHS.

The SHS development, between Durness and Tongue, has been three years in the planning and now appears to be gaining real momentum.

Now the most recent events could signal more than one small step for A’Mhoine.

The UK Government announced the choice of A’Mhoine as the site of the UK’s first vertical launch spaceport in July 2018, following a bidding process run by the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

Key criteria considered for launches centred on sites’ suitability for rockets reaching “sun synchronous” orbits (SSO) without flying over land inhabited by humans.

A’Mhoine was one of three areas in the running, along with Scolpaig, in North Uist, and Saxa Vord, on Unst, which missed out on the bidding process.

The site will occupy up to 13 acres of crofting land, owned and managed by Melness Crofters’ Estate, which has given HIE a lease option for the project.

Plans for the projects in Shetland, now known as SaxaVord Spaceport, and Spaceport1, in the Outer Hebrides, are continuing to be developed.

Up to 12 rocket launches a year are planned for the spaceport, to carry payloads of small satellites into orbit for civilian commercial customers.

Plans for the site itself will include an assembly building with ancillary structures, a launch and operations control centre, and access roads.

There will also be antenna farms, fuel storage facilities, a launch pad complex and towers, as well as safety and security fencing and associated infrastructure.

HIE was given an initial £2.5m by the UKSA to take the project forward.

The Scottish Government-funded development agency has agreed in principle to commit £9.8m of its funds to the project.

The remainder is being sought from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) , which owns the former nuclear power research and development facility at Dounreay, near Thurso.

HIE was granted planning permission for the development by Highland Council a year ago.

A judicial review of the decision was triggered by Anders Holch Povlsen’s Wildland company, which said the proposal had failed to consider the environmental impacts of proposed visitor facilities, how visitors would be managed and the impact on wildlife.

The firm also questioned if correct legal procedures had been followed.

After hearing evidence at the Court of Session, Lord Doherty ruled against Wildland on every count last month.

HIE welcomed the decision, which it said brought the “prospect of small satellites being launched from Scotland in the near future a step closer to reality.”