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The U.K. Space Agency Has a Scottish Peat Bog Problem

The plan for a launchpad, worth tens of millions of pounds, may not survive a community backlash and environmental review.

A’Mhòine peninsula’s rare peat bog ecosystem is home to golden eagles and other protected animals.

A’Mhòine peninsula’s rare peat bog ecosystem is home to golden eagles and other protected animals.

Photographer: Javier Fernández Sánchez/Getty Images

At a traditional cèilidh shindig in the northern Scottish Highlands, my dance partner, a retired Scottish math teacher, suggested I watch the Burt Lancaster movie Local Hero. In between jigs, the kind that require a great deal of spinning, he outlined the plot. An American oil executive journeys to a remote Scottish village to buy out the residents and clear the land for a refinery. Higher and higher dollar figures are thrown around. Plenty of whisky is drunk. The residents must face a difficult decision: Do they roll over and take the money and risk changing the character of their community forever?

By the time I watched Local Hero—I highly recommend it—the 1983 movie had been pitched to me a half-dozen more times by people invested in the eerily parallel political fight happening right now on the A’Mhòine peninsula at the northern tip of Scotland. Instead of an oil refinery, the proposal is for a spaceport that would shoot about a dozen satellites a year into polar orbit 300 miles up. At risk from this miniature Cape Canaveral is a foggy stretch of protected peat bog that’s home to about 500 people, a community of rare birds, and little else. I’d definitely watch that movie.