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Meet the women who want north Highland community to take off as a space hub: 'Space port would give young people game-changing opportunities'

By Caroline McMorran

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It is International Women’s Day today - a day designated to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

To mark the day, we feature here a team of north Highland women crofters who are working together to improve opportunities for communities in their area.

They are the women who lead Melness Crofters’ Estate (MCE) - chairwoman Dorothy Pritchard; secretary Wilma Robertson; directors Karen Kelly and Kirsteen Mackay.

Dorothy Pritchard. Chairwoman Melness Crofters' Estate. Picture: Duncan McLachlan
Dorothy Pritchard. Chairwoman Melness Crofters' Estate. Picture: Duncan McLachlan

All four voluntarily dedicate their free time to managing the estate, ensuring good husbandry of the land and looking for new opportunities to benefit communities in their area.

Research projects that the population of Sutherland will decrease by 11.8 per cent by 2041, and the Melness Crofters’ Estate team are working hard in a bid to stop the population decline.

They have supported many successful community-led projects, including social housing, funding local school trips and local charitable causes through small grants and donations.

With family at the heart of everything they do, the women of the estate, backed by many in the local community, are campaigning to bring more opportunities, jobs and growth to the area.

All four are particularly enthusiastic about Space Hub Sutherland which is earmarked to go on a site belonging to Melness Crofters’ Estate.

The space port has planning consent but is facing influential opposition from Wildland, the company run by Danish entrepreneur and neighbouring landowner Anders Holch Povlsen.

A judicial review into Highland Council’s decision to grant planning consent to the development, which is expected to create up to 200 jobs - although not all in north Sutherland - will be held on April 1.

Dorothy, a retired primary school teacher, said: “The Sutherland Space Hub will not only have a positive impact on the current generation of our community but generations to come.

“I truly believe that the space port will provide the young people living on the estate with game-changing opportunities and that it will ultimately pave the way for a more sustainable, thriving community in the future.”

Dorothy Pritchard

Melness Crofters' Estate chairwoman Dorothy Pritchard. Picture:Duncan McLachlan
Melness Crofters' Estate chairwoman Dorothy Pritchard. Picture:Duncan McLachlan

Dorothy was born and brought up in a crofting family in Melness, just as the six generations of Melness crofters before her.

As with many young people nowadays, Dorothy has first hand experience of having to leave the Highlands to further her education and her career.

Having worked in publishing in London and Inverness for a number of years, Dorothy returned to Sutherland to embark on a new career as a teacher, retiring from the local Tongue Primary School in 2018.

Dorothy has always had a passion for crofting and, when living in London, would catch the overnight train from London to Scotland when she got holidays to help her dad with the sheep on the croft.

She joined the Melness Crofters’ Estate (MCE) in 2017, becoming chairwoman the following year. Along with the six other voluntary board members, Dorothy is responsible for the day-to-day running of the estate.

The committee’s latest project, the Sutherland space port, is something that Dorothy is particularly passionate about. Being an advocate for STEM subjects, Dorothy sees the benefits that the project could bring to the community in terms of jobs and the possibility of retaining more young people in this beautiful part of the world.

Wilma Robertson

Melness Crofters' Estate secretary Wilma Robertson. Picture: Duncan McLachlan
Melness Crofters' Estate secretary Wilma Robertson. Picture: Duncan McLachlan

Wilma, MCE’s secretary, was brought up in Melness before moving to Golspie to attend school aged 11 to 17.

Like Dorothy, Wilma had to move away from the area when she was younger to find work. She returned to Melness to raise her four children on the estate and still fondly remembers the formation of the estate in 1995 after Melness crofters were gifted the 10,700 acres of land by Michael Foljambe.

Fast forward to today, Wilma is excited by the prospect of a satellite launch facility on the estate as she believes that bringing more opportunities like this will encourage young families to stay in the Highlands or move up to the Highlands for the first time to make Melness their home.

Wilma plays an active role in the community beyond her part-time duties as MCE secretary. She is also a part time post woman, delivering mail around Melness and Tongue, and in the summer works part-time in the Ben Loyal Hotel in Tongue.

A self-confessed chatterbox, she loves catching up with everyone through her roles and also likes meeting and talking with her friends in her spare time.

Although she loves being at home in Melness with her family and her border collie Bruiser, Wilma is also a keen traveller and likes to go on holidays in the UK and abroad.

She is most looking forward to visiting her daughter Suzanne who moved to Canada in 2019 with her husband and three children for work.

Karen Kelly

Karen Kelly of Melness Crofters' Estate. Picture: Duncan McLachlan
Karen Kelly of Melness Crofters' Estate. Picture: Duncan McLachlan

Recently retired local hotel manager Karen discovered Melness in 1989 and instantly fell in love with the area and its people.

In 1992, Karen moved to Tongue before permanently relocating across the Kyle of Tongue to Melness in 1997.

Karen brings a different range of experience and knowledge to the MCE board through her voluntary role as a director and is proud to have been invited onto the board.

To Karen, the most special thing about Melness is its great sense of community across all age groups and her main goal is to see long-term employment opportunities to attract young couples or families to permanently move to this beautiful part of the world.

Karen is an active member of the community through the Melness Hall Committee, the Tongue/Melness Fun Weekend Committee, the Gardening Group and the local lunch club for elderly people which has kept her busy delivering lunches to those unable to leave the house through lockdown.

Kirsteen Mackay

Kirsteen Mackay of Melness Crofter's Estate. Picture: Duncan McLachlan
Kirsteen Mackay of Melness Crofter's Estate. Picture: Duncan McLachlan

Kirsteen, who has family connections to Melness which go back six generations, was born in Edinburgh where she went to school and university.

It was a combination of fond memories of time spent in Melness with family and the love for the area and its people that brought her back in 1990 to work as a state registered NHS podiatrist, while also bringing up her family.

With more than 20 years' experience on the board, Kirsteen recalls so many memorable moments since joining MCE.

Although she admits that the day-to-day business of the estate isn’t the most exciting, she reckons that being involved with the development of the world’s first carbon neutral space port is the most memorable thing she’s done to date and she is enthusiastic about the potential that it has to make a positive impact for this sometimes forgotten back coast.

Although she loves the sense of community, the freedom and the stunning landscape of Melness, she would love to see the community become more diverse and vibrant again.

Related: Legal challenge lodged against space hub

Highland Council approves plan for space hub

HIE supports space hub work

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