THEY spend their days tending their flocks in one of the most remote and pristine wildernesses in Scotland.

But now female crofters from Melness are aiming to boldly go to the final frontier with their ambitious plans to launch rockets into space.

The women who lead the Melness Crofters’ Estate (MCE) are behind plans to bring a spaceport to the Sutherland area, in the hope of creating job opportunities and maintaining the population despite predictions of its decline over the next three decades.

They hope the £17.3m project, backed by the UK Space Agency and the Scottish Government and proposed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, could help reverse the ‘brain drain’ and prevent people having to leave to find work.

HeraldScotland: Dorothy Pritchard, Chairperson of Melness Crofter's EstateDorothy Pritchard, Chairperson of Melness Crofter's Estate

Retired primary school teacher Dorothy Pritchard, part-time postwoman Wilma Robertson, recently retired hotel manager Karen Kelly and NHS podiatrist Kirsteen Mackay are hoping that plans to create the world’s first carbon neutral spaceport in their community will not only support the existing residents but attract new professionals and their families, inspiring the next generation of scientists and astronauts.

If the site in the idyllic Mhoine peninsula, which is part of the Estate, wins approval from the Civil Aviation Authority, up to 200 jobs could be created in the area as small carbon fibre and graphene rockets, made in Scotland, blast into space.

READ MORE: Boost for Scotland as spaceport ambitions take off

They would launch from a peat bog overlooking the Pentland Firth, and contribute to a rapidly-growing industry launching microsatellites into near-earth polar orbit.

It would also bring a part of the country which has seen little change in decades right to the forefront of world-leading technology and innovation.

Dorothy, who is the MCE chairwoman, has backed the campaign to create the spaceport in Sutherland since proposals were first made by Highlands and Islands Enterprise several years ago.

She said that she knew the benefits the project would bring, and added: “The development of the world’s first carbon neutral spaceport is much more than an exciting scientific prospect.

“It means new opportunities, jobs and growth for the area. It is a fantastic draw for young professionals and families to move into the community and I hope it will spark children’s interest in STEM subjects and careers, ultimately paving the way for a more sustainable, thriving community in the future.”

HeraldScotland: Wilma Robertson, MCE Secretary Wilma Robertson, MCE Secretary

MCE’s secretary Wilma said she hoped it would prevent locals having to leave, like she did.

She explained: “I, like many of the other members of the committee, have first-hand experience of having to leave Sutherland to look for work and have also had to watch my children do the same to pursue their careers in their chosen fields.

“I want to create new opportunities so that young people have the option to stay in Sutherland to work and raise their families.”

She added that she would “never forget” the moment they were approached about the space port, explaining: “I’ve worked on many community-led projects over the years from social housing to funding local school trips but never imagined that I would be setting my sights on space I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment we were approached with the idea.”

READ MORE: Scotland's richest man to mount legal challenge over spaceport

According to the latest Labour market data, the constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has a lower percentage of economically active residents than the rest of Scotland, an the UK as a whole.

Of all the residents in the area, 73 per cent are of working age, compared to 76.5% Scotland-wide, and 79% across the UK.

Businesses in the area are almost all either micro companies, with fewer than 10 employees, or small firms with 10-49 staff. The average earnings for people who live in the area are around £30 less per week than the Scottish average, and there are a higher proportion of people with qualifications at NVQ level than the whole of Scotland.

The women all hope that the new space port will help to change the outlook for Sutherland, and stop its falling population.

READ MORE: Space wars: Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen backs Shetland rocket site after Sutherland dispute

However, despite approval from the Scottish Government, and a consultation underway by the Civil Aviation Authority, the space port plans are still not guaranteed.

Scotland’s richest man, billionaire retail tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, was granted permission in January to mount a legal challenge in an attempt to overturn planning permission given for the site.

Mr Povlsen objected to the development on environmental grounds, with his company Wildland Limited lodging a petition for a judicial review against Highland Council’s decision to give the Sutherland site the green light.

Other objections have been made, although not legally, with concerns raised about the impact to the environment and on the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area.

As reported by sister paper The Herald, Mr Polvsen objected to the plans due to environmental concerns, but then later announced he had invested more than £1.4m in a rival spaceport plan in Shetland.

The court hearing has been set for April 1.

The MCE board has appealed directly to Mr Povlsen to back down on his objections, highlighting the economic boost it would bring to Scotland as a whole.

HeraldScotland: Karen Kelly, Director at MCEKaren Kelly, Director at MCE

Karen, a voluntary director on the MCE board, is used to working to make things better for her community and has been busy over lockdown delivering food to those unable to leave home.

She said that the Sutherland spaceport, along with creating job opportunities, would bring the community even closer together, and add another landmark to an area of Scotland that is already “beautiful, with a great sense of community across all age groups”.

NHS podiatrist Kirsteen added that she never thought she would have been involved in a project such as the spaceport, particularly living in such a remote area.

She said: “Did I think I would be doing this? Not at all.

“Truth be told, the day-to-day management of the estate isn’t really that interesting, but we have to ensure the good management and husbandry of the estate - which I’d say we do very well.

“But the prospect of having ground-breaking research and innovative rocket launches from our part of the world is so exciting.”

HeraldScotland: Kirsteen Mackay, MCE DirectorKirsteen Mackay, MCE Director

The variety of skills between the four women have helped them in their quest to bring the project to the area, according to Dorothy.

Ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow, she said she would encourage other women to get involved in similar community schemes – big or small.

She explained: “If you have a project that you truly believe will benefit others and make a positive difference for a sustainable future then go for it.

“We never imagined that we would be talking about launching satellites in Scotland and we’ve learned so much along the way about space, science, technology and the environment.

“It’s been a rewarding journey so far and we cannot wait to see the opportunities that the Spaceport will bring come to fruition for Sutherland.”

READ MORE: Environmental concerns voiced over spaceport plan

Gail Ross, SNP MSP for the area congratulated the women on their efforts.

She said: "It's great to see the women of the Melness Crofting Estate being recognised.

"Women in crofting are often the driving force behind many of the successes we see in terms of moving crofting forward.

"Innovation and re-imagining what crofting looks like in the 21st century has been a challenge and the women of Melness are definitely tackling that head on."