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October 10, 2012

Come in Glenelg, this is Mars calling

The idea of twinning your village or town with somewhere of similar size and stature elsewhere in Europe, and sometimes even further afield, has been around for years.  Sometimes the attraction for a twinning arrangement lies in the name as much as anything else.  The Ross-shire village of Glenelg is renowned for its scenic beauty but also because its name is spelt the same forwards as backwards.  Understandably this palindromic effect has far reaching appeal but who’d have predicted it would reach into outer space.


by Hector Mackenzie, Press and Journal 


Beautiful Glenelg is the focus of attention from around the world – and beyond.   A REMOTE Ross-shire community has found itself thrust into the global spotlight thanks to a hook-up that’s really out of this world.

Worldwide fascination with the rover Curiosity’s mission to Mars became very personal for the tiny community in that picturesque patch of Ross-shire after a valley on the Red Planet was named Glenelg.

The fact that the high-tech, remotely controlled rover will be retracing its tracks during a trailblazing mission that has captured the imagination of the world, prompted scientists to choose the famous palindrome — a word which is spelt the same forwards and backwards.

Plans for a Space, Stars and Mars event on October 20 to mark Curiosity’s arrival at Glenelg’s far-flung namesake have skyrocketed since first mooted.  Glenelg and Arnisdale Development Trust development officer Emma MacLean has since been fielding calls from around the world.

NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, who proudly boasts strong Scottish roots, and the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, John C Brown, are amongst the distinguished guests set to attend a space-themed event for which the tiny community is now preparing.

Emma told the Journal: “It’s really exciting. It is snowballing. Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have both committed some funding and the response from the local community has been really positive.”

A local artist is working on a special sign which will mark the occasion. Whether it is along the lines of a town twinning — Glenelg, Ross-shire with Glenelg, Mars — remains a closely guarded secret!

Full details of the event are likely to be firmed up in the coming week or so, but will definitely include an evening ceilidh. Those attending may well also train their telescopes on the far-distant Red Planet in a poignant toast.

Astronomer Royal for Scotland, John C Brown, is excited about the mission and its link to Glenelg.  Mr Brown said: “The rover will crawl through a wee valley and backtrack along the same path. The palindrome Glenelg represents that. The basic idea was that we should mark this in some way.” 

A mobile planetarium and the presence of an astronaut will help mark the occasion in fitting style. He added: “We may be able to see Mars in the daytime and we should certainly be able to see rather a nice crescent Moon. I will give a talk to set the scene.”

Mr Brown, who spends some of his time on Skye, is familiar with the area of Ross-shire and supportive of the multibillion-dollar Mars mission, which may establish whether the planet ever has — or ever could — support life.

“The cost is all relative. NASA’s budget pales into insignificance when you consider what is spent on cosmetics,” he said. “If everything just boils down to bottom line profit and the economy, the world is a poorer place for it, in my opinion. To me, astronomy is one of those special things which make life worth living.”

While there’s also a Glenelg in Canada, Mr Brown said the link-up was “very exciting” for the Ross-shire community and should be celebrated. Curiosity is expected to reach Glenelg, Mars next month. The prospect of a unique twinning has already prompted calls to the area from the likes of the Los Angeles Times, whose science correspondent Amy Hubbard has been following the mission in minute detail.

She has spoken to Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity, who has acknowledged Glenelgs in both Canada and Scotland.

One NASA blog post states: “The full etymology of Glenelg goes back several centuries to a remote, windswept peninsula in western Scotland… a fitting analog to Curiosity’s Martian destination, a place whose dramatic landscapes have inspired centuries of speculative tales.”

Says Hubbard: “Who says scientists aren’t romantic at heart?”