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How a small Highland village became twinned with Mars

Glenelg (Earth) twinned with Glenelg (Mars)
Glenelg (Earth) twinned with Glenelg (Mars)

It was an idea born in the study of a small house on a Highland glen, but it soon captured the attention of the world – and even NASA.

Thirty-five million miles separate them, however, the connection between the Highland village of Glenelg and its namesake on Mars remains.

In fact, as you enter Glenelg – the Earth one, that is – you are instantly informed of the community’s ties with its Martian namesake.

First time a community had been twinned with another planet

The small Wester Ross community, which has a population of around 300, marked the occasion back in 2012 with a full weekend of space-related celebrations.

The unique twinning came about following the deployment of the remotely operated Nasa Curiosity rover on the Red Planet to an area dubbed Glenelg.

The twinning project was the brainchild of then Glenelg and Arnisdale Development Trust officer Emma Garrick, nee MacLean.

Out of this world experience

Mrs Garrick, speaking nine years on from the event, told The Press and Journal: “It was a really exciting time.

“At the time, I was sitting in Arnisdale in my study and a news article flashed by observing that Nasa were sending a mars exploration to a rocky outcrop that they had identified as Glenelg.

“My brain just went ‘oh my god, that is just amazing. Here we are in Glenelg on Earth and they must’ve named it after us’.

“We decided we would do something to celebrate.

“We started to think of how we could make it bigger and better and it really took on its own momentum.”

Locals rallied to make the idea into a reality

Mrs Garrick, whose family connections took her to Glenelg, said the event came around so fast that locals clubbed together in a spirited and hasty fashion.

She added: “I pulled together a team of people.

“I had Jo, who now works for the Glenelg to Skye ferry, she moved into my house for a couple of weeks.

“There were television crews filming us in my kitchen and the name of the community was splashed all over the newspapers.

“I had to call together my PR team, which was nothing like a PR team, but they quickly learnt the ropes.

“We just completely winged it, but we pulled it off and it was really, really exciting.”

Media attention reached all corners of the globe

Mrs Garrick said securing the late astronomer royal for Scotland, John Brown, was a major coup and really got the ball rolling in making the event a reality.

The world’s media soon homed in on the glen, with Mrs Garrick shocked to establish early on that articles had appeared Stateside in publications like the San Francisco Times.

“We just created this big storm around it and it was really satisfying,” Mrs Garrick added.

“This was the first time that anybody had twinned anywhere on Earth with space or a planet.

“That was significant and every year I still get people reaching out to me asking if I can tell the story.

“People still find me and ask me about it because it was just such a weird and wonderful thing.”

She continued: “It was coordinated chaos.

“There were a lot of people involved in making this happen, we all played to our strengths and in fairness to everyone who rolled their sleeves up, they all had a great time.”

Event’s legacy marked by unique sign

The visit from high-profile guests and buzz around the event really put Glenelg on the map again, with scores of tourists each year posing for a picture next to the famed sign.

“I think it has benefited the local area massively in terms of stickiness for tourism,” Mrs Garrick added.

“Glenelg was already spectacularly beautiful, and the community had plenty going for it, but I think this absolutely shone a brighter light on that area as a locality, but also adorned it with this really quirky legacy.”

The sign that greets you as you enter the famed village

Building bridges

The village had planned to apply for Dark Skies status in a bid to boost the number of stargazing tourists visiting the area, however, the idea never became a reality.

Instead, nearby Skye latched onto the success of attracting star gazers and secured its status.

Nine sites on the Misty Isle are recognised as key places to gaze at stars and planets.

Mrs Garrick added: “The good thing about this was it built a bridge between something that is rather quite impermeable unless you have got a really big interest in spacey stuff, which not every kid or every adult ever gets exposure too.

“But what this did was it sort of built this bridge that made it more accessible to more people in a light-hearted and fun way – in a form of edu-tainment, where there was an educational slant and an entertainment element.”

Life-changing experience

For those involved, it was an incredibly fun time and a quirky project to be part of.

“For me, it has always been a story that I have held very close to my heart,” Mrs Garrick added.

“It showed me the huge capacity we have as humans to have crazy thoughts that we can then turn into a reality.”

It was definitely one of the catalysts that changed my life”

Emma Garrick

She added: “There are probably things that are quite immeasurable about that event.

“When you look at it statistically, did it drive tourism? Did it benefit the area?

“I think it did yes, but the event created so many intangible things for many of the local people.

“It gave people a sense of self-empowerment and they were able to skill themselves in a way they previously never knew they could because they were trying their hand at new activities.

“When you live in these remote areas, any opportunity that allows you to experience or upskill yourself is never a bad thing.

“It was definitely one of the catalysts that changed my life.”