A giant leap for the Scots

Never ones to miss out on a New Year bash, the Scots are planning the Hogmanay to end all Hogmanays for 2000, with a scheme that will take them literally over the moon

SBHD: Never ones to miss out on a New Year bash, the Scots are planning the Hogmanay to end all Hogmanays for 2000, with a scheme that will take them literally over the moon

Having made plain at the ballot box their feelings about the Tory party, the English, and life in general, the Scots might be assumed to be in a rebellious mood. Not a bit of it.

When it comes to a party, no one throws himself into the thick of things with greater determination than a Scotsman. (That in doing so he gives no sign of pleasure or enjoyment should not mislead you. Misery is to the Celt a form of pure bliss.) And even though it is the English who are masterminding the bash of all bashes to celebrate the Millennium, the Scots will not permit ancient enmities to get in the way of what promises to be the Hogmanay to end all Hogmanays.

That explains why, far from turning their backs on the Millennium Commission, the Scots have been the first to come forward with a truly imaginative idea for marking such a momentous notch in the calendar.

It is unlikely to be mere coincidence that a stroke of inspiration that measures ten on the Richter Scale came from the nation that invented whisky.

WC Fields may not have had any Scottish blood but spiritually he was at one with the Caledonian race, proved by his observation: “I always keep a stimulant handy in case I see a snake – which I also keep handy.”

It will never be known for certain the size of the debt we owe to the Macallan and the Grouse, the Islay and the Laphroiag, but it must be considerable. For no notion as masterly as that conceived by the Glasgow-based Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics (Astra), nor any leap of the imagination so colossal, can spring to the minds of mortal men without exceptional and prolonged stimulus of the kind that comes distilled.

That Glasgow is host to an organisation devoted to space travel is itself surprising, and at first suggests a euphemistically and humorously named drinking club. Newcastle Brown Ale once enjoyed a (largely false) reputation for its formidable narcotic powers, earning it the nickname Journey into Space; does it not seem likely that a body devoted to comparing and contrasting Scotland’s hundreds of blends and single malts should have thought along similar lines?

It would seem, however, that Astra is, at least in part, seriously interested in putting a Scotsman into space. Standing in the way of a tartan conquest of the galaxies is the state monopolies of space travel and research. Nasa, for example, may have no objection in principle to launching a Rangers supporter into the outer ether, but does not count it a priority. Astra, therefore, sees its prime task as the privatisation of space travel.

It is in the furtherance of that aim that the great millennium wheeze is contrived. Why not, says Astra, hiccupping gently, stage a treasure hunt in space? As thought tumbled upon thought, the association wrote down its ideas quickly, for they are the sort of things one forgets in the morning.

They have now been presented to the Millennium Commission, and are as follows. Twenty £1 coins – representing 2,000 pennies to mark the year 2000 – are to be placed on the Moon and 19 other bodies in the inner solar system, with prizes awarded to those who return them to Earth.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, as Astra’s president, Mr Duncan Lunan explained. The coins will be coded with computer chips and put into high Earth orbit prior to being dispatched to the corners of the solar system. Each would have a lightweight sail of about 10,000 square yards and would be propelled by the solar wind.

“The coins will then be dropped on to the surface of a planet,” says Lunan. “There’ll be no secret about where they are. The difficult part will be bringing them back to Earth.”

That will be a task for spaceships that do not exist today, he adds. So someone, with any luck a Scot, as yet unborn, at a date yet determined, will pluck a coin from the surface of the Planet Dimple Haig and claim his cuddly toy.

The Millennium Commission is expected to make a decision within the next two weeks. Astra puts the total cost of the project at £30m. Some of the money will be raised from private backers, but some National Lottery cash will be needed.

My guess is that, bearing in mind the merits of the submission and its technical feasibility, the commission will offer to donate the 20 £1 coins, leaving the remaining £29,999,980 to be raised from sponsors. This is where marketing comes in. Twenty sails of lightweight material 10,000 sq ft each are billboards of a kind unlikely to be seen again until the next millennium.

Yet Astra is not the only Glasgow-based organisation devoted to space travel. There is another, the Light Year Consortium, which, having examined the millennium project through the bottom of several glasses, pronounced it good.

If only the great McGonagall were alive! The moon and the stars inspired his muse: Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light, Thou cheerest the lovers in the night As they walk through the shady groves alone, Making love to each other before they go home.

How he would have hymned the native genius that dreamt up the idea of scattering coins of the realm amid the heavens and awarding prizes for bringing it back.

O little discs of base metal that bear our glorious sovereign’s head.

Fly to starry corners of the firmament, just as Astra said.

Settle on the surface of some planet’s barren crust.

After being swept there on a cloud of cosmic dust.

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