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Issue 11 - Paisley is out of this world

Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Paisley is out of this world

In the first of a new series featuring an array of colourful characters, Lizzie Gilder writes on the Paisley rockateers

The pipes built to a crescendo then stopped. We waited expectantly in the dark. Suddenly, the sky above Bute erupted as the fireworks began.

As the first rockets exploded in the shape of hearts, Lachie and I exchanged glances and laughed at the moon.

It had already been quite a day, quite a summer if the truth be known.

Naturally I had been invited to the wedding being an old family friend and all that. Well, invited might be exaggerating just a wee bit. I’m sure that the actual bit of paper just got lost in the post, as there’s no way Stella wouldn’t.

I well recall picking her old man up near Polliwilline, all those years ago, when he was hitching home and him bemoaning how long it was taking.

“Aye, this is a right long and winding road”, I said, just as an RAF Tornado flew over the Mull of Kintyre.

“Jet!” I cried.

Family friend from that moment on. Anyway, a combination of my dizzy Moll of Kintyre persona and the fact that Lachie was carrying a huge Tesco bag full of tomatoes he had brought from his greenhouse “For the happy couple” ensured that we baffled our way past the burly Greenockian security men.

“Ach, Let ‘em in” said the one who was thickest set.

Anyway, there we were gazing up into the cosmos as the Campbeltown Pipe Band was preparing to stand down, and wondering idly if the rumour was true about Big Lucky cleaning Zavaroni’s chippy out of fish suppers, when this old guy sidles up to us.

“Hi there, Doll. Name’s Mick. Did you know that they launched the world’s first three stage rocket from around here.”

As an opening gambit in a shooting the breeze contest that’s up there with the best, but I must have raised a quizzical eyebrow. You learn to do that on the west coast – it can be hard to tell quite when the real becomes the surreal.

“No really,’” he says, “The Paisley Rocketeers, that’s what they were called.” The thought of anything remotely speedy coming out of Paisley, other than a hot-wired Fiesta surprised me, but I asked him to tell me more.

“It was us against Werner von Braun,” he said. Now because I always get Werner von Braun confused with Baron von Trapp, this led to the conversation taking a slightly weird detour, with me talking about singing nuns. But once we got things ironed out he told me of how in the
30s Scotland was vying with Germany to lead the space race.

“There was Gerhardt Zecker, who tried out sending mail by rocket in the Outer Hebrides. Would have worked too if the Wee Frees hadn’t objected. Trouble was no-one took us seriously.

We were just about there, what with that three stage one that was fired across the Kyles of Bute, but then the war came and after that they refused to fund the project and, well, you know the rest.

“Still,” he ploughed on. “Scotland was the first country to send mail across the Atlantic by rocket.”

“Whit?” I said.

“Aye,” he says, “from the mainland to Seil island. I think that C. John Taylor guy did a picture of it.”

“Typical isn’t it,” says Mick “Imagine. Old Werner gets smuggled out of Germany and starts up NASA. They bastards got a man on the moon. We only got a rocket tae Dunoon.”

We nodded sagely pondering what might have been. I remember asking myself which one of the surrounding, stellar celebrities would end up being a footnote, just like Scotland, in their own fickle equivalent of the space race. Sunday, hunched over the keyboard, my mind returns to auld Mick’s story.

About as likely as an octopus’s garden if the truth be told, but I find myself strangely drawn to Google and before I know it, have typed the word Paisley......

It turns out they’re still going, the Rocketeers, though the days of hoping to land a Buddie on the moon are long gone. Venus and Mars? A step too far.