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Glenelg: From the Scottish Highlands to Mars
By Jeffrey Marlow


Scenic views around the Glenelg peninsula.jpg
Scenic views around the Glenelg peninsula

Image Credit: Peter Jones

Curiosity's science team identified its first destination: Glenelg, a site where three types of terrain converge, offering a lot of bang for the team's scientific buck.

The title "Glenelg" was chosen on the strength of two characteristics. Glenelg is the name of a geological unit near Yellowknife, Canada, and as science team member Dawn Sumner notes, "Yellowknife is the name we chose for this map quad, and the features in the quad are named after features associated with Yellowknife."

The word's palindromic nature - it's the same spelled forward and backward - also played a key role, since Curiosity plans to visit the site and then retrace its treads on the way toward Mount Sharp. You know, just a little mission architecture humor.

But the full etymology of Glenelg goes back several centuries, to a remote, windswept peninsula in western Scotland.

On the surface, Glenelg is a sleepy village of 250 people like many others that dot the highlands. There's one road in and one ferry out, carrying summertime visitors across the churning Kyle Rhea strait to the scenic Isle of Skye. NASA's name selection has propelled the region into the international spotlight...or at least has prompted some chatter at the Glenelg Inn, the locals' favorite watering hole, where head chef Niall McAdie prepares a mean lobster.

Town-owned ferry that connects Glenelg to the Isle of Skye .jpg
The town-owned ferry that connects Glenelg to the Isle of Skye

Image Credit: Cathy Thomas-Grant

Eddie Stiven is the de facto local historian, and he dates the region's name to around the 7th century. All other Glenelgs - the Canadian rock formation, as well as towns in Australia and Maryland - "are derivative," he says, "taken to the New World by people from Glenelg, Scotland in the diaspora. There is only one original."

Stiven is a playwright who was drawn to the area's stark grandeur and lack of distractions. "I wanted to get some peace and quiet, a place where I could write. Glenelg is a very inspiring, very beautiful place."

But it wasn't just the views that kept Stiven around, it was also the stories. Myths and legends seem to permeate the windswept moors and ice-sculpted mountains, tales of Warrior Queens and Water Horses that reflect the dramatic, otherworldly landscape.

Glenelg is derived from the Scots Gaelic name "Gleann Eilg," a decidedly non-palindromic moniker that best translates to "The Glens of Hunting." Legend has it that the region was the favored stomping ground of Finn MacCuill's war band - Celtic superheroes that could leap the Kyle Rhea in a single bound. The giants would feast on seals and deer while preparing for their next battle.

Scenic views around the Glenelg peninsula 2.jpg
Another scenic view around the Glenelg peninsula

Image Credit: Cathy Thomas-Grant

Over the centuries, supernatural myth yielded to high culture. A Christian church was constructed in the 6th or 7th Century, making Glenelg one of the first places to be brought into the fold of St. Columba of Iona. British author and historian Kenneth Clark made the case in his book Civilisation that the mission of Iona represented a critical link between the Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome and the European Renaissance. As Stiven puts it, "these guys were literate and artistic when the rest of Europe wasn't, and this was one of only a few candles of civilization burning in that period."

Today, the small and shrinking community earns its livelihood from the land: small scale farming, fishing, and forestry are all active industries in Glenelg. As the fishing industry modernizes and employs fewer people, Stiven hopes that 21st century technologies will fill the gap. "A renewable energy company is looking to develop tidal power, because the strong channel produces a lot of energy that we may be able to draw from."

Glenelg, Scotland is a fitting analog to Curiosity's martian destination, a place whose dramatic landscapes have inspired centuries of speculative tales. With an arsenal of state-of-the-art instruments at its disposal, Curiosity is ready to pen its own story on the dusty, windswept plains of Glenelg, Mars.

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