IT WAS 60 years ago this month that a mysterious aircraft crash outside the small town of Roswell in New Mexico set conspiracy theorists' tongues wagging. It's fair to say that they haven't stopped since.
In July 1947, materials were recovered from Roswell by the US military that, to this day, the US government insist were the remains of a top-secret research balloon. However, UFO enthusiasts are convinced that what was recovered was in fact an alien spacecraft, and that the government tried to cover up the incident.
Roswell has since become synonymous with all things UFO-related, and is a cult tourist destination, with thousands fans descending upon the town this month for the anniversary celebrations.
That Roswell might have anything at all in common with Bonnybridge, a small town in Scotland's central belt, seems unlikely. However, while the former is famous for its otherworldly visitors, Bonnybridge can boast of being the world's No1 hotspot for UFO sightings.
Part of the "Falkirk Triangle", whose other two points are formed by Stirling and Fife, Bonnybridge averages 300 sightings a year and more than one in three residents claims to have seen something unexpected in the night skies there.
Local believer Craig Malcolm, 37, says he has seen around 180 UFOs over the past 15 years, and has 18 hours of video footage that he believes proves there is something going on in the skies above the Falkirk area.
"I first saw a UFO in 1991, right above my house. It was a disc-shaped object hovering silently and it hung around for a good five minutes," he says. "Since then I've seen triangles, tubes, spheres, cigar-shaped objects, lights and colours. A couple of years ago I was in the car with my dad and we both saw a cigar-shaped object hovering nearby. Suddenly, two balls of light came from it and moved towards us. I just thought, 'I'm out of here!'"
Malcolm says he has sent his images and footage to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in the US to be analysed and that they confirmed that about 90 per cent of the objects he had captured on camera were UFOs. "I was a bit sceptical before I saw all this, but now I believe there's something going on."
He's not the only one convinced: UFO enthusiasts from across the globe continue to flock to the Bonnybridge area, desperate for a close encounter of their own.
Thinking that a first-hand account of my own abduction by aliens would be the scoop of the year, I bravely headed in the direction of the Falkirk Triangle to take up position in an optimum touchdown spot.
Quiet and a little dour, Bonnybridge could really be any faded small town in Scotland, with little shops lining the high street, and a hinterland of sprawling housing estates. There's nothing to suggest that this place is in any way out of the ordinary... until I meet local councillor Billy Buchanan.
After the first reported sighting in 1992, when a businessman saw a sparkling, star-shaped object hovering above the road, Buchanan called a public meeting to discuss strange goings-on in the night sky. Since then, he has become an enthusiastic and well-known spokesperson for the issue, with some residents suggesting that he is exaggerating the incidents to gain publicity for the town. For nearly ten years Buchanan has tried to twin Bonnybridge with Roswell, making contact with Roswell's mayor, although Buchanan is, as yet, no further forward with the suggested partnership.
While Roswell has built an industry on alien-branded tourist tat, the residents of Bonnybridge don't seem quite so willing to embrace and cash in on their home town's unearthly reputation.
"I've been approached by merchandisers on countless occasions, trying to sell T-shirts and stuff like that, but every time I tell them no. I don't want all of this to be exploited," says Buchanan.
So what about the fact that there have been separate proposals from Dutch and American companies for a multi-million pound UFO theme park in the Bonnybridge area?
"I think that would be fantastic, and I'm still hoping it might go ahead," Buchanan says.
Claiming to have spotted UFOs on a number of occasions, he has relentlessly campaigned for a formal investigation into the unexplained happenings at Bonnybridge, approaching both John Major and Tony Blair to demand an investigation. He has logged every sighting and compiled every UFO photo ever taken. (Incidentally, he informs me, he also owns the world's largest collection of locks of hair.)
But has he ever seen an alien lifeform?
"I've seen loads of stuff, and I've got the photos and [video] footage to prove it. I've been ridiculed for it, my family's been ridiculed, but the evidence is there."
Keen to get started, we head to the best spot for saucer-spotting in Bonnybridge, a place believers call "the landing strip". Standing on this elevated area of barren land overlooking the town, Buchanan points towards Grangemouth, where he claims he once saw a blue cylinder moving through the sky from this very spot.
Maybe it was only because of the grey clouds in the sky, but the closest we can see to a UFO is a leaf being buffeted over our heads by the blustery winds.
However, Buchanan reassures me that not only is there definitely something extraterrestrial going on around Bonnybridge, but that there are also people who don't want us to know about it.
"My phone has been tapped in the past," he says calmly. "I don't know who is trying to listen to me, but I do know that the government isn't telling us everything. They couldn't remain completely silent on the subject, though, so a while ago they released a statement saying, 'There is nothing happening in Bonnybridge that is a threat to national security.' Now what does that tell you? That there's something going on, but the government is not prepared to tell us."
Exactly what he thinks might be "going on" is unclear, but evidence for UFOs is slowly mounting. One day in 1994, three cleaners on their way to work said they saw five UFOs, and when they got to work they found that some of their colleagues had also seen flashing lights and orange orbs glowing in the sky that same morning. In 2004, a number of locals claimed that a cigar-shaped flying craft had landed on a nearby golf course, and other reported sightings range from star-shaped objects to balls of light.
Nick Pope, who ran the government's UFO project at the Ministry of Defence between 1991 and 1994, when the Bonnybridge sightings began, believes there is some substance to these claims.
"During my time at the MoD we did receive reports about sightings in the Bonnybridge area. I was sceptical at first, and of course the vast majority could quickly be discounted as weather balloons, satellites, that sort of thing, but there were a small number of credible cases, where witnesses were police officers or pilots for example, or where movement was captured on radar," he says.
But of all the fascinating places on the planet that alien visitors might choose to explore, why Bonnybridge?
"When people ask me that, I ask them, 'Why Bethlehem?'" says Buchanan. It's not the most logical counter-argument, but I let it go. "UFOs tend to be drawn to more remote areas, and areas that have air bases, and there's plenty of those in Scotland. There's no explanation, but Bonnybridge is a very historical place. Some people believe that the real Stone of Destiny is buried here, and it's been suggested that aliens are guarding it. That's just one of the many theories."
Ron Halliday, the Stirling university-based author of UFO Scotland: Beyond the Falkirk Triangle, has his own theory, which is just as bizarre. "I believe Bonnybridge is some kind of window into another dimension, into the future or another world. That would explain the fact that many people have seen things very briefly that have then disappeared inexplicably," he says.
For every believer, there are plenty more sceptics. Dr David Clarke, a British UFO sceptic and author of Phantoms of the Sky, UFOs: A Modern Myth? and The UFOs that Never Were, says: "What tends to happen is that after an initial 'sighting' people want to believe that what they are seeing is something more interesting than a plane or a cloud, but more often than not that's exactly what they are seeing. Aircraft, clouds, balloons, lanterns, that's what people tend to be spotting. They're just responding to a craze."
Another rather catty theory, offered by the astronomer Patrick Moore, is that the sightings in probably occur more often when residents are staggering out of the local pubs. Well, as cynical as it sounds, it would certainly explain periods of "missing" time that cannot be accounted for, seeing stars or lights, and waking up with a mysterious headache in the morning...
LOCAL ALIEN REACTION
IAN MATHIESON, 67 AND JIM PAUL, 71, left, BOTH RETIRED
"A couple of years ago, we were leaving the bowling club at about 11pm when we both saw what looked like orange balls of light moving very quickly across the sky. They were low-flying and silent, and they shot across the sky so quickly that we couldn't take it in. We just looked at each other in amazement. Of course no-one believed us, but we hadn't been drinking."
AKBAR ALI, 36, OWNER OF OMAR STORES IN BONNYBRIDGE
"I've been in Bonnybridge for ten years, and I've never seen a thing. I often come to work very early in the morning or leave very late at night, but never anything. It's probably a load of nonsense, but we do get some tourists coming through occasionally and asking about it. It's put Bonnybridge on the map, and wherever I go, when I mention Bonnybridge, people say, 'Oh aye, aliens!' I find it quite funny, it's made the town famous."
GARY TATTERSALL, 17, SHOP ASSISTANT AT SWITCHZONE COMPUTING IN BONNYBRIDGE
"I've thought that I've seen something a couple of times, but to be honest it was nothing. I think that there's a tendency to convince yourself that you've seen something because so many others claim they have. We all find it a bit funny here actually, and we tend to have a bit of a joke about it after a few drinks. I'm not sure that many people around here take it seriously, though."
JEANNETTE FERRAIOLI, 50, CAFE OWNER
"A few years ago I saw a little line of bright lights in the sky. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. I watched them for a while then went indoors to get my husband, but when we came back out they were gone. I was a sceptic until that point, but now I definitely believe that there's something going on. I'm not sure what it is, but there's just so much evidence, so many people have seen things."