They’re out there

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HURRAH! At last a sport at which Scotland – yes, poor old peely-wally Scotland – can claim to be the world’s best. Welcome, people, to fantasy island. Or rather the crowded skies above, er, Falkirk. Now, lesser nations might sniff at being the world capital of UFO spotting – for that is indeed the hitherto unheralded and under-appreciated area in which we excel – but they are not the brave new Scotland where dreams are dreamt and the unthinkable happens on a near-daily basis.

VisitScotland – never knowingly under-gimmicked – commissioned one of those fun-but-essentially-trivial surveys that proved to their and the media’s delight that Scotland is the UFO capital of the world. By any measure, be that unexplained phenomena appearing per kilometre or head of population – Scotland trumps the rest of the planet in its appeal for visitors from outer space. Whaur’s yer fancy continental sunshine the noo? You can keep it…

Given the much-publicised troubles afflicting VisitScotland it must be no minor consolation to think that, when it comes to inter-galactic travel at least, the rest of the world can only look on with slack-jawed awe at our success. More than 300 sightings of supposed UFOs are reported in Scottish skies each year.

The trouble is of course, that aliens, as they say on Mars, butter no parsnips. Or anything else for that matter. Unaccountably they appear reluctant to dip into their doubtless well-lined pockets and spend, spend, spend. Perhaps they have no need for plastic tartan clad bagpiping dolls made in Taiwan in outer space, nor for Nessie bubble bath.

Nonetheless, hopes are high that UFO spotting can become another arrow in Scotland’s quiver of tourist attractions. To that end, Mercat Tours, who currently offer trips exploring Edinburgh’s gory (and glorious) past and the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars are exploring the possibility of establishing UFO-spotting tours around the Central Belt.

So, before you can say “watch out, freaks about”, hordes of bearded, sandal-wearing geography teachers from the English Midlands will be scuttling up to Scotland to peer anxiously up at our crowded skies. “Come to Scotland: where even misfits can feel at home” as the slogan will doubtless put it. As John McNeil of VisitScotland is quick – perhaps too quick – to point out, this survey cost the agency next to no money and was very much a “tongue in cheek look at what Scotland has to offer”. In publicity terms it appears to have paid off as TV crews and radio stations from the United States to Japan, via, inexplicably, Iceland have flocked to the story as keenly as UFOs are rumoured to congregate in the Falkirk Triangle around Bonnybridge.

“Scotland is already a magical, mysterious place, and anything that gets Scotland up the destination ladder has to be a good thing,” says McNeil.

“People come here for different reasons to do different things and lots of people are interested in the paranormal so we’re tapping into that extra market.” Which is all very well and good but it would test the patience and charity of a saint to describe Bonnybridge and its surrounding area as one of God’s greater moments in the creation of all things bright and beautiful.

VisitScotland are made of sterner stuff however and McNeil gamely contends, “Bonnybridge is a nice wee town.” This advocacy becomes only marginally less convincing a moment later when he adds “and it’s only a few miles from Edinburgh”.

Bonnybridge, in truth, is not a glamorous location for anything, let alone UFO spotting. Despite local councillor Billy Buchanan’s game efforts to twin the town with Roswell in New Mexico – the spiritual home of UFO enthusiasts across the world for the supposed capture and subsequent experimentation on alien life forms in 1947 – Bonnybridge lacks a certain glamour. Buchanan, who has more than a dozen sightings to his credit, likes to get round this by arguing, “the Muslims have Mecca; UFOs have Bonnybridge”. And he has grandiose plans for a multi-million pound visitor centre that would be the last word in UFOs and the paranormal. Well, people laughed at Walt Disney when he proposed that Mickey Mouse could become a theme park.

But, easy though it is to sneer at the convictions of UFO enthusiasts, there is an earnest doggedness about the Bonnybridge believers that commands a certain respect. Too many of them are too convinced by what they have seen to discount their tales automatically. The alternative, which is of course always possible, is that half the town has gone stark, raving bonkers.

Like many forces for good the internet attracts its fair share of the mentally bewildered. What, after all, is one to make of the extraordinary tales of “Runcorn Flying Triangles”, “Pennine Way Floating Phalanxes” and, most mysteriously of all, “Wallasey Rotating Clam Shells?” (OK, I made one of those up – but only, I promise, one). And this is merely the beginning of it all. Before long you’re reading about “Gateways” and “Parallel Consciousnesses” and all manner of extra-terrestrial thought processes: it’s at this point that your mind begins to boggle.

Which makes it something of a relief to turn to the guid folk of Bonnybridge. Many who claim to have seen unexplained phenomena in the skies above the town are reluctant to let their names be known for fear that they will be pilloried by their more sceptical neighbours (especially those neighbours who reside in Falkirk), but the manageress in Omar’s General Store has few doubts about what she saw. “It was about five years ago that I saw a ball of different colours, greens and blues, just flickering between the hills. It was there for about five minutes before it just went away very fast. It was hovering between the houses and was too low for an aeroplane. Someone in Stenhousemuir saw something in the sky that night as well. There are lots of good citizens who have seen things in the sky – not just nutters, you know?”

Across the road at the Caf du Bonnie (yes, really) Betty Stirrat agrees. “I’ve never seen anything myself but my niece has and so many people have seen things that there must be something, although I don’t know what it could be.”

Others, however, are more sceptical. The waitress at the du Bonnie remarks pithily that “I think it’s all a load of crap. That’s all I have to say,” while along the road at the Jet petrol station Jacqueline Stewart remarks, “Until I see something myself I’m not going to believe it. The only UFOs I’ve seen have been a few coming out of the club on a Saturday night.”

The Bonnybridge phenomenon began in 1991 at the Forge restaurant near Camelon. Neil Malcolm recalls seeing a great white light the size of a jumbo jet, that began to follow him as he drove. Since then the family have seen numerous other unexplained and unidentifiable flying objects. Neil’s younger brother Craig has amassed 13 hours of video footage that he claims support his sense that something strange is happening in the Stirlingshire skies. “I sent the videos off to America to have them analysed to check that I wasn’t going crazy. They came back saying that it was 95% unexplained.”

“The strangest thing that I’ve seen was in 1996 when me, my mother, father and fiance were driving along and suddenly saw this thing hovering just above the ground. It was about the size of a jumbo jet without wings. We stopped the car and got out and the next thing we knew these two balls of light came out of it and began to come towards us. We jumped into the car and then it just vanished.” So far, so normal. The X-Files bit of this eerie experience however, kicks in now.

“We didn’t have a camcorder, but noticed a red BMW with private registration plates had stopped. The guys inside it looked like government agents – they had black leather jackets, that sort of thing – and said they hadn’t seen it. The next day the police came to my work and started asking questions.” By the end of the week Malcolm had lost his job. Coincidence or conspiracy? The choice is yours but there’s no gainsaying him or his family or persuading them that they have not experienced the strangest of close encounters.

Since then however he tries never to be without his camcorder, just in case he has another sighting. “Believe what you want to believe but if I’m crazy there must be a hell of a lot of crazy people out there.”

Malcolm’s father, James, points out that you can’t see electricity but that doesn’t stop it from existing. “People talk about spaceships, but we’ve never claimed that. It’s just strange things in the sky. We’ve seen enough now to satisfy ourselves and I don’t care now what anyone else thinks. Anyway, if we knew everything it wouldn’t be worth being here.”

This is perhaps the enthusiasts’ strongest argument. Ninety-five per cent of supposed UFO sightings might be easily explained but there’s no way of proving that UFOs don’t exist, nor doubting that there is an element of comfortable arrogance in the notion there cannot be life outwith earth’s atmosphere.

Mankind has made enough mistakes and conventional wisdom has been proved to be profoundly ignorant often enough in the past for it to be less than inconceivable that the sceptics, the realists among us who view all this UFO talk as so much hokum, are completely, utterly and splendidly wrong.

Bonnybridge may be a comparative newcomer at the UFO races but other areas of Scotland have proved fertile ground for sightings in the past. In the 1950s Dumfriesshire proved popular but by the 1970s the centre of UFO activity had appeared to shift to the Edinburgh area. Today Bonnybridge and, of all places, East Kilbride, report the greatest number of sightings. “It’s difficult to be sure why this activity seems to be focused in certain areas,” says Ron Halliday, author of The A-Z of Paranormal Scotland, “but that’s often the case with paranormal experiences. It could be that these places become some kind of gateway into other dimensions and that these images are therefore from the future or other worlds.” The normal explanations for the Bonnybridge sightings are the proximity of Edinburgh airport and the gasworks at nearby Grangemouth.

“I think it’s all credible in the sense that people genuinely believe they have had these experiences, even if the vast majority do have clear and obvious explanations. But while there is understandable scepticism – aliens don’t land in Princes Street Gardens or places like that every day – people do have close-up sightings of what are clearly non-human objects. You can’t dismiss the whole subject just because of that scepticism people have,” says Halliday.

And, after all, UFOs today may simply be the successors to the fairies and goblins that have long featured prominently in Scottish folk culture. Of course being a poet or novelist does not preclude credulity when confronted by evidence of the supernatural – Arthur Conan Doyle after all was a staunch believer in spiritualism and the ability to contact the dead. Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson were all fascinated by the paranormal and the supernatural, while the ancient Border ballads are steeped in the stuff. The Queen of Elfland abounds and fairies (evil spirits rather than pretty little things with wings) dance to her tune on a regular basis.

And, indeed, true believers in life in outer space beyond our ken could point to the ease with which the word’s major religions have convinced millions around the globe to believe in wholly – or, if you must, largely unsubstantiated theories. If Christ can rise from the dead why can’t there be UFOs in Bonnybridge? The latter is not necessarily a more outrageous assertion.

Nonetheless, for all the protestations of the convinced minority, only a certain kind of mind can make the leap of faith to truly, madly, deeply believe in UFOs. The rest of us may continue to mock and to smirk but that seems unlikely to trouble Bonnybridge’s stouthearted citizens. They know, deep down, that their plain wee town is something rather special. Who, after all, needs coaches laden with pensioners when your tourists hail from outer space?