Source: The Mail on Sunday (London, England) (Sept 21, 1997): p33. (4292 words)
Document Type: Newspaper
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Full Text :COPYRIGHT 1997 Solo Syndication Limited
Byline: MALCOLM MACALISTER HALL
They've seen the light, the people of Bonnybridge. Spinning lights, flashing lights, giant headlights, the people of this quiet Scottish town have had the lot. In the past five years more than 3,000 townsfolk have reported sightings of unidentified flying objects (not to mention the alien abductions).
What on earth is going on?
Look up. You might see something. Balls of brilliant white-light flipping across tree tops. Flare-like objects in the night skies performing leaps and 'hyper-jumps'. Huge jet-black discs hovering soundlessly over lonely country roads. Things like Ferris wheels whirling on the horizon. Balls of light materialising from nowhere and dive-bombing cars. In Bonnybridge, in the Central region of Scotland, they say they've seen it all.
The place is just a couple of bars and a handful of shops - the mini-market, the cafe, Wags and Whiskers pet grooming salon, the video store. Round here, if you want some action, look skyward. They say that there's more going on in the heavens than there is in the streets.
A popular night out is to go up on to the ridges on the back roads, among the windy farms, `skywatching'. At one point, the whole area had sold out of binoculars and telescopes. Local councillor Billy Buchanan says that in the past five years more than 3,000 people have come to him with stories of strange lights in the sky, unidentified flying objects, alien abductions, the lot. There's been talk of the `Bonnybridge Triangle', and that the town is a UFO `hotspot' where multiple sightings occur, like others in Florida, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Pennines.
Letters have been dispatched to Tony Blair, local MP Dennis Canavan and the Ministry of Defence, demanding enquiries. The local papers and the Scottish tabloids have had a field day with `wee green men', and wild headlines: Town In Terror, Beam Me Up Bonnybridge, UFO Capital Of Britain.
Along the way, UFO spotters have fallen out. Accusations fly around like saucers: that some are making it up, doing it for publicity, doing it for the money. On top of that, all this is a magnet for nutters.
`There's people here'll tell you that aliens landed in their gardens, gave them presents, all sorts of daft things,' says a girl on the local council estate. Across the Forth estuary in Fife, a woman claimed to have seen hundreds of little grey beings carrying boxes and cylinder-shaped objects to a craft in a field, in the midst of a blue mist, overseen by a tall brown creature.
`It's a hard story to swallow, even for me,' says local `ufologist' Malcolm Robinson, who has publicised it nevertheless - and despite the fact that while he was interviewing her the woman said that if she concentrated hard enough she could see aliens looking in at them through the lounge window.
Hysteria is a word that comes to mind. Take the man who came to Billy Buchanan claiming he had been abducted.
`He said he was taken away by 8ft-tall men in black; you'd start laughing, wouldn't you? [I tried not to and he said he was taken on a ship, and forced to have sex with a large gooey object Now let's be honest, who can you tell that to? It's unbelievable! Who can you tell it to? But I've known this chap all my life, and I believe he believes it; it took him three days to get the story out, and the tears were streaming down his face' But then come the voices of calm. There are people like Vera Prosser, 51, who lives on the estate above Bonnybridge. Shy and speaking in a whisper, she's still frightened by what happened to her and her husband Myles, a labourer, and their daughter Heather. It was a Friday evening in October two years ago.
`We had our Lottery tickets done, and we were going to the garage outside Falkirk to put them on. We went on the road past the old Rechem plant. It was dark, and there was me and Myles and Heather in the car. We were driving along and we saw what looked like a headlamp in the field, like it was on full beam. We slowed down, and as we were looking at it, it started to come nearer'
She sits on the sofa in the front room with Heather, now 15, and Mark, their whippet. She keeps drawing her blue cardigan round her as if for reassurance. Though her husband was out of work, she didn't ask for any money to recount this story - no one around here did - and there was no apparent reason to disbelieve what she said next.
`We'd slowed down to maybe 10mph, and it got closer, and suddenly it was on top of us, over the car, and the light from it was blazing through the sunroof. Heather was screaming.'
`I was!' Heather cuts in. `I was going, `Get out of here! Get out of here!'
And I looked up through the sunroof and I could see this thick silvery wire round the bottom of this thing, all twisted together like the cables on the Forth Bridge - that's what it made me think of, this heavy wire just above the top of the car, and all this light. It was wider than the car, and it just sat there about six feet above us, and it was pure silent, no sound at all - that's how we knew it wasn't an aeroplane or anything.'
`Then suddenly it just shot off; it skiffed over the grass really, really fast and went over towards the pylons,' continues Vera. `I just put my foot down - I felt like we were going at 90 - and I was never so pleased to see streetlights as when we got to the bridges by Camelon [on the outskirts of Falkirk.'
Back home, Heather ran in tears to her best friend next door. Myles was shaking. `At first I was too frightened to tell anyone,' Vera whispers.
`People would think I was crazy; in case they thought I was mental, you know' But she decided to go to Billy Buchanan's house. He remembers her coming through the door in tears.
`You feel so stupid, so ridiculous,' she explains. `But it was just so real at the time, and so frightening. It's just something I wish had never happened. It was months before I would go along that road in the dark again.' Heather says she never told a soul at school.
A few miles away, in his seventh-floor flat in a block overlooking Falkirk, William Bestall, 75, describes the spinning lights he saw in the sky. He brings out the handwritten accounts he made at the time.
One night in early March 1994, he and his wife Mabel watched `a circular illuminated wheel rotating, [going forward and reversing on a straight trajectory path over the high-rise flats in Camelon'. He described it as being like a Catherine wheel, brilliantly illuminated. `Naturally,' he wrote, `possessing a rather cynical outlook on these UFO reports, I tried to think of an explanation.' He mused on the TV transmitter masts in the area as a possible source, and noted that the lights `disappeared over the horizon at a speed far beyond the limits of any aircraft'.
While he and Mabel were visiting friends five months later, they all saw the object again, the friends signing his account in confirmation. Then, on January 12, 1995, he got up at 5.30am to go to the bathroom, and happened to look out of the lounge window.
`I saw this circular light spinning on the far horizon,' he says. `I stood watching, and all of a sudden I saw it coming towards us. I was getting a little bit concerned that it was going to hit this flaming block, y'know? It got nearer and nearer, and I dragged a very reluctant wife out of bed - `What is it now?' she was asking - and then we saw these smaller discs going round the bigger one, which was like a Ferris wheel you'd see at a fun fair.
It would rotate, then stop. And then they went south, out of sight round the side of the building, with just a wee flare at the back' Bestall wasn't going to tell anybody, until a nurse coming home from the infirmary in the early hours was quoted in the local paper as having seen something, too. He backed up her account.
`Then we just got invaded,' he says. `We had BBC, Channel 4, Japanese TV, German TV - cameras everywhere, cluttering the place up - and I was getting little whispers about all the money I was supposed to be making - it was fantastic, like the lottery. And out of the whole lot, do you know, it was the Germans that sent a [pounds sterling]50 cheque for my favourite charity.'
Bestall was surprised at his old enemy. He had served in the Navy on the Atlantic convoys during the war. He then worked for 30 years at the nearby British Aluminium plant, where he was a senior shop steward until injuring his back in an accident in 1979. He says his late, brief career as a UFO spotter wasn't much fun.
`I wouldn't have got involved, because people think you're away up here,' he says, tapping the side of his head. `But I wanted to back this lassie up - and it was a real can of worms. The terrible fact is that nobody believes you unless they've seen it themselves - that was the hard thing. Before all this there was no bigger cynic than me. When all these rumours about UFOs started, I used to think: `What have they been drinking?' But then this happened, and nobody will convince me that me and Mabel didn't see those things. There's been all these sightings round here, in Falkirk and Bonnybridge. They must like us down here. I don't know why. It's not as if we've even got a good football club or anything like that.'
Indeed, Scotland's central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh would not figure highly on the `must-see' lists of many tourists, terrestrial or otherwise. Motorways, a tangle of power lines, belching petrochemical chimneys at Grangemouth, damp streets and chip shops. Separated by windy moorland and isolated farms is a string of small towns.
Bonnybridge is one of them: about 7,000 people; some neat war memorial gardens; a good chunk of the Antonine Wall, built in 142AD as the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire; a Bronze Age fort; and the site of a Norman castle. Apart from one plant, the foundries and brickworks which once employed 12,000 people have all closed down. There are scrapyards, haulage depots, some opencast coal mining, and a catering equipment manufacturer. Billy Buchanan represents the area on Falkirk Council.
`This all started one evening in 1992, when I got a knock at the door and a friend of mine, a well-known local businessman, was standing there,' he says. `I could see there was something untoward. He started telling me that while he was driving on the back road from Falkirk to Bonnybridge, he was stopped in his tracks by a bright object hovering over the road, blocking his path. He said he sat and watched this thing, transfixed, for 10 minutes; then it went off at tremendous speed. He didn't want to go to the local media; he felt the ridicule might affect his business.'
This meeting was the catalyst for a saga that has embarrassed some, fascinated others, drew UFO investigators from the US, and made Bonnybridge famous - or infamous, depending on your point of view. Buchanan put an ad in a local paper asking if anyone else had seen anything that night.
`This opened the floodgates,' he recalls. `In the first week, I must have had 300 people coming to me with reported sightings; my phone was going all day and all night - even at 5am. And the letters I was getting were unbelievable. We're talking sackfuls.' And he still, even now, gets phone calls from people claiming they're from the CIA, and letters addressed to: William Buchanan, Bonnybridge, The Milky Way.
Among the calls was one from local `ufologist' Malcolm Robinson. He works at a glass factory in Alloa, checking whisky bottles for imperfections. Beside his house on an estate on the edge of Alloa is his caravan office (registration plate: UFO ONE), packed with models of little aliens (one wearing a Hibs strip, holding a football) and books on UFO sightings and the paranormal. This is the HQ of his society, Strange Phenomena Investigations.
He and Buchanan arranged some public meetings. The first was at the Norwood Hotel in Bonnybridge in February 1993.
`It was unbelievable,' says Buchanan. `I expected 50 or 60 people, but there were 400 crammed in and hundreds outside who couldn't get in. People were saying they'd seen things, but didn't know who to tell without people ridiculing them and saying they should be locked up.'
By now the press was making a meal of the story. `Wee green men, town in terror - you can imagine,' says Buchanan. `I was getting attacked personally and politically. Colleagues at the council were saying: `Would you vote for someone who believes in flying saucers?' And others were saying I was in it for the money, or trying to hype it up to put Bonnybridge on the tourist map. I got a terrible time of it. Who wants ridicule? And I wasn't getting paid for this. I was doing it to try and get an answer for the people who'd had the courage to come forward, and had been booted all over the place by the media.'
It got worse. Before another meeting, Malcolm Robinson claimed in his magazine, Enigmas - The Journal of Strange Phenomena Investigations, that Buchanan had had a chat with an alien called Zalus in his office at Falkirk Council, and would bring him along to make an `earth-shattering announcement' at the meeting in Falkirk Town Hall. The story, as Robinson puts it, `went round the world from Bathgate to Bombay'. May The Farce Be With You, ran one headline.
`Kids were shouting `Zalus!' at me in the street, and I got a lot of stick at functions and that, and my wife had a hard time at work,' says Buchanan.
`It was terrible. I spent [pounds sterling]1,000 on lawyers seeing if I could sue. There were people at the council demanding my resignation, saying I was bringing the area into disrepute, everything.'
Robinson has since apologised to Buchanan, and admits he got it wrong. He explains this bizarre incident - somewhat lamely - by claiming pressure of work, a rush to get the magazine out, and separate stories about Buchanan and an alien called Zalus getting mixed up. `Something from another story somehow fell into Billy's story,' he says. `I'm very, very sorry about it.'
Though he still grumbles about the [pounds sterling]1,000 and thinks Robinson should reimburse him, Buchanan is irrepressible. In blazer and clipped moustache, he strides around his manor acknowledging waves from almost every passing car, cracking a stream of jokes, talking Bonnybridge up. A former professional footballer - striker at Brentford FC and in Hong Kong, coaching in Saudi Arabia - he has dabbled in antiques, made a cassette of ballads (The Singing Councillor), and undergone regression therapy. `Apparently I was hanged as a sheep stealer in 1692, killed at the battle of Culloden, and shot in the First World War. According to my regressor, I'm about 640; but you can put in that I'm 49 - a young 49, mind'
Buchanan says he has seen lights himself, on three occasions. The most dramatic was at Wester Glen above Falkirk. Up here, on a windy ridge by a farm, looking out over the Forth estuary with its petrochemical plants and power station, he says he and another couple stared, amazed, at an hour-long display of rushing lights.
`It was a very cold night, but very bright, about midnight. We couldn't believe it - these lights were coming out of the sky and seemed to be landing in the hollow in the field over there and just disappearing. They weren't balls, but more like a conglomeration of bright light. We watched it for about an hour, and I wanted to go over the fence and run across these fields like General Custer, but the woman we were with was getting frightened and asked to be taken home.'
At the edge of the field are three tall transmitter masts, with a sign on the high fence surrounding them. `Warning,' it reads, `strong radio frequency fields exist in certain areas of this transmitting site. If you have a cardiac pacemaker or bones repaired by metal/plastic bone implant you must report this fact to reception on your arrival'.
Many others claim they've seen strange lights in this spot. One theory, Buchanan says, is that it's something to do with electricity coming from the masts. Another is that balls of light are created by gases from the petrochemical plant. Like almost everything else around here, it's speculation and rumour.
Others have suggested a `collective illusion' - people believing they'll see UFOs as a result of the publicity, and persuading themselves that they have.
Malcolm Robinson, who has been logging the reports since 1992, says he always checks with the airports at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cumbernauld to see if a reported `sighting' might simply be the British Midland shuttle from Heathrow.
`People can be mistaken, seeing ordinary objects in the sky - aircraft at an angle, flocks of birds in the distance, silver fairground balloons; when they go high, they really look like a disc. Satellites go across the sky.
And some of these sightings could well be secret advanced-technology aircraft like the Stealth bomber overflying parts of Scotland. But there's nothing specific in this area that you could safely say could be the reason for this intense activity.'
He admits he's foxed. `I cannot provide an explanation as to: why Bonnybridge? People can lie through their teeth and sound amazing, and pictures and videos can easily be faked, but nonetheless I can say the evidence we have in the Bonnybridge area is very strong and very impressive.
I'm convinced there's a genuine mystery, something very real going on in the skies of central Scotland.'
So far, so weird. Or not, as the case may be. Sceptics are forthright, and a Falkirk publican speaks for them. `See these UFOs? Load o' pish,' he says, chucking out the last few punters a bit after midnight. And Heather Prosser says that when anyone in Bonnybridge sees a light in the sky, it's got to be a UFO. `It's a joke now,' she smiles.
For others it's not, apparently. There's the `A70 incident' of 1992, in which Colin Wright and Gary Wood, a painter/decorator and an ambulanceman from Edinburgh, were driving along the desolate A70 to the hamlet of Tarbrax south west of the city.
Near the Harperrig Reservoir, they are said to have rounded a bend to be confronted by a jet-black disc hovering 20ft above the road. As they tried to drive underneath it, it supposedly emitted a shower of silvery snowflakes, plunging the men into darkness. After what seemed to them like a few seconds the darkness lifted, the car was shuddering violently and the object had disappeared. They drove on, but when they arrived at Tarbrax they were told they were late - very late. The journey had taken 90 minutes longer than it should have done.
Gary Wood won't talk about this now. `I've given up with the papers - they're only interested in spoofs and aliens an' that,' he says. `I'm trying to look at this in a scientific way. I just do my work and my research and send things in to the MOD and try and find some form of evidence.' Does he have any explanation for what is supposed to have happened? `Not really, no.
That's why I do my research. It's the only way I can cope with it.'
Back near Bonnybridge, Craig Malcolm, 27, has compiled nearly six hours of video footage of lights and other things he has seen in the skies near Wester Glen, and around the family home and blacksmith's business in Larbert.
`Just last night I saw from the window a light getting brighter and brighter, coming across above the trees, then it slowed and stopped. Then it started again. It disappeared over the roof of the bus garage opposite, so I jumped in the car to go round the back of the building. I was only 45 seconds doing that, but when I got there, it was gone. And it was so clear last night you could see for miles.'
Laid-off two weeks previously from his job as a delivery driver for a building company, Malcolm spools through some of his footage. Lights tracking across the night skies, pulsating, doing up and down `blips', or `hyper-jumps' as he calls them. On one, a little blob of light appears to shoot out of the back of another light. There's a plane, seen in daylight, with a grey disc apparently flying beneath it.
`There's a lot of weird things go on here,' he says. `I'm not saying they're spacecraft or not - to me they're just weird objects in the sky, and I'm wanting answers.' A `ufologist' has visited the family from the US, and they've been on TV here and in Japan.
Malcolm says it began when his elder brother Neil dashed into the house one night in 1992, ashen-faced. `He was driving his car down that road outside, and he said this object approached him from the sky and lit up the interior of the car. We thought he'd been in a smash when he came in because he was so white in the face, like freaking out. We ran out, and this light was floating up above the house'
He claims that up at Wester Glen, he and his fiancee have seen balls of light dancing across tree tops, like beach balls. And once, he says, he and his parents and his fiancee were driving on the country road to Slamannan when they saw a huge blaze of light in a field.
`It was this massive thing, it seemed like the size of a jumbo jet to me. My dad got out the car, and I was shouting at him to get back in. And then these two lights came out of it and came straight across to us and just hovered there. Then they went back towards the big thing, and everything just switched off, like a light going out. It didn't go up, or down or sideways - it just disappeared.'
Lights, balls, alien abductions - they've all become a way of life for the residents of Bonnybridge. The only mystery they really worry about is what on earth they'll do when the great lights in the sky go out.
THE PARANORMAL INDUSTRY
When a town, village or area gets a name for itself as a site of paranormal activity, the consequences can be highly lucrative. The tourist industry has known this for years, even when it has had nothing more marketable to promote than a few ghosts. Cities which sell themselves to the world as `haunted' include Bath, Chester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and - most often cited as Britain's `most-haunted' city - York, which claims 140 ghosts and offers visitors seven separate `spirit tours'.
Crawford in Scotland and Pluckley in Kent both claim to be Britain's most haunted village, and there are about 150 hotels around the country that sell themselves on the strength of their ghosts. The British Tourist Authority produces a guide to haunted inns and hotels, but the leaflet is only available abroad, owing to concern about the Trade Descriptions Act.
In Wiltshire there are farmers who earn thousands of pounds every summer from tourists who want to see their crop circles; at Glastonbury, most of the local economy is based on the rainbow hordes of New Age tourists who are drawn by the town's alleged associations with Jesus, Joseph of Aramathea, King Arthur and various `earth mysteries'. But nowhere in Britain can quite compete with Loch Ness, where 500,000 visitors spend in the region of [pounds sterling]25 million each year.
Increasingly, there is competition from abroad. Paranormal tourists can visit Area 51, Nevada (see page 12), or Roswell, New Mexico (see page 30), to inspect the alleged sites of the world's most widely believed-in UFO incidents. They can look at the alleged alien landing-strips at Nasca in Peru, they can enjoy `earth mysteries' at Ayers Rock in Australia, or they can even experience the thrill of flying over the Bermuda Triangle.
Or, if they prefer their mysteries quasi-religious rather than quasi-scientific, they can join the growing band of Britons who are taking their conspiracy theories and their metal detectors to Rennes-le-Chateau.
This is the tiny Pyrenean village made famous by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), the book which investigated an arcane mystery involving the possibility of Jesus having had children who ended up in France, sold more than one million copies and made its authors, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, rich men. The tiny village currently attracts 35,000 visitors a year.
All of which goes to show that, even if everyone else pours scorn on your paranormal experiences, you can always be sure of a sympathetic hearing from your local tourist board.