Watching for Aliens in the UFO Capital of Scotland
Hundreds of UFO sightings have been reported in Bonnybridge over the last two decades. I joined some "ufologists" as they scoured the night skies for paranormal activity.
Bonnybridge is a small town in central Scotland that to the casual observer looks fairly unremarkable. Once home to a variety of industries, from brickworks to iron foundries, it is now largely another commuter dormitory thanks to its proximity to Glasgow and Stirling.
But Bonnybridge enjoys a remarkable international profile out of all proportion to its modest size. To those who still believe The Truth Is Out There, this is Scotland's Roswell, where hundreds of UFO sightings have been reported over the last two decades. The town - if the sightings are to be believed - became an intergalactic tourist hotspot following an incident in 1992, when a man claimed to see a star-shaped object hovering over a road. Subsequently, more than 600 reports of sightings were made between 1992 and 1994 alone.
Residents packed out town hall meetings to discuss the phenomenon and a local councillor began writing letters to 10 Downing Street demanding answers. What had started as an amusing story for the Scottish press quickly escalated as film crews from as far away as Russia pitched up to record features and hopefully catch a glimpse of an alien spacecraft.
Sceptics pointed to the fact that Bonnybridge is under flight paths serving Edinburgh and Glasgow international airports, and a commercial airfield operates only a couple of miles away in Cumbernauld.
Local interest in UFOs seemed to have petered out when I first visited Bonnybridge in 2010 as a local news reporter. I was aware of the legend but, like most people I spoke to, I viewed it as little more than a 1990s curio - a product of a time when The X Files was promoted to BBC1 and Hollywood still made films about little green men.
But Bonnybridge's reputation for UFOs never diminished completely. In 2011, Time magazine listed this part of eastern Stirlingshire in a "6 UFO Hot Spots Around the World" feature. Despite the flame still lingering, it was something of a surprise when I was invited along to a "skywatch" on the night after Halloween, as part of the first Scottish Paranormal Festival in Stirling.
The premise was simple: anyone who was interested should meet at 10.30PM, before travelling to a rural spot in an elevated position outside of the town. A couple of UFO experts would give talks on sightings, but the main element appeared to be looking for bright lights in the sky that couldn't be explained as Boeing 737-800s carrying Scots abroad for some late autumn sunshine.
I was dubious if anything out of the ordinary would be spotted, but I was interested in meeting some of the people who describe themselves as "ufologists", and to see if I could find out why this most unlikely of Scottish urban legends has persisted over two decades.
I roped in my brother for the ride, figuring another pair of sceptical eyes could only be a good thing at such an event, and we found ourselves standing in a Co-op store car park on a typically dark and wet Scottish November evening, as locals in fancy dress walked past on their way to warm-looking pubs.
I was surprised by the numbers that turned up. Around 35 people, ranging from early-20s to over-60s, had donned water proofs and woolly hats to voluntarily spend their Saturday night in the cold. Many had travelled impressive distances, with at least half a dozen venturing from south of the border. The mood was one of quiet excitement, like a work teambuilding exercise to a paintballing centre.
Malcolm Robinson, an amiable Scottish ufologist who has written on the Bonnybridge sightings for over 20 years, was one of the event's two organisers. "What brings us here tonight is the numerous UFO sightings that have occurred across the Stirlingshire skies," he explained.
"Do I believe in UFOs? Do I believe there's something in the skies above Bonnybridge? You better bloody believe so. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think there was something very real, very tangible occurring."
The other organiser was Dave Hodrien, the 37-year-old chairman of the Birmingham UFO Group - a man whose interest in the subject is such that he married his wife on the outskirts of Area 51. "I think interest in UFOs remains around the same level as it has been in the past," he said.
"There are sadly less people prepared to actually turn up for meetings or events than there were in the past, but this doesn't mean interest has waned, it has just moved online."
We followed a convoy of around a dozen cars out of town and along narrow countryside roads before arriving at an isolated spot near Craigburn Woods. There were no streetlights here, and a biting wind had lowered the temperature several degrees. But the mood remained cheerful. Many seemed happy just to be out doing something different.
"We're not really into UFOs, to be honest," said Robert Sheehan, who had arrived with his pals from the Paranormal Festival. "I'm sceptical we'll see anything - but I have seen something strange, years ago, driving home to Liverpool. We looked up at the sky and there was this triangle, turning in the sky, at Bristol. We dismissed it at the time, but we found out three months later there had been loads of similar sightings."
With midnight approaching, Billy Buchanan, a long-serving Bonnybridge councillor, explained that UFOs are not a subject that elected representatives tend to treat seriously. "We've faced mass ridicule over the years," he said. "I remember going to our local MP and telling him I had about 130 people who had seen something that they could not explain. He told me it was electoral suicide.
"Every prime minister since 1992, myself and Malcolm have contacted asking for answers. We don't seem to be getting any closer to the truth of the matter."
We huddled around listening to more talks from Dave and Malcolm, both of whom had an impressive knowledge of various sightings from across the country, but mostly we admired the panoramic views of the Ochil Hills looming in the distance.
While we didn't see any UFOs, we were afforded clear sightings of those other great flashing objects in the sky - star constellations. If you live in a city like me, that's a rarity in itself. After a while we called it a night, but we left behind a sizable group who seemed in no mood to leave.
The following day I was eager to hear a more local perspective. I spoke to journalist Kevin Schofield, chief political correspondent at The Sun and a Bonnybridge native. In the mid-1990s, he filed regular stories on sightings as a local reporter. He was sanguine when asked about his home town's extraterrestrial reputation, but added that not everyone felt the same.
"I've lost count of the number of times people reply 'ah, the UFO capital of Scotland' when I tell them I'm from Bonnybridge," he said. "I find it quite funny, but I'm probably in the minority in the village, where folk would probably rather not be reminded of it. Anything that puts Bonnybridge on the map is fine by me, but it would be nice if it was something other than UFOs."
It's hard to think of another reason why a disparate group from across the UK would choose to visit Bonnybridge. The skywatch might not have proved that aliens are visiting central Scotland, but the idea of UFOs are still drawing visitors from far away.