Sunday, 30 May 2010

Spaceships, Spheres and the Devil's Herb

A Possible Explanation of the Livingston UFO Incident

Though entirely speculative this is put forward purely as a feasible theory to explain the events that occurred in Dechmont Wood in 1979. This is not intended to discredit the late Robert Taylor’s integrity or that of any investigator’s research into the case as what took place was undoubtedly “real” for Taylor. It is simply an alternative hypothesis based on what is known about the incident, the area and popular cultural influence. Graphics & text © David Slater 2010.

On the morning of November 9, 1979 as part of his routine work for the Livingston Development Corporation, Robert Taylor was in Dechmont Wood in West Lothian, Scotland. He had parked his truck on an access track and walked with his dog approximately 300 yards (274m) along a firebreak trail to a clearing in the forest. There he claims to have witnessed a bizarre object hovering above the forest floor. In his statement to the police Taylor writes, “As I cleared the trees and entered the clearing I saw this object in front of me. It was about 30 feet high, but not as high as the trees. It was grey in colour although I got the impression that the top of the dome shape changed from grey to translucent continually. The top of the object was dome-shaped and had a flange around the middle on which were situated several antenna with objects similar to rotors on the top. There were also several round porthole type apertures on the dome shape above the flange. I do not know what the bottom of the object was like.” As he approached, two smaller spheres with projections resembling sea mines appeared. They rolled along the ground towards him making a plopping sound as their spines contacted the ground. Taylor then describes a “a strong pungent smell which was overpowering,” later compared to that of burning brake-lining, and the sensation of being gripped by the spheres and dragged towards the large object. At this moment he became unconscious. When he came round the objects had gone. He felt disorientated, dizzy, had a dry throat and was unable to speak. Incapable of using his legs he crawled some distance before clambering upright. He reached his truck but was unable to drive properly, “I tried to drive the vehicle but could not coordinate my actions and as a result of my attempts got the vehicle bogged down.” He abandoned the truck and walked “in a dazed condition” to his home in Deans approximately 1.25 miles (2km) away. On arriving home he requested a drink due to his severe thirst and told his wife he had been attacked following an encounter with a “spaceship”. It was noted that his trousers were torn at both hips. His supervisor, Malcolm Drummond, was contacted and so too was a doctor. While Dr Adams examined Taylor, Drummond went to the woods and located the vehicle but was unable to find the scene of the alleged encounter. Later Taylor returned to the woods with Drummond and showed him the exact spot at which the incident occurred. Drummond claims to have seen signs of activity on the ground and instructed a team of forestry workers to fence off the clearing. Both men returned to Taylor’s home and Drummond telephoned the police to report the incident as an assault. Taylor went to Bangour hospital for a check up but, tiring from waiting, discharged himself without being examined. Later that afternoon the police arrived at the scene and took photographs and made measurements of the depressions seen in ground. The marks were described by Police Constable William Douglas as two parallel ladder-like tracks “similar to that of a caterpillar tractor” surrounded by a series of forty circular holes just over 3 inches in diameter. Douglas also took Taylor’s damaged work trousers for examination. The incident was reported in local and national newspapers and was even picked up by the international news media making Taylor one of the UK’s first UFO celebrities.
Dechmont Wood spreads across a hill called Dechmont Law and is comprised of various tree species though for the most part conifers dominate the woodland. The forest floor varies from tangled lush undergrowth of ferns, brambles and other foliage to a barren carpet of pine needles furnished with scattered dead tree limbs. West Lothian flora consists of commonly found vegetation but numerous scarce plant specimens have been found in the region. Dr Barbra Harvie’s report, Oil Shale Bings[1] commissioned by West Lothian Local Biodiversity Action Plan records 16 varieties of rare plant life discovered growing in the area. Such wonderfully named specimens as wormwood, crowberry, hoary plantain, knotted pearlwort, small toadflax, stag’s-horn clubmoss and grey field speedwell are noted in the document. Moreover, and of especial significance, deadly nightshade is listed as a recorded species. Placed almost central to the bings is Dechmont Law, itself referenced in the report. Situated approximately 4 miles (6.5 kilometres) from the Five Sisters bing and a similar distance from the monumental Greendykes bing [2], Dechmont Wood is well placed for the cross transfer of plant species.

Noted for its growth among old quarries and ruins, woodland is also a suitable habitat for deadly nightshade. The plant usually flowers between July and August and cherry-like black berries can be found between August and November. Though the berries may look mouth-watering and inviting, one of the dangerous constituents of the plant is atropine. If consumed in quantity atropine can disrupt the body’s parasympathetic nervous system and prove fatal. However, non-lethal poisoning is typical and aside from inducing hallucination and other side-effects one distinctive and immediate result is mydriasis or extreme pupil dilation. Indeed, extracts from the plant were once used by women to procure a desirable dilated-pupil effect and the plant’s common name belladonna (Italian for beautiful lady) is said to derive from this consequence. Alternative common names for belladonna are dwale, devil’s cherries and devil’s herb. The genus also includes henbane, mandrake and datura, all described in traditional folklore as “witches’ weeds” due to their use in medieval witches’ potions and ointments. Rollo Ahmed writes of such potions, “The properties of some of those ingredients was to produce various states of excitement or numbness, and they undoubtedly not only spurred the witches on to their wild doings but produced hallucinations as well.”[3] Of witches flying ointments Margaret A. Murray states, “Several recipes for flying ointments are extant… aconite and belladonna are among the ingredients; aconite produces irregular action of the heart and belladonna causes delirium.”[4]

Having established that belladonna is present in the area it is not implausible that during his scheduled inspection of the forest Taylor came across the plant and handled it in some way. Perhaps he was mindful of the plant’s harmful qualities and uprooted it, crushing the leaves, roots and berries in his hands. Moreover, if he was unaware of the plant’s toxic nature he may have naively consumed one or more of the berries before continuing with his check of the wood. Each scenario would introduce atropine into his system either by oral ingestion or transdermally. Though one would expect a forester to be familiar with dangerous plants as part of the work remit, the sheer rarity of a species may bring about ignorance. Further, when asked if the Forestry Commission have a policy towards the identification of poisonous plants they responded, “we do not need to specifically train our staff to identify them simply because they don't have to eat them as part of their job.”

Taylor’s route took him along a deeply shaded fire path and the clearing he approached was on his right and faced south-east.
On entering the glade from the shade of the tall firs his vision was suddenly impacted by a shock of bright sunlight. The time is estimated at around 10.30am though discrepancies in memories suggest it could have been as much as 15 minutes later than this. The trees at the back of the clearing were deciduous and leafless at that time of year and behind the trees is the rising backdrop of Deer Hill over which sunlight would be breaking. Depending on the actual true time of the event it is possible that the orb of the sun itself was partially visible. Pupils would normally instantly contract to protect the retina from excess light ingress but atropine in his system would prevent this. The effects of the atropine and the impact of light on the unprotected retina would induce hallucination, an expected symptom following belladonna consumption. What Taylor experienced next was a confabulation merging recent memory with his current surroundings.

The objects that appeared before him were unique in ufological terms. An artist’s impression that appeared in the television series Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World shows a hemispherical craft standing on four legs mounted on two ladder-like pedestals. This design, however, seems to have been drawn to partially match Taylor’s description with the markings found at the scene. The globe-like spherical craft has become accepted as the design approved by Taylor. The distinctive arrangement is what some have suggested is evidence of its real existence in that it lacks external influence and doesn’t parody clichéd saucer type. But this appears not to be the case. On Saturday 29, September the BBC aired a new series of Doctor Who titled City of Death. The opening sequence depicted an alien spacecraft rising from a strange landscape. The spacecraft is spherical and composed of dark metallic material. It has a porthole and a flange around its centre. Vertical poles rise up from the flange and these uprights are topped with a horizontal rail. The ship stands immobile on three articulated legs before lifting in the air and vanishing. The craft is seen again in the final episode on October 20 and on observing it one character cries, “That’s a spaceship!” This is a mere 13 days before Taylor’s incident.[5] Not only did the object he described significantly resemble the craft on Doctor Who but his reaction to it mimicked that of the character, as his wife confirmed, “He just stood at the door and I said, ‘Have you had an accident?’… he said, ‘No, I’ve been attacked.’ I said, ‘What with?’ and he said, ‘A spaceship!’” [6] One would more readily expect the term ‘flying saucer’ or ‘UFO’ to be used particularly in the wake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released in the UK in 1978, and the subsequent cultural popularity of UFOs.

Nineteenth Century French physician A. Brierre De Boismont writes of atropine induced hallucination: “Some years since, a musical composer, under the distress occasioned by domestic griefs, attempted suicide. For this purpose, he took a strong dose of datura. The effect of this poison was exhibited in giddiness and all the symptoms of intoxication. He saw troops of men whirling in a circle before him, who endeavoured to drag him into their vortex. All the characters in the ballet of Gustavus, in which he had been engaged during the evening, appeared to him making grimaces, and harassing him in every way. He fell to the ground, senseless…”[7] Cleary a confabulation of an earlier experience but what is particularly interesting is the circling movements of the threatening men, now turned ugly and monstrous, who attempt to pull him in amongst them prior to his loss of consciousness. This noticeably matches the motion and threat from the mine-like spheres as perceived by Taylor moments before his collapse. Moreover, similarities are evident with medieval descriptions of witches attending the Sabbath after absorbing atropine-rich potions and being drawn into whirling dances with rotund goblins and horned demons.

But the ambulating spheres were not just an optical hallucination. Taylor described being able to hear them tumble along the ground, he felt their touch and experienced an unpleasant, suffocating smell. Again from De Boismont’s book we read, “…a maid-servant, having taken an infusion of belladonna on the approach of her periods, had an attack of delirium; she was surrounded by little animals running on the ground, of various colours and sizes. She attempted to seize one, but, instead of an animal, caught only a leaf…” If a leaf can be transformed into a small animal could the same psychoactive substance not transform a bounding dog into a tumbling spined sphere? Taylor said the spheres had about six legs and if we consider the dog’s body to be the globe then its four legs, tail, and head would account for the six projections. The fact that Taylor observed two spheres despite there being only one dog can be explained as temporary diplopia or double vision provoked by intoxication. The dog scampering about the glade would also account for the “plopping” sounds, and its pawing at his thigh the tangible sensation of being gripped by the sphere. The strong “burning brake-lining” odour that he experienced also complies with hallucinogenic experience. Olfactory hallucination, or phantosmia, is a known symptom of temporal lobe seizure.[8] It is quite possible that this is what Taylor suffered, the attack brought about by the toxin in his system and a photophobic reaction to the sunlight streaming through malfunctioning pupils. Further, his wife states that he was hospitalised in July of that year due to a series of headaches.

When Taylor regained consciousness he stated that he heard a “whooshing sound” which, when taken into context of the event, seems to imply the noise of the spacecraft taking off. However, it is most likely due to the M8 motorway being a mere 100 yards (92m) away and the rushing traffic that would have been abundant at that time. Though most of the motorway sound would be absorbed by the density of the trees a fire path provided a clear route that would channel passing traffic noise directly to Taylor’s position in the clearing. Taylor’s reported physiological side-effects are most telling, as the alarming symptoms reported by Martin Keatman and Andrew Collins in Flying Saucer Review testify: “he had an intense headache (positioned over the forehead)… he felt sick …he could not speak. It was as if his jaw had ceased to function… he was unable to rise or even stagger up…”[9] All these indicators correspond to a checklist of belladonna poisoning symptoms. John Uri Lloyd’s[10] A Treatise on Belladonna (1905) informs, “Small doses occasion dryness and constriction of the throat, with possibly disordered vision and such unpleasant head symptoms as vertigo and confusion of ideas. Moderate doses provoke a greater degree of dryness of mouth and throat, on account of which there ensues marked difficulty in swallowing. The pulse is slowed, the pupils dilated, accommodation defective, and vision confused… Large and toxic doses greatly augment the dryness and dysphagia and giddiness, the patient reels or staggers when he walks, there is great thirst, and sometimes drowsiness… Vision is either lost, or indistinct and double… A marked scarlet efflorescence, resembling that of scarlatina, but lacking the punctations and subsequent desquamation of the latter, now overspreads the countenance and progresses upon the neck and body… Loss of speech often occurs early, though repeated movements of the tongue and lips indicate the efforts to articulate.” And as a quick reference to Wikipedia confirms: “The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include… loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions”. [11] Other sources state, “imaginary odours… a sense of suffocation… violent headache, especially in the forehead… locked jaw… great thirst for cold water… paleness followed by red rash… loss of appetite.” Of the last three noted symptoms it has already been raised that on reaching home the first thing he did was ask his wife for water to satiate his extreme thirst. In her statement to the police she also wrote, “he was very pale, drained and exhausted.” He had a burning sensation on his jaw line and chin and when he was examined by the doctor a red mark was observed there. It was assumed to be a scuffmark caused when he collapsed to the ground. However, the mark was reportedly gone within three days though the scratch mark on his leg remained present. This short duration suggests a temporary inflammation or rash rather than damaged skin which one would expect to take longer to heal in a man of Taylor’s age. It is also reported that Taylor suffered a loss of appetite after the incident for a duration of around five days.

Belladonna poisoning is a valid explanation for Taylor’s experience. Indeed, had he not discharged himself from hospital it may have been medically confirmed. The symptoms he displayed, both physiological and hallucinogenic, precisely match reaction to atropine ingestion. As already noted, oral ingestion is not required to introduce atropine into the system. Taylor only needed to handle the plant as mere skin contact can result in transdermal introduction of psyhoactive toxins. Gould and Pyle note an example of transdermal belladonna poisoning through use of an ‘atropine patch’ which duplicates symptoms experienced by Taylor, “Maddox describes a case of poisoning in a music teacher by the belladonna plaster of a reputable maker. She had obscure eye-symptoms, and her colour sensations were abnormal. Locomotor equilibriation was also affected.” [12] Nonetheless, this does not explain the markings found in the clearing.

If there was no physical object present at the time of Taylor’s experience other than himself and the dog then the indentations must have some prosaic explanation. It is unlikely, however, after 30 years that the cause will ever be known as all that remains are photographs and sketches of the ground impressions.
According to Steuart Campbell, who examined the site, the ladder-like track marks compressed only the grass and didn’t reveal the soil. The 40 circular holes did penetrate through to the soil and formed a pattern that seemed to confirm the described rolling path of the small spheres. However, had they been produced by equally-spaced rigid spikes on spheres then the distances between each hole would have been constant and this is clearly not the case.

In order to create the pattern of holes plotted in the diagram the spheres would have had to hop rather than roll or possess articulated or flexible spines. Furthermore, the pattern of holes doesn’t fit with Taylor’s description that the spheres rolled away from the spaceship and grabbed him. If the ladder marks are assumed to be the footprint of the craft then one would expect a series of holes leading to and returning from the point where Taylor stood before he collapsed.[13]

A point worth considering is that the area was fenced off following Malcolm Drummond’s visit. His initial brief observations may have misidentified the spoor of the dog produced as it ran through the frosted grasses and ground disturbances made by Taylor during his fall and subsequent crawl. Could the trace evidence recorded by the police have been augmented by the transportation and unloading of materials and ensuing work in erecting a perimeter fence? The diagrams, close-up photos of the holes and measurements taken by the police were all made after the forestry labourers had installed the fence. The site was therefore effectively contaminated and altered prior to it being properly analysed. Erecting of the fence would have involved ingress of a vehicle to transport the fence posts and wire mesh bails and the use of tools such as a sledge hammer to drive the posts into the ground. Indeed, the close-up photo of one of the holes showing the size, penetration angle and flattening of the grass is consistent with a sledge hammer strike. The police report states that the holes were “approximately three-an-a-half-inches in diameter and the same in depth. Each hole had a ‘toe’ which cut under the sod, in some cases as much as four inches.” A standard 14lb sledge has a head diameter of three-an-a-half-inches inches and length of eight inches. Impacting such a tool into the ground would produce an angled hole fitting the measurements recorded by the police. Could the workmen have carried out a prank and then been too afraid or embarrassed to admit to it following the sudden police enquiry and media coverage? The scenario may be unlikely but certainly not impossible.

There is, however, another possible explanation in that the holes and tracks are traces of a den that briefly occupied the site. Such improvised dens constructed
with forest timber are still found in Dechmont Wood and the clearing may have been used for a practice build of a similar type structure.

In particular note the ladder-like construction of the bench inside the den.

Prizing timber poles from a frost hardened ground could also explain the curious “toe” cut into the soil at the base of each hole.

The fact that there was no trace of the construction and all the timber was removed from the site would at first seem unusual as dens are generally left to rot and decay. Nevertheless, absence of the lumber can be explained by the time of year. Guy Fawkes Night occurred four days before the incident and locals tend to scavenge any loose timber from woodlands to build the celebratory bonfires.

There is other evidence that implies the track markings were likely made prior to November 9. In Exhibit WD/4 of the police report it states: “The tracks appeared to be reasonably fresh but rain water was lying on them which suggested that the marks had not been made that morning.” [14] This implies the presence of a layer of rain from the previous day or overnight dew preserved throughout the day due to the cold weather and close scrutiny of the police photographs does indeed reveal what could be traces of dew. Had any object settled on the ground that morning, the water droplets would have been disturbed.

The other physical evidence is the damaged trousers. As we know, Taylor crawled and stumbled his way back to his vehicle. In such an unstable state it would be easy to lose one’s footing while climbing into the van, slip and tear the trousers at the hip on a metal projection perhaps around the door locking mechanism. The same could happen on exiting the van but the tear would be on the opposite side of the trousers. With his body weight slipping downwards this would result in a tear in the material of an upward motion which is what the police report concluded. Taylor only became aware of the damage when he reached home making it clear he wasn’t conscious of when the rips actually occurred. He therefore logically assumed that the tears must have been made by the spheres. It must also be stressed that the entire experience was a personal one for Taylor. There were no secondary witnesses to the object either grounded or airborne despite the numerous commuters using the motorway only 100 yards away. Neither did his wife, boss or doctor detect the choking odour that Taylor claimed still hung about him when he arrived home.

Robert Taylor died on March 14, 2007. Over his lifetime on each occasion he recollected the experience he never wavered from nor embellished his original narrative of events. The story remained the same because to him the incident was without any doubt a real one. Perhaps then some words from ‘Boulderhead’, a pseudonymous Internet forum user: “Belladonna seeds caused extremely realistic hallucinations in everyone I knew who took them. So real in fact you couldn't tell what you really saw from what you thought you saw” [15]

So has the Dechmont incident been solved? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, as we have no solid evidence that Taylor did encounter belladonna, or did watch the pertinent episodes of Doctor Who and we still don’t know for sure what produced the ground markings. But what we have is a sequence of possibilities that are neither far-fetched nor unfeasible and lean towards a potentially prosaic explanation of a genuinely fascinating case.

Thanks to Gary Heseltine of PRUFOS (though I'm sure he will strongly disagree with my premise) and Anne Boshell for providing valuable material.


Notes and sources

1. Dr Barbra Harvie: Oil Shale Bings. (School of GeoScience, University of Edinburgh, 2005)

2. The plateau-like form of the Greendykes bing is visible in film footage used in Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

3. Rollo Ahmed: The Black Art (Jarrolds, 1968), p116

4. Margaret A. Murray: The God of the Witches (Background Books, 1962) p66

5. In his article Enitrely Unpredisposed, Martin Kottmeyer suggests that the Betty and Barney Hill abduction case may have been subconsciously influenced by exposure to film and television culture. Barney’s unique description of his abductor matches features of an alien in an Outer Limits episode titled The Bellero Shield broadcast 12 days before the alleged incident.

6. Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. Episode 10 U.F.O.s (Yorkshire Television, 1980)

7. Alexandre-Jacques-François Brierre de Boismont: A History of Dreams, Visions, Apparitions, Ecstasy, Magnetism, and Somnambulism. 1855.

8. Steuart Campbell, one of the first investigators on the case, suggested that Taylor encountered black ball lightning but later revised his theory, proposing that Taylor suffered an epileptic fit brought on through observing a mirage of the planets Mercury and Venus.

9. Martin Keatman & Andrew Collins: ‘Physical Assault by Unidentified Objects at Livingston – Part 1’ Flying Saucer Review (November-December 1979) v25 n6 p4.

10. John Uri Lloyd was a pharmacist and author. It has been speculated that the more fantastical elements of his novel Etidorhpa (1895) may have derived from the use of belladonna or similar drug.

11. Wikipedia: ‘Atropa Belladona’

12. George M Gould, M.D. & Walter L. Pyle, M.D.: Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. (W.B. Saunders. 1896)

13. A ground plan diagram used in Flying Saucer Review does show the attack route extending from the main cluster of markings. However, it must be pointed out that Keatman and Collins evaluated the site several days after the event. By then the location had been significantly disturbed due activity by police, investigators and numerous curious sight seers.

14. Gary Heseltine: ‘The Livingston Case Revisited’ UFO Magazine (March 2003) p38

15. Comment made on a forum discussing deadly nightshade’s psychoactive effects.