THE Uig moor spans a remote area of south-west Lewis, a weather-battered beauty spot which requires a good pair of hiking boots and a sense of determination to explore. 

Rugged, remote and largely uninhabited, apart from the hunting-shooting set who descend on the exclusive Morsgail Estate Lodge and a handful of other holiday homes, there is little to disrupt the Hebridean peace and quiet. 

But it is also the scene of perhaps one of the most bizarre puzzles that islanders – and many others far beyond the shores – have encountered. 

After all, it’s not every day that the area is gripped by reports that a mystery object – thought to be a meteorite, and for a while simply branded as “The Thing from Space” – had plunged to earth.

READ MORE: Scientist believes first meteorite to hit British Isles landed in Scotland 

Or, for that matter, that an entire loch suddenly disappears. It was 60 years ago this November when locals had noted the abundance of shooting stars and the aurora danced almost every night. While the wind blew hard there were occasional days bathed in winter sunshine and near-cloudless skies. 

At Aird Uig, the RAF early warning radar station, senior aircraftman James Watt had just lit a cigarette. He was off duty and yanked open the window of his billet to clear the smoke just in time. 

“It was a very strange incident,” he reflects. “As far as I was able to tell at the time, I was the only person that saw it from beginning to end. It was fascinating.”

The jury is still out – even after six decades – as to what exactly happened. Events of the next few minutes would perplex even the brightest expert minds, lure the most revered stargazer of his age, Sir Patrick Moore, on a bone-rattling journey from his home to the Western Isles, and spark a still inconclusive debate as to what on earth caused a massive crater and a whole loch to be drained of every ounce of water.

Mr Watt, 79, originally from Dundee and now living in North Lincolnshire, is convinced of what he saw and heard. “It was a lovely sunny morning,” he begins.

“First off, it was as if it was a dot, or a full stop in the sky. “I thought ‘what on earth is that?’ As I kept looking at it, this ‘full stop’ got larger and larger. It was a large sphere or a ball that was black or dark grey with a trail of smoke behind it.”

The object shot past the camp, roaring loudly as it went, he adds. 

HeraldScotland:

“It was travelling at an angle of 30° to 35° and passed around 150 yards from my billet and no more than 50ft above my head, then carried on over the horizon. I noticed a number of sparks coming from it and there was a heck of a roar, like an express train.”

It was so loud, the camp’s commanding officer stopped in mid-shave, towel wrapped around his neck, and came outside to see what had happened. 
Mr Watt later described what he’d seen as a “burning ball of hell”, if not a meteorite then some strange ball of gas, which screamed beyond the camp in the direction of two nearby lochans that were popular fishing spots for his RAF colleagues.

A reconnaissance party was gathered – Mr Watt included – to head towards the two lochans where the mystery object was thought to have landed. 

What they found was not entirely what they expected.  He said: “The north lochan was nearest to the camp, and below that was another small lochan. We walked through the peat bog to where the top lochan should have been, but all we saw was mud and a gorge in the land where it had been. The north lochan was completely drained of water.”

The two lochans – Loch nam Learga to the north and Loch Mor Shéilabridh to the south – were around 150 yards apart, but the team that scoured the site found no meteorite fragments, no signs of scorching and, strangely for Mr Watt, no dead fish. 

READ MORE: Evidence of biggest meteorite to hit Britain found in Scotland 

“We walked around this mud patch and couldn’t see a single dead fish, there was no smell either,” he adds. It took several days for news of the incident to find its way 20 miles north to Stornoway after a chance remark by a local postman who came across the drained lochan, large swathes of churned up bogland, and, he claimed, a whiff of burning. 

According to reports at the time, the higher lochan – 200 yards long and around 50 yards wide, around 150 yards uphill from its neighbour – appeared to have a hole torn in its south bank, while the water seemed to have drained with such force that the land around looked as if it had been subjected to an earthquake, with channels 10ft deep carved into the peat.

The curious incident sparked lively speculation. Some thought a meteorite, others a lightning strike, a few suggested it could be a Russian rocket targeting the radar camp, while others plumped for flood damaged lochan banks suddenly giving way. Some newspaper reports even hinted at  space travellers.

To help solve the mystery, an astrophysicist from the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh visited the site on the Uig moor, while newspapers chartered planes to fly overhead, snapping pictures to send around the world. But even the expert was unsure of what he was looking at. 

“The possibility that the island of Lewis was hit by the biggest meteorite to land in Britain in living memory grew slimmer after a visit to the site by an astrophysicist from the Royal observatory,” reported The Herald of December 2, 1959. 

“The scientist, Dr Hugh E Butler, thought heavy rain was the likely cause of the upheaval,” it continued, before adding that even he wasn’t sure. “Dr Butler reached no firm conclusion. 

He said: ‘Something else may have triggered it off. A meteorite cannot be ruled out but unless any fragments are found I don’t think for that investigation is justified.’

The area between Morsgail Lodge and the hamlet of Kinreasort five miles away, was under increasing media interest. Reports of the incident soon reached America and Africa, and the East Grinstead home of Sir Patrick Moore. 

After a day travelling north to Inverness, Sir Patrick caught a flight to Stornoway and then travelled by road to Morsgail Lodge and on to the site. Reports of meteorites were, he suggested, science fiction. Instead, Sir Patrick plumped for the missing loch as being a case of serious subsidence with the possibility of a methane explosion which may have thrown rocks high into the air. 

A bog burst – when peat becomes so saturated that a landslide occurs – seemed to many to be the logical answer. 

Mr Watt, however, is among those who remain convinced that there was something more to the odd events of late November 1959. 

Did whatever it was simply sink deep into the peat, hidden from view? And why was there not a single dead fish to be seen? 

“You don’t forget something like that,” he says. “It was exciting, unusual. I’d never seen anything like it before and I’ve not seen it since.”