It’s the season of the witch, so our Writer at Large Neil Mackay – a sceptic if ever there was one – spent the afternoon with Malcolm Robinson, the country’s leading paranormal investigator. Dare you read what happened next?

MALCOLM Robinson is sitting in his study with a portrait of a saucer-eyed alien staring down at him. He is recounting his greatest adventures with ghosts: there is the spectre in Stirling who gave him a slap, the spook who kicked him, and the spirit from Kirkintilloch who pulled his hair. And that’s before he even gets to the Clackmannanshire poltergeist –- an “entity” he is still hunting.

It is Halloween so if there is ever a time to indulge that most marvellous of species – the great British eccentric – it’s today: the spookiest, silliest, strangest season of all.

Robinson is Scotland’s most famous paranormal researcher. You may not have heard of him, but thousands around the planet have – he has travelled the world giving lectures about ETs and ghosts, Nessie and demons, and written a slew of books on weird phenomena.

You don’t have to believe what Robinson says – I certainly don’t, I’m an atheist and sceptic – but he’s fascinating company, and if like me you’re curious about why so many of us obsess on the paranormal then he is the man to talk to. After all, half the planet has probably had at least one odd experience they can’t quite explain.

I have interviewed a fair number of paranormalists over the years and while I don’t buy into their claims at all, I’ve always thought most truly believed what they are saying. In other words – charlatans aside – these people seem well intentioned and not deliberately lying, even though their claims are false to many.

Someone can be genuinely convinced they have seen a ghost – even though there is no such thing as ghosts. I don’t view Robinson as a charlatan or a liar – I view him as a pretty decent guy who really believes what he says, despite folk like me viewing his claims as fundamentally impossible. It’s a neat little paradox, given we’re talking about the paranormal.

Obviously, millions of people around the world would disagree with me – those who believe in ghosts and UFOs – and see Robinson as an important researcher in a much-mocked field.

Anyway, whether you believe in the paranormal or not, it’s Halloween so let’s give him a hearing at least.

Birth of an obsession

ROBINSON says he started out as a sceptic and there are still some signs of healthy scepticism alive in him today. “I’d like to impress this upon people,” he says.

“We laughed at John Logie Baird and said his invention [television] would never work –it did. We laughed at the Wright Brothers, saying ‘it’ll never fly’. Just because something sounds ridiculous doesn’t mean it is so. Mankind has much to learn, we’re at the bottom rung of understanding.

“However, it’s quite right in these times that we question everything, but don’t turn your head away just because something sounds ridiculous.”

As a kid in the 1960s, Robinson was fascinated by science fiction and spooky stories. While working in a glass factory as a young man – in between playing lead guitar in a band – he began reading about cases of so-called “real life hauntings” and devoured books by Erich von Daniken, who has made outlandish and unsubstantiated claims about aliens visiting Earth.

“I started out to disprove these subjects. I thought there was no validity in them – that it was all nonsense,” Robinson says. “Then I began my own investigations. I’ve seen things – unbelievable things. That’s when I came off the fence.”

UFO encounter

THE case which changed Robinson’s life was the infamous incident which has gone down in the annals of ufology as “the Dechmont Woods Encounter”. In 1979, Scottish forestry worker Robert Taylor was walking through Dechmont Woods near Livingston when what he described as a “flying dome” appeared, hovering over the forest floor. Taylor – who everyone claimed was a sober and serious man – said something like “sea mines” emerged from the craft and seized him.

He lost consciousness and later awoke, bruised, with this trousers ripped and the craft gone. Taylor tried to drive away but careened his car into a ditch. When he made it home to his wife, says Robinson, he said these famous words: “I’ve been attacked.”

His wife asked who attacked him and Taylor replied: “A spaceship.”

Taylor received medical treatment – as he was genuinely hurt – and police were called. What makes the case remarkable is that this is the only alleged UFO incident where police recorded a criminal assault. Officers also found marks on the ground where Taylor said the craft had been.

Now, there are plenty of facts that can be found to dismiss any notion of ET in this case. Taylor previously had meningitis and reported a strong smell during the incident. It could have been a mini-stroke or psychotic episode. Taylor is now dead so we’ll never truly know.

But Robinson – now the proud owner of Taylor’s ripped trousers –- believes the case to be a real alien encounter. At the time, the event was big news in Scotland. Robinson heard the story on the radio and went to interview Taylor.

“It stands the test of time as a great case,” he says. “You’ll never meet a more genuine, sincere man who didn’t want any attention in his life. This was my first big investigation though I’ve done so many since. You get to know people’s body language – who’s telling lies. I saw the depth of honesty in this man.”

Robinson went on to write a book about the case. He does retain a sliver of scepticism, however. “I do agree with the statement ‘could it not have been a medical episode’ – which meant Taylor believed he’d been attacked. That’s the only other possibility. Other than that I do believe he saw what he saw that day.”

After investigating the Dechmont Woods Encounter, people began “banging on my door and phoning me up”, says Robinson. And that’s when he began hunting ghosts …

Haunted houses

ONE case involved an elderly woman in Stirling who had heard about Robinson, by now the founder of Strange Phenomena Investigations, with a team working alongside him. “Just like with UFOs, I started out to disprove ghosts too,” he says. However, once again, Robinson adds, as with his UFO investigations, his experiences turned him into a believer.

“This old lady was getting bombarded with paranormal events,” he says. “Things were falling off shelves. She’d lost her husband. Chests were moving – all that stuff.”

One of Robinson’s team was a psychic. In an upstairs bedroom, the psychic asked Robinson if he “felt a spirit in the room”.

“I felt nothing,” Robinson says. Then a ‘ghost’ slapped him. “Suddenly,” he says, “there’s this tremendous force, which pushed itself down on my hand – my hand actually hit my leg. Nobody was near me. It was incredible.”

At another case in Tullibody, Robinson was investigating a haunted bedroom. “It’s always a haunted bedroom for some reason,” he laughs.

Nothing happened for hours and Robinson was questioning “why I do this to myself”. One of his team was filming while the room was in darkness. Then out of nowhere, he says, “the whole room illuminated with thousands of tiny pinpricks of light in the air”, adding: “It only lasted 20 seconds before the room was catapulted back into total darkness.”

And was there evidence on camera? “Nothing. Nothing appeared.” Robinson says that even if he’d captured proof, “sceptics would’ve said it’s a hoax”.

Clearly, no evidence has been found –anywhere or ever – to prove any haunting or alien encounter.

Later, during another ghost hunt at Stirling Tolbooth jail, he “felt a kick on the leg. I thought it was one of our investigators, but nobody was near me. I turned around and I can only tell you what I saw: a leg, from the knee down. It was only there for two or three seconds and it disappeared”.

Robinson is now rattling through his adventures at a rate of knots. “There’s another case we were working in Kirkintilloch. It was an ex-police officer’s home. Every wall had a photostat copy of the Lord’s Prayer on it, there were crucifixes everywhere. It was creepy. As we’re walking into a room upstairs, it was like somebody grabbed my hair and pulled me back. I shouted for one of my colleagues to put the light on. I thought I’d walked into a child’s mobile or Airfix model or loose plaster, but there was nothing hanging down. It was like fingers going through my hair – it was extraordinary.”

Now, obviously, sceptics like me would say of these cases that perhaps some of the people seeking Robinson’s services were a little disturbed, or that creeping around in a house you’ve been told is haunted might play tricks on the most logical mind, or that even group hysteria might kick in. Robinson says he asks people who call on him to investigate whether they use drink or drugs or have mental health problems, and he insists he is seasoned enough not to let his imagination run away with him.

Hoaxes and lies

WHAT about being conned? Many well-intentioned or gullible “ghost hunters” have been duped by charlatans and Robinson tells of one incident where he witnessed “the most sensational thing I’ve ever seen”.

Robinson has taken his investigations all over Britain – and this case happened in Chingford, north London. He was invited to a home where a medium sat behind a curtain in a darkened room. Bells tinkled, voices wailed, faces emerged from curtains and a chest of drawers rose up and flew across the ceiling. Robinson says he thought it all a hoax until he placed his hands on the chest of drawers, holding it down, and asked the medium to move it again. Once more it rose and flew through the air. “I cannot stress enough that even though I believe in the paranormal, I’m still sceptical about every case I go on,” he says.

I point out that I’m a bit of an amateur student of stage magic and there’s a history of such tricks played by phoney spiritualists going back to the Victorian period. There’s even a trick called The Spirit Cabinet which sounds a little like the event Robinson witnessed.

Robinson accepts that “there’s wonderful magicians who can do wonderful spooky things but it’s all a trick”. However, he insists that he cannot explain how the chest moved the second time as he held it down. “Do I have evidence? No, the lady whose house it was wouldn’t allow cameras.”

As we talk through his cases, I tell Robinson that when it comes to events where he was present I won’t call him a liar. He seems a genuine man who believes what he thinks he saw and what he thinks happened. However, that doesn’t mean those events really involved ghosts. Other explanations are clearly more likely – and when it comes to the Chingford event, it’s stinks of trickery, I say.

“I agree that you have to think that way, you’ve got to think it’s a magic trick. The medium is behind a curtain. Why? Why did he have to do that? It makes you wonder. I couldn’t see any form of trickery but there are magicians, so people can be fooled. The phenomena was amazing but there might’ve been something there to fool me.”

However, his scepticism is clearly beaten by his need to believe, as he quickly adds: “What happened after that was this tremendous cold gust of wind pervaded a small council bedroom. It was so cold you could see your breath. It was like being in an industrial freezer.”

Again, that’s not a trick which is hard to pull off. Just ask Derren Brown. But Robinson has another encounter to tell of: the Sauchie Poltergeist.

Scotland’s poltergeist

ROBINSON has been down into the depths of Loch Ness in search of the monster in a mini-sub but there’s only one thing that really scares him: the ouija board. He believes it can raise malevolent spirits intent on harming humans. It’s a fear which the classic horror movie The Exorcist was built around.

Events in 1960 in the town of Sauchie in Clackmannanshire have weird echoes of the film. We don’t have to take Robinson’s word for it – even though he recently wrote a book about the case and interviewed folk involved in the tale. We can just flick through Alloa Advertiser reports.

The claims go like this: 11-year-old Virginia Campbell moves from Donegal to Scotland with her family. The move makes her unhappy. Strange noises begin to plague her, and one night she goes downstairs to tell her family but a terrifying sound follows her. The sounds continue, ornaments move, a linen basket opens by itself.

The family see a sideboard move.

A local minister is called and is said to witness the linen basket move again. Virginia’s bedclothes, says Robinson, “would ripple as if a stone had been thrown into water”.

At school, Virginia’s desk lid begins banging up and down and her teacher’s pointer moves of its own accord. Then the teacher’s desk is said to move and a bowl smash in the class.

The teacher, it is claimed, tries to let the children out of the class – as by now they’re hysterical – but the door won’t open. Later, a doctor is called to attend Virginia and she’s sedated. The doctor

is said to have witnessed Virginia’s pillow rotate on the bed. Virginia even moved house but the knockings followed her.

In December 1960, the Alloa Journal reported Virginia’s aunt being pushed off a bed and blankets rising up of their own accord. Not long afterwards, the story dies down and Virginia vanishes. Nobody knows where she is to this day.

Robinson, who spoke to Virginia’s classmates for his book The Sauchie Poltergeist, tried to find her and traced her to Bedfordshire in the 1980s but after that the trail goes cold.

Robinson doesn’t believe that the Sauchie events were a con, or down to a mixed-up, unhappy child acting out, either consciously or subconsciously, or mass hysteria, or “a child going through puberty and sexual energy projecting out and moving things like cupboards. I believe a bad spirit attached itself to her in Ireland and moved to Scotland with her and it’s been with her ever since. There’s a nasty side to the spirit world”.

What do you think?

ROBINSON says he has not made much money out of a lifetime as a paranormal researcher. Books don’t earn a fortune, he adds, and mostly he simply gets his expenses paid for travelling to and from lectures.

Proof, he says, “is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to the individual they’ll know themselves whether what they’ve experienced is true. Proof is always nice, but belief is personal. We’ve seen so many photographs claiming to be ghosts or UFOs that were nothing of the kind.”

He accepts, though, that with so-called hauntings, creaky floorboards and cooling pipes could lead people to believe in the supernatural.

For Robinson, around “98 per cent or even higher” of ghost cases are easily explained and not otherworldly. With UFOs, he says, only about 1% of sightings cannot be explained as either natural phenomena like planets or military aircraft.

However, that 1%, he genuinely believes, are aliens.

As long as folk don’t mock Robinson, he says, he’s perfectly content to be the subject of doubt and questioning. “My raison d’être is just to tell people about these subjects and say ‘there you go, it’s up to you to believe it or not’ – that’s all.”

If you’ve got a paranormal experience you’d like to share why not write in and let us know to