// 08 September 2014 //
A quiet afternoon in a Troon tea-room. The gentle chinking of cup on saucer and the application of jam to buttered scone provides the background as we exchange pleasantries over handshakes and introductions.
Over the next hour and a half, however, our conversation will cover a 12th century king, knights, a pope, interstellar travel, green-skinned children, Walter Cronkite, a Tory peer and the (possible) discovery of the first message to earth from alien intelligences.
All in a day's work when your interviewee is polyglot Duncan Lunan, with his degree in English and Philosophy backed with Physics, Astronomy, French and Logic – not to mention his achievement as the author of an international best-selling book in the 1970s.
Regarded as a bit of a visionary by some sci-fi buffs, and still quoted by aficionados of extra-terrestrial exploration, the divide between science fiction and science fact has never been too wide to bridge for this prolific writer.
As a school-leaver, having set his sights on a career in science, the reality of university and his 'not-quite-strong-enough' maths set him along a slightly different path. He found early success as a science fiction short-story writer for American magazines Amazing!, Analog and Galaxy who honoured his first published story by making it their cover feature with an illustration by the award-winning and much respected artist Jack Gaughan.
With such favoured treatment from the sci-fi bible, Lunan became an instant figure of curiosity among other writers and readers, who wondered who was this new arrival on their scene. Demand for his stories mushroomed and just as it seemed that his future as a writer was signed, sealed and delivered, a postal strike in those pre-digital days brought a sudden end to the momentum.
“My stories were piling up, unsent, and I knew I would never be able to sell them," he recalls. “But things took off rather dramatically the following year – 1972 – when I stumbled upon what seemed to be the first message from another civilization," he adds in a rather disconcertingly matter-of-fact way.
He continues: “The story behind it was that back in the 1920s in the days of long-distance radios they started picking up echoes of transmissions from earth [Earth] which were coming from at least the distance of the Moon. They weren't thinking in terms of space craft but what they were picking up appeared to be patterns of varying delayed time pulses all being returned by the same object and there isn't any natural object up there that will do that."
They mystery of the transmissions was to form part of Lunan's first book, Man and the Stars. At the half-way stage of his work on the book, he had written that the signals appeared to be a natural phenomenon. But something niggled at the back of his mind. Mulling over the possibility that the signals might be a coded message revealing where they had been sent from, Lunan hit on an idea and started toying with a “star map" using data from the messages.
“Well, the stars are spaced at random in the sky, so a set of star map co-ordinates would be a random series of numbers," he explained. “So I started drawing graphs and turning the axes around, not expecting to find anything at all – then suddenly on the train going through Paisley on my way back home to Troon, suddenly I found myself looking at what appeared to be a recognisable message.
“I was down to a tiny wee corner on the page where I had drawn a minute little graphic and I thought 'That looks more like an intelligent signal, in fact it looks familiar. I know what that is. A star map of the constellation (Boøtes)!'
“I just loked [looked] at it and I thought: 'We are not alone. Interstellar travel is possible. They can communicate with us, logic is universal.' And I looked at the other people on the train and I thought: 'Shall I tell them?' And looking at their faces, I thought; they're just going to pull the communication cord. I just sat there."
Instinct won over emotion. The world would just have to wait for this momentous revelation.
Lunan wrote up a paper on his theory and submitted it to the British Astrological Society [Interplanetary Society]. “One of their people included it in a letter [lecture] and it eventually came to the attention of the Daily Telegraph, who fell on it as a scoop and suddenly everything was up in the air. For the next two or three years I was a minor celebrity, doing radio and TV all over the place. I appeared on the Walter Cronkite show in the States. I was sampling life in the fishbowl and it got to the stage where I couldn't go out to the pub for a pint without being called back to the house because there was an American radio show on the phone."
His book became a best-seller in the US and at home and sold in huge numbers across Europe.
Lunan adds: “It was a [hardback and paperback in the UK, the USA and France, a] paperback in Spain, serialised in Holland and Japan and was pirated in Greece – there was a Greek edition for which nobody received the proverbial drachma. So it did very well."
The story was taken very seriously by other researchers and, over the years, as technology developed and scientific knowledge moved on, holes began to appear in the theory, says Lunan.
New questions arose and eventually confidence in the theory that these were messages from another civilization began to wane.
He explains: “The astronomical information was (ambiguous).[ambiguous is OK] Parts of it made a lot of sense, but some of it didn't quite hang together and when we got better information on the star it turned out that the best bits weren't the right bits and the bits that didn't fit were the right bits."
Now, four decades on from those heady Eureka! Days, what is Lunan's position on the theory? He hesitates, then says: “Maybe."
So after all this time, the jury is still out on the precise nature of those signals. The original story still rumbles on over countless acres of web space, added to, twisted, augmented with false information but the original author has virtually no control over it.
Duncan Lunan's Wikipaedia page is littered with inaccuracies. “I did a count last night and there were 13 major errors," he says, “but you're not allowed to edit your own page. The guy who writes it complained that 'the author keeps interfering' and his complaint was upheld!
“So now there is a completely fictitious persona there which is still getting added to constantly because, supposedly, I am still involved in all kinds of UFO stuff."
However irritating that might be, it cannot detract from that initial rush on the train to Troon when he stumbled on the apparent origin of the message.
He says: “Undoubtedly, that was one of the biggest moments in my life. If there is nothing to it in the end it won't take away the memory of it."
But the Troon author of eight non-fiction and two fiction books could never be accused of avoiding potentially controversial subjects in his ceaseless research.
One work, The Children of the Sky, deals with the story of two children who emerged from an earthworks in the Suffolk village of Woolpit during the 12th century. They wore clothes of a colour and material never seen before, spoke a language that was not recognized by anyone else and their skin was green.
And this is not a work of fiction, but a piece of historical research.
Lunan says: “This has been treated for more than the last 400 years as a fairytale but, whatever this is, it really happened.
“In 1993 I was covering a conference on at the British National Space Centre for the Herald and I decided it was time to do something about the Green Children so I went up to East Anglia thinking I would get some background colour for an article.
“Wandering around this village in Suffolk, I was made very welcome, they opened up the local history museum specially for me, but in reply to my questions they kept saying: 'You'll have to go to the country records office [County Records Office] for that.' So I did, and five hours later I knew I was on to something because I was finding answers to questions and it was clear I was onto a line of enquiry that nobody else had pursued."
That was that starting point for 10 years of meticulous research, uncovering the story of how King Henry II quarantined the village by throwing a garrison of troops around it while investigations were carried out; how the children were finally questioned about their origins – once they had learned how to communicate in English – and how Pope Alexander III, in response to questions from the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds wrote: “I am instructing the king to give it back to you (Woolpit) when he is finished with it."
Lunan continues: “It turns out the knight to whom the children were taken was Richard de Calna, who was basically the head of the secret service."
He describes the story of the Children of the Sky as “The X-Files of the 12th century," adding: “They described the planet inadvertently. The Bishop of London is questioning them. So he asks: Do they believe in our saviour there? The girl says 'Oh yes, you can't see the place for churches.' And he aks [asks]: 'Does the sun rise or set there?' All they had to say at that point was Yes, because in mediaeval England it was believed there was no sun in Fairyland. So this is the question to establish whether they are human or not. And she says 'No.'
“She could not bring herself to lie at that point and what she described was that they lived in a land of permanent twilight separated by a very broad river, from a land of very bright sunlight and that it never changed. The sun shone all the time and neither rose nor set.
“They said they were herding their father's livestock – wherever they were – when they suddenly found themselves instantaneously transported back to Woolpit. "
Lunan continued: “The boy died, but I have traced the girl.I know who she was, She grew up and married Richard Barre, one of Henry II's senior ambassadors, so she wasn't just a runaway from some tribe on the woods. I have got her family tree down to two descendents, one of whom was Robert Shirlkey, [Shirley] the 13th Earl Ferrars, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords under Margaret Thatcher. He was 'outed' by the Evening Tmes on the eve of the 1997 election under the heading 'Tory Peer Descended from Green Woman from Outer Space' – much to the annoyance of the SNP, who had promised they would be getting the page that day. And he said: 'Bizarre! I knew my ancestors were colourful, but not that [kind of – delete] colourful.'
The fascinating story is packed with detail, much of it gleaned through Lunan's own translations of centuries-old records which may have been misinterpreted in the past. He also presents a theory on planetary alignment which links the Green Children story with the construction of Stonehenge and the ancient pyramids of Egypt.
Lunan's view of the Green Children mystery is that it involved a piece of extraterrestrial technology, such as matter transmitter, which malfunctioned, possibly due to irregular activity of the sun.
He adds: “If it's not extraterrestrial, here is the political thriller of all time, because the involvement of the king, the pope, de Calna and Richard Barre is definite. Whatever was going on they were in it up to the neck."
So historical political thriller or a piece of historical research into extra-terrestrial activity which was documented at time time. Whichever, it's an intriguing piece of work which languished for several years after completion because Lunan had trouble finding a publisher willing to take it on.
He says: “The historical publishers didn't like the extraterrestrials and the secular (?) [speculative] publishers didn't like the history, but I was determined to get the full story down in print."
It is also available as an e-book and, like his other books, is available online and from Waterstones, [W.H. Smith and other outlets, as well as from the publishers].
Lunan is on a roll at the moment, having published four books in the last two years, after more than 20 years without a book of his own, though he has contributed to 25 other books, publishing more than 30 short stories and over 950 articles in total. The first was “With Time Comes Concord and other stories", a collection of his fiction about time-travel. “The Stones and the Stars" is the story of the Sighthill stone circle which he built for Glasgow Parks Department in 1979, and is the subject of a campaign to save it from destruction in the planned redevelopment of the area. “Incoming Asteroid! What could we do about it?" is the result of a ten-year study with experts at Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities, and the Spaceguard Observatory in Powys, among others. His next book is “Waverider", the story of the man-carrying vehicle which was designed by the late Prof. T.R. Nonweiler for the British space programme which was cancelled by Harold Macmillan. “It has a new principle of flight, for which Nonweiler won the Royal Aeronautical Society Gold Medal," says Lunan, “but nobody pursued it, mainly because it had no military applications. Now the US Air Force has figured out a way to kill people with it, which Terence would have hated because he was a pacificist. So I've got together with some like-minded people to try to redress the balance and emphasise its potential peaceful uses."
The publisher's deadline for that book is the end of November. And after that? “Interest in the Green Children continues to grow – I've just done a big radio interview about it, online in the USA. Springer want a second edition of “The Stones and the Stars" after the stone circle is located. And there's plenty more to do once those are taken care of!"
Background image: Barassie beach, © MJFerrier
Inset image: © Thomas Brash, Ayrshire College