The Morsgail Meteorite: When Space Hits Back

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Further to the Daily Express cartoon about the alien cause of the disappearing loch at Morsgail, here’s a summary of the international coverage, from the Stornoway Gazette, 29 Dec 1959.

Few events in Lewis in recent years have aroused such worldwide interest as the “Morsgail Meteorite”. In addition to the planeload of British reporters, the Columbia Broadcasting system of America sent a team of cameramen to Uig to photograph the ‘hole’ for American TV, and we have received a cutting from the Bulaweyo Chronicle, which shows that Africa was equally interested.

From this Daily Express aerial photograph it can be seen that most of the damage was caused by water escaping from the upper loch, which was completely drained into the lower loch, about a quarter of a mile away and some fifty feet below.

But, even if we accept that most of the damage was caused by water, we have still to explain what set the water in motion in the first place. Three explanations have been offered.

The original one was that a meteorite had fallen, but it is difficult to sustain that in view of the fact that there is no well-defined crater – although a small meteor could have disappeared into the peat like a spoon of porridge.

The experts’ theory is that heavy rain was the sole cause. We certainly had heavy rain about the time of the incident, but it was not abnormal, and we have heard no reports of flood damage elsewhere in Uig, or even elsewhere elsewhere along the same watercourse as that from which the loch disappeared.

Again the ‘water only’ theory does not explain the smell of burning detected by the first witnesses, nor does it account for the fact that some small blocks of peat were thrown up on the bank rather higher than one would have expected if water were the sole cause.

The third explanation is that a flash of lightning caused a disturbance at the end of the upper loch, broke or weakened the bank, and set the water moving.

It was interesting to compare the handling of the story in the various newspapers.

The Yorkshire Post headed the story correctly and cautiously: “Big Crater on the Moors,” “Meteorite Theory in Hebrides”.

The Daily Express came out boldly for the supernatural, with the heading “Thing from Space Hits Lewis” while the Daily Sketch had a prominent box with the intriguing heading, “The Riddle of the Empty Loch.”

The Sketch story is worth quoting in full as a classic example of snappy and inaccurate reporting.

“Scientists are flying out from Edinburgh today to probe the secret of a meteorite found crashed on a remote Scottish island last night.  The meteorite scooped up thousands of gallons of water from a loch on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – and pulled it 60 yards overland into another loch.

“At first experts thought the meteorite had cut a crater three acres square in the ground. Last night geologists identified the crater as an empty loch.”

We love that touch about the water being pulled overland. As as for the “square acres,” we have since been trying to make up our minds whether that is a three-dimensional measure invented by the Sketch or a plain gaff.

The London Star made the Lewis incident the basis for a feature article on meteorites under the rather grim heading, “The Dreadful Moment When Space Hits Back at the Earth.”

“On a June day 51 years ago, the biggest meteorite ever seen to hit the earth crashed into dense forest in north Siberia,” wrote the Star.

“It devastated a thousand square miles and the blast knocked down men and horses 300 miles away.

“Compared with the Tungus meteor the one that seems to have hit the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides was an itsy-bitsy little thing. It merely churned up a crater the size of a football pitch and drained a 200 yard loch.

“As scientists prepare today to travel to the island, those of us with morbid imaginations are wondering what would have happened if the meteorite had landed on London.  Would someone have pressed a rocket button? I hope not.

“Luckily for humanity, the weightier meteorites seem shy of people. They have fallen in the most inaccessible spots imaginable.

“As for whatever it was that has carved up the Island of Lewis, it would be tempting to credit the local theory that The People Up There are tired of being shied at from the Hebridean rocket station at South Uist.

“I see today that the Isle of South Uist is up for sale, so perhaps thehint is being taken,” concluded the Star.

Perhaps the most amusing reaction to the Lewis “meteorite, cloudburst, lightning flash or what you will, was that of the Daily Record which in a front page feature twitted the Daily Express for sensationalism. A very clear case, one might suggest, of the pot calling the kettle black.

The Scotsman commented: “Stornoway 20 miles away was having a long laugh last night about “The Thing from Outer Space” as some of the excited mornign newspapers had called it. Sober faced Gaelic teasing of the mainlanders was the sport of the evening. A local shoemaker approached my car as it stopped in the town after I had visited the loch with Dr Butler. “Did you see the rocket?” he asked. The driver, a Stornoway man, replied with the same Saturnine drollery, “A great fin of a thing sticking out of the ground, with two Russian bodies lying there rotting. But ach, there was no interest in it at all…”

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The local bar habituees sagged in amazement when they heard about the party of pressmen from Glasgow who had paid £180 for the hire of an aircroft to come to the island for a look at a dry puddle.

“One less miniature loch in Lewis would hardly be missed. Somebody, it was suggest was bound to have a song about it in next year’s Mod…”

Perhaps if we wait until the Mod we may find out what it really was!

See also a collection of photos of the site from the Patrick Moore Collection – date unknown.