Gruinard Island, Inner Hebrides

Gruinard Island

Gruinard Island looks peaceful enough today but in 1942 it was a different story. The small island sits quietly in Gruinard Bay halfway between Gairloch and Ullapool without causing much of a fuss, but when top MoD boffins from the Porton Down military research laboratory in Wiltshire wanted a quiet spot to test their new weapons it suddenly became hot property.

As the Second World War escalated, there was a worry that the Germans would attack Britain with germ warfare. Gruinard Island was deemed far enough away from anywhere important to be used as a testing ground for the anthrax bacterium. It is fatal in 95% of cases when ingested - not something to be messed with. So this innocent piece of land became Scotland’s top secret ‘Anthrax Island’.

As part of the experiment, 60 sheep were penned up and exposed to anthrax-infected bombs. Within three days they were dropping like flies and the scientists had the proof they needed. The plan was for anthrax to play a part in Operation Vegetarian - a deadly programme designed to cause maximum damage. Linseed cakes contaminated with anthrax would be air dropped over Germany. The cattle would ingest the spores and contaminate the meat supply, killing swathes of German citizens in the process.

Thankfully that particular scenario didn’t come to pass. The linseed cakes were incinerated at the end of the war, but it was too late for the Gruinard locals. The island was abandoned and covered in ‘Keep out’ signs. Everyone did until 1986 when an English company was brought in to decontaminate the land. It took 280 tonnes of formaldehyde to do the trick. The topsoil was removed in sealed containers and a test flock of sheep was sent over to graze on the island once again. When there were no ill effects the island was declared open again.

Today, there are no outward signs that anything happened. It’s a particularly scenic and sleepy part of the country. Round the coast, there are more visible wartime relics with the concrete gun emplacements and memorial at Aultbea. Gruinard’s only recent claim to fame has been Private Eye’s suggestion that Guardian typesetters, famous for their misprints, should retire here.

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There really is nothing much to see at Gruinard, but it's name has gained a spooky quality as a reminder of the depths we humans will sink to in our attempts to destroy each other (and thereby ourselves..). Yes - at least we never used the anthrax, but we were clearly thinking about it :(

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