Gruinard, a stunning beautiful Scottish island abused and made infamous as ‘Anthrax Island’. After some hesitation the landing and trip to the top was a wonderful day on an un-grazed and wild island that hid its terrible past.
Gruinard, poor Gruinard. During the second world war scientists took the crazy decision to test deadly chemical weapons on the “useless” uninhabited Scottish island. The test let off the deadly bombs laced with Anthrax which in turn left the island deadly, contaminated and inaccessible for decades to come. My trip to Gruinard took place on a wonderful sunny day in August. It was a trip that was memorable but also I could not help but feel nervous as I trod the deep grass and bog.
In 1942, The British government was investigating the feasibility of a bioweapons using anthrax and the dealer of death. They recognised that tests would cause long-lasting contamination of the immediate area by the anthrax spores so a remote and uninhabited island was required. Gruinard was surveyed, deemed suitable and requisitioned from its owners.
Eighty sheep were taken to the island and bombs filled with anthrax spores were exploded close to where selected groups were tethered. The sheep became infected with anthrax and began to die within days of exposure. Spine chilling footage of the tests are on YouTube video at the foot of this post.
In 1946, the government recognised the remaining danger the area presented and agreed to acquire the island and to take full responsibility for it. The owner or her heirs would be able to repurchase the island for £500 when it was declared “fit for habitation by man and beast”.
Gruinard Island was quarantined indefinitely; visits to the island were prohibited, except for periodic checks by MOD personnel to determine the level of contamination.
In 1981 newspapers began receiving messages with the heading “Operation Dark Harvest” which demanded that the government decontaminate the island, and reported that protestors had landed on the island with the aid of local people and collected samples of soil.
The same day a sealed package of soil was left outside the military research facility at Porton Down; tests revealed that it contained anthrax bacilli. A few days later another sealed package of soil was left in Blackpool, where the ruling Conservative Party was holding its annual conference. The soil did not contain anthrax, but officials said that the soil was similar to that found on the island.
In 1986 a determined effort was made to decontaminate the island: 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in sea water was sprayed over all 196 hectares of the island and the worst-contaminated topsoil around the dispersal site was removed. A flock of sheep was then placed on the island and remained healthy.
On 24 April 1990, after 48 years of quarantine and four years after the solution was applied the island and announced its safety by removing the warning signs. On 1 May 1990, the island was repurchased by the heirs of the original owner for the original sale price of £500.
My visit to Gruinard was at the end of a fast sail from Ullapool. The island is not blessed with any great anchorages and only accessible for short visits on reasonably calm days.
Trade Winds was anchored to the south of the island in behind a spit of boulders and stone called Sron a’ Mhoil . The little bay sits under the point Aird nan Caorach (sheep or livestock point). The name confirming that the island served as pasture land after a short swim of livestock from the nearby mainland estate. The short row from Trade Winds landed me on a boulder beach of bleached stone.
Beyond that was a green and verdant lush island of grasses, bracken and higher up the hill bands of heather and bared stone.
I set off to the top passing a ruined stone building that I recognised from the old footage of the MOD personnel. Beyond that I was soon into an amazing area of spongy, deep sphagnum moss. Each step saw my lead foot sink down almost to knee level. It was a struggle to make the 200 meters or so across the wonderful unspoilt and un-grazed area.
After a real slog I stepped onto firmer ground or grass and heather. The slope up to the summit, An Eilid (The Hind) was gradual and as the soil thinned the bare sandstone areas increased and just short of the last rise a steep flat area of stone lay speckled with mosses.
The cairn, like so many on uninhabited remote islands was bearded in lichen and the top offered uninterrupted views away to the Herbies, into Gruinard Bay and the extreme mountains of the mainland as the backdrop. To the north lay Loch Broom, the Summer Isles and away in the distance the magic of Wester Ross Geopark and the missives of Coigach, Stac Pollaidh and the Sandstone monuments to Scotland’s ancient NW Coast.
I chose to take a route down that took be to the north shore and did involved a very precarious and steep drop down to the beach. The geological history of the island. Slabbed rock lay tilted and buckled along the waterline. It was a scramble up and over the obstacles until I emerged back onto the boulder spit.
What a wonderful experience Gruinard had been. Nervous of its tarnished history but bowled over by its rough, un grazed and wild terrain with views to the Summer Isles and beyond.
Gruinard today and 360 view from the top
Horrific footage of Anthrax tests in 1940s
Gruinard Anthrax tests footage from 1940s