Gruinard Island

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Gaelic: Eilean Gruinneart


Gruinard Island.jpg
Gruinard Island
Location: 57°53’24"N, 5°28’12"W
Grid reference: NG945945
Area: 480 acres
Highest point: An Eilid, 348 feet
Population: uninhabited

Gruinard Island is a small, oval-shaped island in Gruinard Bay on the western coast of Ross-shire, about halfway between Gairloch and Ullapool. The island itself is about a mile and a half long by something over half a mile wide.

At its closest point to the mainland the island is just more than 1,200 yards offshore.

The island became famous, or rather infamous, for its role in the War, and remained off-limits to all, men and beasts, until decontaminated in the late 20th century.

The island's name is from Old Norse, meaning "shallow firth".

Biological warfare testing

"Operation Vegetarian" began in 1942, during the depths of the Second World War. Gruinard was chosen as the site of a biological warfare test by military scientists from Porton Down.[1] Their task was to investigate the feasibility of an attack using anthrax: to test both the vulnerability of Britain against a German attack and the viability of attacking Germany with a British germ weapon.[2]

Given the nature of the weapon which was being developed, it was recognised that tests would cause widespread and long-lasting contamination of the immediate area by anthrax spores. In order to limit contamination, a remote and uninhabited island was required. After a survey, Gruinard was deemed suitable and was compulsorily purchased from its owners by the British Government.[3]

The anthrax strain chosen for the Gruinard weapons trials was a highly virulent type called "Vollum 14578", named after R.L. Vollum, Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Oxford, who supplied it.[4] 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.[1] Some of the experiments were recorded on 16 mm colour movie film, which was declassified in 1997. One sequence shows the detonation of an anthrax bomb fixed at the end of a tall pole supported with guy ropes. When the bomb is detonated a brownish aerosol cloud drifts away towards the target animals. A later sequence shows anthrax-infected sheep carcasses being burned in incinerators, following the conclusion of the experiment.[1]

After the tests were completed, scientists concluded that a large release of anthrax spores would thoroughly pollute German cities, rendering them uninhabitable for decades afterwards.[1] These conclusions were supported by the discovery that after the biological warfare trials had ended, initial efforts to decontaminate the island failed due to the high durability of anthrax spores. For many years, it was judged too hazardous and expensive to decontaminate the island sufficiently to allow public access. As a result, Gruinard Island was quarantined indefinitely. Visits to the island were prohibited, except periodic checks by Porton Down personnel to determine the current level of contamination.

The island was finally decontaminated in the 1980s and the quarantine lifted.

Operation Dark Harvest

In 1981 British newspapers began receiving messages with the heading "Operation Dark Harvest" which demanded that the government decontaminate the island, and reported that a "team of microbiologists from two universities" had landed on the island with the aid of local people and collected 300 lbs of soil. The group threatened to leave samples of the soil "at appropriate points that will ensure the rapid loss of indifference of the government and the equally rapid education of the general public". 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 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.[5]


Starting in 1986 a determined effort was made to decontaminate the island, with 280 tons of formaldehyde solution diluted in seawater being sprayed over all 480 acres of the island and the worst-contaminated topsoil around the dispersal site being removed. A flock of sheep was then placed on the island and remained healthy. On 24 April 1990, after 48 years of quarantine, junior defence minister Michael Neubert visited the island and announced its safety by removing the warning signs.[1] As of October 2007 there have been no cases of anthrax in the island flock.

Popular culture references

The island is mentioned in the novels The Enemy by Desmond Bagley (1977), Sea of Death by by Richard P. Henrick (1992), The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth (1994), Quantico by Greg Bear (2005), The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde (2005), Forbidden Island by Malcolm Rose (2009), And then you die by Iris Johansen (1998), and The Island by R J Price (better-known as the poet Richard Price) (2010). The theme of each is not the island's natural beauty and fine setting, but its wartime role and contamination.

In issues 187-188 of the comic book Hellblazer, in a story titled "Bred in the Bone", the protagonist's niece finds herself on Gruinard surrounded by flesh-eating children. The issues were released in 2003 and were written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Doug Alexander Gregory.

An episode of the British wartime TV series Foyle's War entitled "Bad Blood" involved biological testing – a strong reference to the Gruinard testing.

The Hawaii Five-O episode "Three Dead Cows at Makapu, Part 2" featured a scientist played by Ed Flanders who threatened to unleash a deadly virus on the island of Oahu. When being interrogated, the scientist briefly mentions Gruinard Island and how it will be uninhabitable for a century due to anthrax experiments.

A play, Outlying Islands by Scottish dramatist David Greig, is a fictionalized account of two British scientists' visit to an island in Scotland where the government plans to test anthrax inspired by the story of Gruinard.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Britain's 'Anthrax Island', BBC
  2. Living with anthrax island, BBC, 'In 1942 it became the focus of the UK's secret effort to find a weapon capable of defeating the Nazis.', '"I understand Winston Churchill was very keen on using anthrax," says local historian Donald McIntyre. "He didn't see why the devil should have all the best weapons."'
  3. Pearson, Dr. Graham S. (October 1990) "Gruinard Island Returns to Civil Use " The ASA Newsletter. Applied Science and Analysis. Inc. Retrieved 12 January 2008.
  4. United States exports of biological materials to Iraq: Compromising the credibility of international law, Geoffrey Holland, University of Sussex
  5. "Dark Harvest". Time Magazine. 1981-11-09.,9171,922652,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-01. 

Outside links

Art Project based on Gruinard weapons testing :