The Dark Legacy of Gruinard Island

Dec 8, 2017 0 comments

Halfway between the villages of Gairloch and Ullapool in the North-West Highlands of Scotland, sits a small oval-shaped island named Gruinard. From the shores of the mainland, the island appears very quiet and peaceful. But in the 1940s, it was a different story.

It was here on Gruinard Island, during the Second World War, a team of scientists from the military research facilities at Porton Down demonstrated to Winston Churchill the lethality of anthrax, and the feasibility of using the deadly bacteria as the active agent in biological weapons.


Anthrax is one of the best known agents of biological warfare, and one of the most feared. Inhalation of anthrax spores induces flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath as fluid accumulates in the chest cavity. When not treated, condition of the patient rapidly deteriorates resulting in a swift death within 48 hours. Ingestion of the spores causes diarrhea, internal bleeding, abdominal pains, nausea and vomiting, but it is through inhalation that anthrax is the most fatal with mortality rates as high as 80%, even with medical treatment.

Anthrax was first used in the weapon form in the First World War by Nordic rebels against the Imperial Russian Army in Finland, although the effectiveness of the incidence was not known. The first human experimentation were made by the notorious Unit 731 of the Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s. Thousands of prisoners of war died after being intentionally infected with the bacterium.

In the early years of the Second World War, the Allies began investigating anthrax. British scientists knew that the bacteria was extremely resilient and can survive in harsh conditions for decades or even centuries. So they needed a remote and uninhabited island where they could carry out tests—one that could be kept quarantined. Gruinard Island was found suitable for the purpose.

A declassified film showing the trials at Gruinard Island.

In 1942, about eighty sheep were taken to the island and bombs loaded with dried anthrax spores were exploded close to where the sheep were tied up. The anthrax strain chosen for the test was a highly virulent type called “Vollum 14578”, named after R. L. Vollum, the Canadian-born bacteriologist who first isolated it from a cow in Oxford, England. Within days of exposure, the sheep were dropping like flies.

The British scientists concluded that a large release of anthrax spores over German cities would not only wipe out a large section of the population, but it would also render the cities uninhabitable for decades afterwards. This became the mission of “Operation Vegetarian”—a diabolic plan to drop anthrax-infected linseed cakes over German fields. These cakes would be eaten by the cattle, which would then be consumed by the civilian population, causing the deaths of millions of German citizens. Furthermore, anthrax would wipe out the majority of Germany's cattle, creating a massive food shortage for the rest of the population. Five million cakes were made ready to be disseminated in Germany. Some of the cakes were also tested on the sheep at Gruinard Island. Operation Vegetarian was only to be used if Germany made the first move in biological warfare, which thankfully, they didn’t. At the end of the war, the cakes were destroyed in an incinerator.

Meanwhile, at Gruinard Island the anthrax spores refused to die rendering the island uninhabitable for nearly fifty years until 1986, when an English company was brought in decontaminate the island. 280 tonnes of formaldehyde was sprayed over the island and the worst-contaminated topsoil around the dispersal site was removed. To see whether the clean-up was successful, a flock of sheep was released on the island. No ill effects were seen.

Finally, four years after the soil was soaked in formaldehyde, the island was deemed safe to visit. The junior Defence Minister himself visited the island and removed the warning signs. In 1990, the island was sold back to the heirs of the original owner for the original sale price of £500.

Also see: Vozrozhdeniya Island, a similar island from Russian tests on biological weapons.


Junior Defence Minister Michael Neubert removes the last warning sign for Gruinard island, off the west coast of Scotland.


Gruinard Island today. Photo credit: Kevin Walsh/Flickr


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