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Gruinard Island

Coordinates: 57°53′24″N 05°28′12″W / 57.89000°N 5.47000°W / 57.89000; -5.47000
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Gruinard Island
Scottish Gaelic nameEilean Ghruinneart
Old Norse nameGrunnfjörðr
Meaning of name"Shallow firth", from Norse
Gruinard Island is located in Ross and Cromarty
Gruinard Island
Gruinard Island
Gruinard Island shown within Ross and Cromarty
OS grid referenceNG945945
Coordinates57°53′24″N 05°28′12″W / 57.89000°N 5.47000°W / 57.89000; -5.47000
Physical geography
Island groupInner Hebrides/Islands of Ross and Cromarty
Area196 ha (34 sq mi)
Area rank111 [1]
Highest elevationAn Eilid, 106 m (348 ft)
Council areaHighland
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Largest settlementNone

Gruinard Island (/ˈɡrɪnjərd/ GRIN-yərd;[6] Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Ghruinneard) is a small, oval-shaped Scottish island approximately 2 kilometres (1+14 miles) long by 1 km (58 mi) wide, located in Gruinard Bay, about halfway between Gairloch and Ullapool.[7] At its closest point to the mainland, it is about 1 km (58 mi) offshore. In 1942, the island became a sacrifice zone,[8] and was dangerous for all mammals after military experiments with the anthrax bacterium, until it was decontaminated in 1990.[9]

Early history


The island was mentioned by Dean Munro who travelled the area in the mid-16th century. He wrote that it was Clan MacKenzie territory, "full of woods" (it is treeless today), and that it was "guid for fostering of thieves and rebellis" (good for fostering thieves and rebels).[10]

Historically, the counties of Ross-shire and Cromartyshire have both laid claim to Gruinard Island due to the position of the island in between Gairloch and Ullapool. In the late 1780s, the villages became substantial fishing and sheep farming communities leading Gruinard Island to be utilized as an area of land for grazing sheep or as a small dock for fishing.[11] By 1881, the population on the island was 6, soon becoming uninhabited with no record detailing any established population.

In 1926, Rosalynd Maitland purchased the Eilean Darach estate which included Gruinard Island. Rosalynd Maitland bequeathed the island to her niece Molly Dunphie who was friends with Winston Churchill.[12]

Biological warfare testing


In 1942, during World War II, a biological warfare test was carried out on Gruinard by scientists from the Biology Department of Porton Down.[9][13] The test was conducted as part of Operation Vegetarian, an ultimately unused plan which called for the dispersal of linseed cakes spiked with anthrax across the German countryside.[9][14] It was recognised that tests would cause long-lasting contamination of the immediate area by anthrax spores, so a remote and uninhabited island was required. Gruinard was surveyed, deemed suitable, and requisitioned from its owners by the British government.[15] Porton Down meteorologist Sir Oliver Graham Sutton was put in charge of a fifty-man team to conduct the trial, with David Willis Wilson Henderson in charge of the germ bomb. Biology Department head Paul Fildes made frequent visits.[16]

The anthrax strain chosen was a highly virulent type called "Vollum 14578", named after R. L. Vollum, Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Oxford, who supplied it.[17] Eighty sheep were taken to the island and bombs filled with anthrax spores were detonated close to where selected groups were tethered. The sheep became infected with anthrax and began to die within days of exposure.[13]

Some of the experiments were recorded on 16 mm colour movie film, which was declassified in 1997.[9] One sequence shows the detonation of an anthrax bomb fixed at the end of a tall pole supported with guy ropes. After the bomb explodes, a brownish aerosol cloud drifts away towards the target animals. A later sequence shows anthrax-infected sheep carcasses being burned in incinerators at the end of the experiment.[18] 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.[13] Those conclusions were supported by the inability to decontaminate the island after the experiment—the spores were sufficiently durable to resist any efforts at decontamination.

In 1945, when the island's owner sought its return, the Ministry of Supply recognised that the island was contaminated, and so could not be de-requisitioned until it was deemed safe. In 1946, the government agreed to acquire the island and to take responsibility for it. The owner or their heirs would be able to repurchase the island for £500 when it was declared "fit for habitation by man and beast". For many years, it was judged too hazardous and expensive to decontaminate the island sufficiently to allow public access, and Gruinard Island was quarantined indefinitely.[9] Visits to the island were prohibited, except for periodic checks by Porton Down personnel to determine the level of contamination.[19]

Operation Dark Harvest


In 1981 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 pounds (140 kilograms) 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.[9] A few days later another sealed package of soil was left in Blackpool, where the governing 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.[20]



Starting in 1986 a determined effort was made to decontaminate Gruinard Island, 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in sea water was sprayed over all 485 acres (196 hectares) of the island and the worst-contaminated topsoil around the dispersal site was removed. Run-off from the formaldehyde seeped into the ocean and slowly led to the destruction of intertidal organisms such as barnacles, crustaceans, and seaweed. By 2000, research into intertidal organisms recovery launched and is still ongoing; however, researchers from that survey project in 2007 have said that “recolonization is ongoing, rather than complete.”[21]

A flock of sheep was placed on the island not long after the cleanup in 1987 and remained healthy.[22]

On 24 April 1990, after 48 years of quarantine and four years after the solution was applied, junior defence minister Michael Neubert visited the island and announced its safety by removing the warning signs.[23][13] On 1 May 1990, the island was repurchased by the heirs of the original owner for the original sale price of £500.[15] There was some confusion in which members of the public did not know it was being resold solely to its original owners and people from around the world sent letters to the British government asking to purchase the island for £500.[24]



On 26 March 2022, the island was burned "from one end to the other" by a wildfire.[25] Eyewitnesses described the scene as "apocalyptic".[25] The cause of the wildfire has not been confirmed but around 200 hectares have been destroyed by the fire. A spokeswoman on behalf of the Gruinard estate did not explicitly state the cause of the fire only that "It hasn't caused any damage. It has done good."[26] Local speculation believes the fire was set as an act of muirburn, a Scottish term when native moorland is burned to provide fresh growth for game and livestock.


Gruinard Island is mentioned in the novels The Anthrax Mutation by Alan Scott (1971), The Enemy by Desmond Bagley (1977), Isvik by Hammond Innes (1991), Sea of Death 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), The Island by R. J. Price (better-known as the poet Richard Price) (2010), And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson, The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin (2011), and White Pines by Gemma Amor (2020). It also features as the principal setting for the novel El año de gracia by Cristina Fernández Cubas, in which the protagonist spends a winter shipwrecked on the island.[27] The island is the principal location in the novel Anthrax Island by D. L. Marshall (2021).[citation needed]

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 reference to the Gruinard testing.

The 1970 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.

Outlying Islands, a Fringe First-winning play by Scottish dramatist David Greig, is a fictionalised account of two British scientists' visit to an island in Scotland where the government plans to test anthrax inspired by the story of Gruinard.[28]

"Smallpox Island", off the north-west coast of Scotland, appears in the 2000 AD comic strip Caballistics, Inc., although the warnings of contamination from biological weapons are a cover for a top secret, high-security prison.

The 2006 Doctor Who audio drama Night Thoughts is set on the fictional Gravonax Island, the name and history of which are inspired by those of Gruinard.

The 2013 UK TV series Utopia describes the fictional outbreak of a new form of flu. During Episode 3, Dugdale visits the proposed origin of the virus at the, now quarantined, Island of Fetlar. On arrival, personnel at the island, wearing orange overalls, carry one of numerous covered bodies past on a stretcher in a scene that is nearly identical to that seen in the original test footage from Gruinard Island. In the dramatisation however, the personnel at Fetlar are seen wearing dust masks as opposed to the gas masks seen in the Gruinard footage; likely due to budget constraints (much of Utopia was not filmed where it claims to be).[29]

The experiments are referred to in the storyline of "Trust", the third and fourth episodes of Series 16 of the BBC series Silent Witness.[30]

See also



  1. ^ Area and population ranks: there are c. 300 islands over 20 ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  2. ^ National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013). "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland's Inhabited Islands" (PDF). Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland Release 1C (Part Two) (PDF) (Report). SG/2013/126. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  3. ^ Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 187
  4. ^ Ordnance Survey. OS Maps Online (Map). 1:25,000. Leisure.
  5. ^ Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2003) Ainmean-àite/Placenames. (pdf) Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  6. ^ G.M. Miller, BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (London: Oxford UP, 1971), p. 65.
  7. ^ United States National Research Council (2005). Reopening Public Facilities After a Biological Attack: A Decision-Making Framework. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. p. 196. doi:10.17226/11324. ISBN 978-0-309-09661-4.
  8. ^ Scothorne, Rory (22 March 2022). "The story of anthrax island and Operation Dark Harvest". New Statesman. Retrieved 2 March 2023.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Burke, Myles (22 April 2024). "Britain's mysterious WW2 'island of death'". BBC Culture. Retrieved 29 April 2024.
  10. ^ Monro (1549) "Gruynorde" no. 178
  11. ^ DODGSHON, ROBERT A. (2015). No Stone Unturned: A History of Farming, Landscape and Environment in the Scottish Highlands and Island. Edinburgh University Press. p. 206. ISBN 978-1-4744-0075-6.
  12. ^ Sinclair, Iain. "Gruinard Island". Ross and Cromarty Heritage. Archived from the original on 2 November 2023. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
  13. ^ a b c d Britain's 'Anthrax Island', 25 July 2001 news.bbc.co.uk, accessed 5 March 2020
  14. ^ 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.'" 8 November 2001. BBC, accessed 5 March 2020
  15. ^ a b Pearson, Dr. Graham S. (October 1990) "Gruinard Island Returns to Civil Use " The ASA Newsletter. Applied Science and Analysis. Inc. Retrieved 12 January 2008.
  16. ^ Guillemin, Jeanne (2005). Biological weapons: from the invention of state-sponsored programs to contemporary bioterrorism. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-231-12943-5. OCLC 61113028.
  17. ^ Holland, Geoffrey (June 2005). United States exports of biological materials to Iraq: Compromising the credibility of international law (Report). Archived from the original on 19 August 2021. Anthrax was the weapon of choice and between 1942 and 1943 [Dr Paul Fildes'] team from Porton Down took over the remote Scottish island of Gruinard, where they detonated a series of anthrax-laden bombs, testing their killing efficiency using sheep ... Dr Fildes obtained this anthrax from Prof R L Vollum – Professor of Bacteriology at Oxford University
  18. ^ "X" Base Gruinard Island Trials 1942-43. Imperial War Museum Film and Video Archive. Available at: [1]
  19. ^ "Gruinard Island following contamination by anthrax: annual inspections; correspondence". The National Archives. 1956–1970.
  20. ^ "Dark Harvest". Time. 9 November 1981. Archived from the original on 26 January 2010. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
  21. ^ Johnson, Mark P.; Pye, Sankurie; Allcock, Louise (20 December 2007). "Dispersal mode and assessments of recovery on the shores of Gruinard, the 'anthrax island'". Biodiversity and Conservation. 17 (4): 721–732. doi:10.1007/s10531-007-9307-y. hdl:10379/310. ISSN 0960-3115.
  22. ^ "Sheep as Guinea Pigs on Gruinard : Contaminated Island to Get All-Clear?". Los Angeles Times. 22 November 1987. Retrieved 9 December 2023.
  23. ^ "The mystery of Anthrax Island and the seeds of death". BBC News. 25 February 2022. Retrieved 2 March 2023.
  24. ^ Scott, Tom (31 May 2021). "The Accidental Rush for Anthrax Island". YouTube. Archived from the original on 11 December 2021.
  25. ^ a b "Gruinard Island: Fire on island used for Anthrax experiments". BBC News. 27 March 2022. Retrieved 27 March 2022.
  26. ^ Campsie, Alison (29 March 2022). ""Estate owners say Gruinard fire 'good' for island once contaminated by anthrax"". The Scotsman. Archived from the original on 2 November 2023. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
  27. ^ Fernández Cubas, Cristina. El año de gracia. Originally published in 1985. Tusquets Editores, ISBN 978-8-47223-750-6
  28. ^ "Atticist to Bring Outlying Islands to King's Head Theatre". theatreweekly.com. November 2018. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  29. ^ Anthrax Island (video) www.sonicbomb.com, accessed 5 March 2020 [permanent dead link]
  30. ^ "BBC One - Silent Witness, Series 16, Trust - Episode guide". Archived from the original on 27 September 2017. Retrieved 20 August 2017.