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Gruinard Island

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Gruinard Island, 1981
Gruinard Island
© Hilmar Ilgenfritz

Gruinard Island lies in Gruinard Bay on the west coast of Ross and Cromarty, approximately halfway between Gairloch and Ullapool. The small, oval-shaped island covers an area of about 484 acres (196 ha), it measures approximately 1.2 miles (2 km) long by 0.6 miles (1 km) wide, and sits just under 0.7 miles (1.1 km) offshore.

It seems that in 1881 six people lived on the island, and the ruins of cottages and field walls can be found on the land. There do not appear to be any records of when the last inhabitant left the island, but by the 1930s it was being used solely for sheep grazing, rough shooting, fishing, collecting birds eggs, and as a popular spot for local picnics. Other than the sheep, the island's population comprised of rabbits, and visiting birds.

The uninhabited island became well known after World War II, having been chosen as the test site for lethal germ warfare tests, which led to it being quarantined for 48 years due to the resultant contamination.

Taken in 1981, the image to the right is significant as the island would still then have been contaminated, with official warning signs in place to discourage visitors:

Gruinard Sign 1981 film clip, 1981
Gruinard Sign 1981
BY ORDER .1981.

The dots on either side of the date in the last line indicate that the years was printed on a small replaceable panel. Presumably some unfortunate Government employee had to visit the island and update this panel every year for as long as the order remained in place.

Scientists recorded their work on film, but this material remained classified until 1997.


Anthrax can be contracted by skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation.

It was previously not uncommon for animal workers to become infected with anthrax through skin contact - it was called woolsorter's disease at one point - when a boil would appear which would eventually form a black centre.

Inhalation is the most deadly, with some 95% of such cases proving fatal, even with medical treatment. Once anthrax spores have been inhaled death usually occurs within seven days, due to causes such as internal bleeding, blood poisoning, or even meningitis. Symptoms of the initial infection might include mild fever, malaise, fatigue, coughing, sometimes accompanied by a feeling of pressure on the chest.

Experts on biological weapons have suggested that 100 kg of anthrax sprayed on a major city could kill more than 3 million people.

Early germ warfare

As early as the 1930s, the British had learned several foreign nations were involved in activities potentially related to germ warfare, more generally referred to as biological warfare in later years. As World War II began, further intelligence was received which suggested that the Axis powers were pursuing similar research with the aim of on acquiring such a capability, and may even have succeeded in developing it. As the war continued, and Nazi forces seemed to be making steady progress across Europe and towards Russia, Winston Churchill concluded that there was a need to develop a germ warfare weapon. He would have been well aware of the drawbacks of such a weapon, after the use of gas during World War I, but wanted to have such a weapon available to act as a deterrent, to be used in the event that Hitler ever chose to use such a weapon first. The War Cabinet decided that investigations had to be carried out to determine the feasibility of such biological or germ weapons, and that the British had to able to threaten retaliation in the event that such weapons were used against their country. The British device would be referred to as the N-Bomb.

World War II germ warfare tests

In late 1940, a highly secret autonomous group known as the Biology Department, Porton (BDP), was set up within the Chemical Defence Experimental Station (CDES) at Porton Down, mandated to assess the feasibility and hazard of biological warfare, and to consider the means for retaliation should this form of warfare be employed against the British. Porton Down had already carried out trials with harmless simulants released from bombs on its range, and demonstrated how even a small device could deliver a significant number of inhalable particles 250 yards from the explosion. Laboratory test carried out with animals had also confirmed that inhalation of the dispersed material caused fatalities in several species of animal, proving that the material remained viable after the explosion.

In 1942, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) purchased the island of Gruinard for £500, when it was immediately declared to be a Prohibited Area, and all visitors were banned. The island was designated X-Base.

Test on the island were carried out by experts from Porton Down, involving the detonation of small explosives charges loaded with anthrax spores. It should be noted that the island was never bombed from the air, as suggested by some stories. This would have been far too risky, and resulted in an uncontrolled release of the spores, and was not the aim of the tests.

In order to determine the effect of the spores on living animals, a flock of 60-80 sheep was purchased from a local farm and transported to the island. There, the animals were restrained in various ways to ensure they would be in the path of the spores when they were released.

This short excerpt, from a much longer American report on biological warfare (Department of the Army, Food and Drug Administration, Biological Warfare and Terrorism: The Military and Public Health Response - a six-part set - AVA20825VNB6, 2000)[1], shows the salient points:

Gruinard Island Anthrax Biological Warfare Experiment Great Britain 1942

Also, an unidentified American documentary, which included a section on Gruinard:

Anthrax exposed, Scottish Highlands

A small controlled explosion was used to disperse the spores. This had two purpose, to disperse the spores so the effectiveness of their spread could be assesses, and to discover whether or not the spores would survive the blast pressure and temperature of the explosion.

There was no immediate effect on the animals, but after three days they began to collapse and die, with blood oozing from their bodies shortly before death occurred.

The trials were carried out during the summers of 1942 and 1943. The first year saw trials with a 30 pound bomb, followed in the second year with a 4 pound bomb. The smaller bomb had been designed to be part of a cluster bomb which contained more than 100 of the 4 pound bombs.

The tests were successful in that they confirmed that the spores could be dispersed and would infect the sheep, and that the material remained viable after the dispersal explosion. However, the island was too small to accommodate larger and more ambitious tests, and was abandoned soon after these tests were completed. By the time the tests were completed, D-Day was approaching, and the need for such a weapon was receding, as it was of little use on the battlefield.

Like the gasses used during World War I, this new biological weapon was found to be similarly difficult to control. It's dispersal was dependent on the weather, and being spread by the wind meant it could change direction unexpectedly and without warning. Such attacks could be turned back on their originators, making such weapons almost as deadly to them as their intended target.

Anthrax had also proven to have another disadvantage. Unlike a modern chemical or biological weapon, which is designed to self-destruct after a few hours or days and allow personnel into the area, anthrax spores persist in ground after use, for decades, rendering it lethal and denying access almost permanently. To be useful, such weapons need to be able to be disabled after use, either by design, or later neutralisation, thereby allowing access to the area they were used on.

The project had been a joint effort involving Britain, Canada, and the United States, but the end of World War II also ended any urgency to acquire a tactical biological weapon.

After the animal tests had been completed on the island, stories of dead sheep being washed ashore began to appear. At the time, these were attributed to a Greek freighter in the area, and it was said that Greek sailors had been throwing infected carcasses overboard. The British Government even reimbursed local farmers who had lost stock, on behalf of the Greek Government. However, this was actually a cover story prepared by the security service, to hide any evidence of the real work being carried out on the island.

In reality, once the tests had been completed, the carcasses had been collected and placed at the base of a cliff on Gruinard. The plan had been to bury them by using explosives to drop the cliff, but the plan went wrong, and the force of the explosion blew some of the infected carcases out to sea, where they were lost. When reports of animals dying on the mainland began to circulate, the security services created the story about the Greek sailors, amidst fears that news of the lethal testing which had been carried out on the island would lead to panic.

Cattle cake infection

In order to meet the War Cabinet requirement for a means of retaliation, Porton Down produced some five million linseed-oil based cattle cakes which had been filled with deadly anthrax spores, for use in Operation Vegetarian. The plan was to use bombers to drop the cattle cakes over Germany using specially designed containers, each holding 400 cakes. The plan intended for the disease to destroy the German beef and dairy herds, and possibly even spread into the human population. Preparations for the operation were not completed until early 1944. It was essential that weapon be deployed during the summer months, when the cattle were on the pastures. By then, Allied troops had landed in Europe, and it had become clear that the war could be won using conventional means. The plan was abandoned. [2] The stockpile of infected cattle cake was kept at Porton Down until the end of World War II, when it was destroyed.

Postwar consequences of the tests

After World War II ended, the owner sought the return of the island in 1945. However, the Ministry of Supply recognized the extent of the contamination of the island as a result of the experiments, and that it could not be derequisitioned until deemed safe.

In 1946, the Government agreed to acquire the island and responsibility for it. Consequently, the owner or his/her heirs and beneficiaries would then be able to repurchase the island for the original sale price of £500 when it was declared "Fit for habitation by man and beast".

Between 1947 and 1968, the island was visited by staff from the Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE) at Porton Down, to collect soil samples for assay. No reduction in the level of contamination was found over that period.

In 1979, the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE) took over responsibility for this work, when a small joint CDE/MRE team carried out a survey, followed by a more detailed series of CDE surveys during the early 1980s. A study was also undertaken into possible means of decontaminating the land. Improved assay techniques, together with the more detailed surveys revealed that the area contaminated by the anthrax spores was not widespread, but had in fact been effectively limited to the area of the World War II experiments around where the spores had been released, and extended only to an area of about three acres.

This would tie in with local accounts given to the BBC, such as from fisherman Alexander Wiseman, who admitted to having passed the official warning signs, "I've been there many times to recover loose buoys which had washed up on the beach. I didn't think anything of it." The contractor tasked with decontaminating the island said " I was told people had even had picnics on Gruinard's beach," adding, "We were vaccinated against anthrax before we went, but were actually at greater risk from the formaldehyde which is quite difficult to deal with."

Operation Dark harvest and environmental terrorism

The anthrax contamination led to one of the earliest examples of "environmental terrorism".

In 1981, a group threatened to leave to leave samples of 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 group claimed that the soil had been collected from Gruinard by a team of microbiologists from two universities, and went on to say that with the assistance of locals, they had landed on the island and collected a total of 300 lb (140 kg) of contaminated soil from the ground.

Through messages sent to newspapers under the heading Operation Dark Harvest, the group demanded that the Government decontaminated the island, and threatened to leave samples of the soil they had collected "at appropriate points that will ensure the rapid loss of indifference of the government and the equally rapid education of the general public". On the same day that the messages were sent, a sealed package containing soil was left outside Porton Down. When tested, it was found to contain anthrax bacilli.

A few days later, another sealed package of soil was left in Blackpool, where the Conservative Party (then in power) was holding its annual party conference. The soil in this package was not found to contain anthrax when tested, but officials said that the soil it contained was similar to that found on the Gruinard.


In 1986, a major operation commenced in order to decontaminate Gruinard and make it habitable.

This began with spraying the area to be decontaminated with a herbicide, then burning off the dead vegetation was then burnt off to ensure that the subsequent application of decontaminant would reach all areas of the surface. This involved the spraying of the entire island with 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in 2,000 tonnes of seawater, and removing the most contaminated areas of topsoil which lay around the original wartime dispersal site. Perforated tubing was used to ensure that 50 litres of solution were applied to every square metre being treated, with the area being divided into sections which were treated in a set procedure.

In October 1968, the effectiveness of the decontamination process was assessed by taking two duplicate sets of soil samples. One was tested by CDE at Porton Down, the other by the Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge, Surrey. The samples were taken to a depth of 50 cm, or to bedrock, with some 130 sites were sampled by taking twin cores, each being analysed as a number of slices. This showed that the decontamination treatment had been almost completely effective, with anthrax spores detected only in small quantities in a few places. These specific areas were treated in July 1987, followed by further soil sampling in October 1987. No traces of anthrax spores were found.

Blood from indigenous rabbits on the island was also tested for anthrax antibodies. No such antibodies were found.

Following these measures, it was recommended that a flock of sheep be left on the island, and monitored to determine its state of health. A local farmer grazed part of his flock of sheep on the island for six months when 40 sheep were grazed on Gruinard Island from May to October 1987. The sheep were inspected monthly by the District Veterinary Officer, and returned to the mainland in October 1987 in excellent condition.

On April 24, 1990, 48 years after the island had been quarantined, and 4 years after the decontamination works had been completed, junior Defence Minister Michael Neubert visited the island and removed the safety signs, indicating that the island had been rendered safe

On May 1, 1990, as per the original requisition order of World War II, the island was sold back to the heirs of the original owner for the original sale price of £500.

Starting in 1986 a determined effort was made to decontaminate the island, with 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in seawater being sprayed over all 196 hectares 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 and 4 years after the solution being applied, junior defence minister Michael Neubert visited the island and announced its safety by removing the warning signs.[8] On 1 May 1990, the island was repurchased by the heirs of the original owner for the original sale price of £500.[10]

Doubts about the decontamination

When the official assurances were issued regarding the safety of the island following the completion of the decontamination, the Glasgow Herald newspaper reported that a leading archaeologist was unconvinced by the announcement.

Dr Brian Moffat, then archaeological director of an excavation of a medieval hospital near Edinburgh, said his team had encountered buried anthrax spores which had survived for hundreds of years, and told the paper: "I would not go walking on Gruinard. If anthrax is still active at Soutra, there is no reason to suppose it has not survived on more recent sites. It is a very resilient and deadly bacterium." [3]

Anthrax vaccine

According to a BBC report, it was announced in July 2001 that a team led by a Scottish scientist had produced a vaccine for anthrax.

Sir William Stewart, who led the research group, said the vaccine should act as a safeguard for the future. Production of the vaccine followed two years work at Porton Down, the Government's chemical and biological warfare research centre.

Soviet anthrax research

Gruinard was not the only island contaminated by biological or germ warfare tests, and a former Soviet island has been confirmed as a site where similar testing was carried out.


Kantubek was a town on Vozrozhdeniya Island (Uzbekistan) in the Aral Sea. The town once had a population of about 1,500, and was used by the former Soviet Union to test biological weapons. It is reported that such experiments were being conducted there on monkeys, as far back as the early 1930s.

The town can still found on maps, but is described as being uninhabited and in ruins.

Vozrozhdeniya Island

Vozrozhdeniya Island, also known as Rebirth Island, was an island in the Aral Sea, an inland sea within the former Soviet Union.

Once a small island, Vozrozhdeniya began to grow in size during the 1960s as the Aral Sea began to dry up as the rivers which drained onto it were gradually dammed by the Soviet Union for agricultural projects. This process continued until Vozrozhdeniya became a peninsula in mid-2001, when the channel to its south dried up completely and became a causeway or land bridge.

When the Southeast Aral Sea disappeared completely in 2008, Vozrozhdeniya also effectively ceased to exist as a distinct geographical feature, although the peninsula briefly reappeared in 2010, when the eastern basin flooded during a heavy snow melt.

Vozrozhdeniya Island was one of the main laboratories and testing sites for the Soviet Union's Microbiological Warfare Group. In 1948, a top-secret Soviet bioweapons laboratory was established there, testing a variety of agents, including anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, and tularemia.[4]

In 1971, a release of weaponised smallpox from the island infected ten people, resulting in three deaths.

In the 1990s, information about the island's danger was spread by Soviet defectors, including Ken Alibek, former head of the Soviet Union's bioweapons program.[5]. This confirmed that Vozrozhdeniya had been a biological weapons centre where anthrax spores and bubonic plague bacilli had been made into weapons, and stored.

Laboratory staff abandoned the small island in 1992.[6] Many of the containers holding the spores were not properly stored or destroyed when the area was abandoned, and many of containers developed leaks.

In 2002, through a project organized and funded by the United States with Uzbekistan assistance, 10 anthrax burial sites were decontaminated, an expedition led by Brian Hayes, a biochemical engineer with the United States Department of Defense's Threat Reduction Agency, travelled to the area during the spring and summer, to neutralize what was probably the largest anthrax dumping grounds in the World. A team of 113 is reported to have neutralized between 100 and 200 tonnes of anthrax over a three-month period in a cleanup operation costing approximately US$5,000,000.


Biopreparat is now known to have been the Soviet Union's major biological warfare agency from the 1970s. It comprised a vast network of secret laboratories, with each being focused on a different deadly agent. 30,000 employees researched and produced pathogenic weapons for use in a major war.

It had been established in 1973, describes as a civilian' continuation of earlier Soviet biological warfare programs, after and academician convinced General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that development of biological weapons was necessary. The research at Biopreparat constituted a blatant violation by the Soviet Union of the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, which outlawed biological weapons, and its existence was steadfastly denied by Soviet officials for decades.

In April 1979, a major outbreak of pulmonary anthrax in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) caused the deaths of some 105 Soviet citizens. The Soviets tried to cover up the incident, but details were leaked to the West in 1980 when the German newspaper Bild Zeitung carried a story about the accident. Moscow described allegations that the epidemic was an accident at a biological warfare facility as "slanderous propaganda" and insisted the anthrax outbreak had been caused by contaminated food.

Biopreparat suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, but was part of a system of 18, nominally civilian, research laboratories and centres scattered mainly around European Russia, where a small army of scientists and technicians developed biological weapons including: anthrax, ebola, marburg, plague, Q fever, junin, glanders, and smallpox. It was the largest producer of weaponized anthrax in the Soviet Union and a leader in the development of new bioweapons technologies.

Biopreparat facilities included major labs and production centres:

The project had 18 major labs and production centers:

  • Stepnagorsk Scientific and Technical Institute for Microbiology, Stepnogorsk, northern Kazakhstan
  • Institute of Ultra Pure Biochemical Preparations, Leningrad, a weaponised plague center
  • Vector State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR), a weaponised smallpox center
  • Institute of Engineering Immunology, Lyubuchany
  • Institute of Applied Biochemistry, Omutninsk
  • Kirov bioweapons production facility, Kirov, Kirov Oblast
  • Zagorsk smallpox production facility, Zagorsk
  • Berdsk bioweapons production facility, Berdsk
  • Sverdlovsk bioweapons production facility (Military Compound 19), Sverdlovsk, a weaponised anthrax centre
  • Vozrozhdeniya Island bioweapons testing site, Aral Sea

Pathogens that were successfully weaponised by Biopreparat included (in order of completion):

  • Smallpox
  • Bubonic plague
  • Anthrax
  • Venezuelan equine encephalitis
  • Tularemia
  • Influenza
  • Brucellosis
  • Marburg virus (believed to be under development as of 1992)
  • Ebola (believed to be under development as of 1992)
  • Machupo virus (believed to be under development as of 1992)
  • Veepox (hybrid of Venezuelan equine encephalitis with smallpox)
  • Ebolapox (hybrid of ebola with smallpox)

Production figures for the above pathogens have been described as being in the tens of tons per annum, with redundant production facilities located throughout the Soviet Union.


1 Biological Warfare and Terrorism: The Military and Public Health Response (Part 1 of 6) : Department of the Army : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive Retrieved April 26, 2013.

2 Millions were in germ war tests | Politics | The Observer Retrieved April 26, 2013.

3 BBC News | SCOTLAND | Britain's 'Anthrax Island' Retrieved April 26, 2013.

4 Tom Mangold; Jeff Goldberg (2001). Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare. Macmillan. pp. 46–47. ISBN 9780312263799

5 Hoffman, David (2009). The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. Random House. p. 460. ISBN 9780385524377

6 Pala, Christopher (2003), Anthrax Island, The New York Times, January 12, 2003.

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