Off the coast of Scotland lies a lonely, desolate island. Eerily empty, completely devoid of trees and people, it’s a creepy sounding – and looking – location. But there’s an horrific explanation for that, and it’s the same reason that the place was off limits for nearly half a century. Welcome to the Island of Death.
Lying less than a mile from the coast of Scotland, Gruinard, to give the island its proper name, was actually populated for centuries. Measuring 1.2 miles long, and little more than half a mile wide, the first references in history to the oval-shaped isle date back to the 1500s. Local cleric Donald Munro’s diary is among the first written descriptions of the place. And it appears that he wasn’t a fan.
As “Dean of the Isles”, Munro visited lots of the Scottish islands, including the Hebrides, the group of islets to which Gruinard belongs. Heavily forested at the time, he wrote that the place was only “good for fostering thieves and rebels.” And, it seems, the locals agreed. By the late 1800s, just six people called the island home; by 1930, everyone had gone.
After the end of WWI, the island remained uninhabited for decades, oblivious to the goings-on of the outside world. Of course, everywhere else, life moved on and eventually, a second war engulfed the planet. But it was during the first of these wars that Germany invented a new kind of weapon, using chemicals such as chlorine. The resulting deadly gas attacks incensed the British and pushed them into a chemical response of their own.
Following the use of chlorine on British troops, the government responded by opening a chemical research facility near Salisbury, England. Known as Porton Down, the team there concentrated on weaponizing deadly chemicals for the U.K. military. As well as chlorine, the center would also later produce mustard gas.
While operations at Porton Down were scaled back after the end of WWI, research continued. And when WWII started, the facility then worked on weapons such as nitrogen mustard gas. Although never used during the conflict, believe it or not, the substance later became a chemotherapy drug. The Nazis, however, had also started working on new weapons, unbeknown to the Allies.
In fact, it wasn’t until early 1945 that the Allies had any idea what the Germans were up to. Stumbling upon a cache of ammunition, they also discovered weapons containing previously unknown nerve agents, including the deadly toxin sarin. According to the The Guardian newspaper in 2004, the Nazis developed these weapons both “before and during the war.” And, boy, did they mean business.
“The nerve gases,” The Guardian piece continued, “are more deadly than any other chemical weapon.” So named due to their effects on the nervous system, even a small quantity can cause an excruciating death. The poison affects every muscle in the body, causing unstoppable spasms. The end comes swiftly after paralysis of the rib cage and heart. In short, victims suffocate. The Allies were, of course, shocked by the lethal potential of the devices.
So surprised were Porton Down officials that one reportedly described the situation as being “caught with our pants down.” And in order to remedy that situation, the authorities made a bold decision. Studying the Nazi gases was essential if the British were to produce similar weapons. As a result, within weeks of their discovery, the gas was tested on human subjects – even though the researchers had no idea what its effects would be.
Those unorthodox experiments formed part of a shift in Porton Down’s focus. Determined to have similar chemical and biological capabilities to their enemy, the British team had already begun working on at least two new fatal concoctions of their own. Biological weapons in development included botulinum and anthrax. And it’s the latter that really interested them.
Like botulinum toxin, which humans can contract from eating under-cooked food, anthrax also occurs naturally in farm animals. It rarely affects humans, and when it does, it’s mostly confined to those who work with animals and their byproducts. The disease can attack the body in three different ways: via skin contact, by ingestion and by breathing it in.
Cutaneous, or skin anthrax, occurs after contact with infected animal products, such as meat or fur. If there’s a cut on the skin of someone touching contaminated wool or meat, for instance, the infection enters through the wound. A tell-tale black scab forms over the infection site, and, untreated, the disease can lead to death in around a fifth of cases. And that’s just the least serious of the three forms of infection.
Indeed, if you’re unlucky enough to eat anthrax-contaminated meat, you can look forward to bloody diarrhea and vomit, severe stomach pain, swelling of the intestinal tract and throat and mouth lesions. The disease will spread through your body via the bloodstream, and even with treatment, there’s a 25-60 percent chance you’ll die. And that just leaves the deadliest form of the disease. The one that the British government was so interested in.
The third and final form of anthrax results from respiratory infection. Usually occurring after a person breathes in the bacteria’s spores, the disease initially presents with flu-like symptoms. Beginning with tiredness, breathing difficulties, shivering and feverishness, the disease then moves to its second stage. From here, severe breathlessness due to fluid on the chest can lead to death in about 48 hours. And that’s how it ends in no less than 95 percent of cases.
And even if treated before the disease moves to stage two, the mortality rate is still around 45 percent. So, anthrax is clearly a deadly infection and you can probably guess why any military would want a weapon like that. More specifically, though, the British government had a very particular plan for the biological agent. And it involved high explosives.
Not only were explosives involved, it seems that when the Allies found that Nazi cache of weapons in 1945, they perhaps weren’t as surprised as they made out. Indeed, researchers at Porton Down appear to have been working on weaponizing anthrax for at least a few years. And we know that, thanks to some pretty gruesome experiments carried out during that period. They even filmed some of them. But we’ll get to that a little later.
Perhaps what really surprised the Allies about that Nazi cache of weapons was just how advanced the Germans were. In fact, as early as 1938, the British government had authorized chemical research and stockpiling of agents in anticipation of the war. By the time that cache was discovered, Porton Down had already perfected – and discarded – an anthrax weapon. The research had taken place years earlier, resulting in a delivery system fashioned from something that caused enormous destruction during WWII.
That delivery system was a bomb. An explosive designed to carry a payload containing a very different means of death. Most devices at the time used detonation to release the enormous power of TNT to cause destruction. The anthrax weapons, however, released a deadly cloud of the disease, quickly infecting anyone in the immediate vicinity. And as we’ve seen, inhalation of the bacteria will almost certainly lead to death.
And, as you might have guessed, given that the British were fighting the Nazis, these biological weapons were intended for German cities. Designed to infect millions of citizens, civilian or otherwise, with a fatal disease, this was biological warfare on an enormous scale. Or, it would have been. Those bombs were never dropped on the Allies’ enemies. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t tested.
In the early 1940s, Porton Down scientists working on the anthrax bombs knew they’d need a test site for the weapons. Somewhere remote, away from population centers, and most importantly, secret. A place where biological agents could be used with impunity and the work carried out uninterrupted. So they set about finding one.
In addition to all those requirements, the test site also needed to be small enough that conditions could be controlled as much as possible. Then there’s the likelihood that the resulting contamination – anthrax spores can lay dormant for years – would leave the location uninhabitable for an unknown period of time. With requirements like that, it’s a surprise the scientists found anywhere suitable at all. But find one they did.
So, as impossible as it might have seemed to find exactly the right location, the Porton Down researchers settled on the perfect place. A small, uninhabited island, just under a mile off the Scottish mainland. It’s name? You guessed it, Gruinard. Confirmed as a possible anthrax weapon testing site, in 1942, preparations began in earnest.
Scientists from Porton Down then surveyed the island to assess its suitability for the deadly experiment. Satisfied that Gruinard would meet its requirements, the British government commandeered the land. From there, the anthrax weapons test was a go. The next step, then, was to acquire some anthrax.
Luckily, an Oxford University professor supplied Porton Down with exactly what they were looking for. In total, there are 89 strains of anthrax that we know about, and the researchers got their hands on one of the most virulent. Named Vollum after Roy Vollum, the first scientist to isolate it, he also happens to be the man who supplied the infectious material for the tests.
Poison, delivery system and location all in order, Porton Down researchers had just one final element to put in place: the test subjects. Yes, these bombs were, in fact, tested on living things. More specifically, sheep. Indeed, 80 of the animals were secretly ferried to the island to inhale anthrax spread by bombs. And the results were ghastly.
With the sheep in situ, the deadly payload was activated in two different ways. According to The Scotsman newspaper, devices “dropped from a Vickers Wellington bomber plane scattered anthrax spores across the land,” near the trapped animals. The second method employed by the scientists involved tying a bomb to the top of a pole and detonating it. The resulting cloud of spores then drifted toward the unsuspecting sheep.
Given what we know about the effects of anthrax, you can no doubt imagine the horrendous deaths of those sheep. Only you don’t have to, because the Porton Down scientists filmed it. And while it was top secret at the time, in 1997, the footage was declassified. Be warned, if you go looking for it, the clip is incredibly graphic.
With the success of the tests, and by that we mean the cold-blooded killing of 80 sheep, scientists set about analyzing the results. While the weapon clearly worked, and worked well, there was one enormous drawback. And that was contamination. Indeed, levels on Gruinard were so high following the experiment that it was clear to researchers that any use over a populated area was indefensible. Not because of the casualties, but due the fact that cities would be left uninhabitable for many years following infection with anthrax.
This hypothesis was only further confirmed when the efforts to decontaminate Gruinard following the weapons test failed. It turned out that the spores, chosen for their virulence, were also incredibly difficult to kill. The island was then put into strict quarantine, as any visitors were almost certain to be infected.
At the time, however, all of this was classified information. So naturally locals had no idea of the deadly tests taking place on the island. But when a sheep carcass washed up on a nearby beach and domestic and farm animals began to die horrible, unexplained deaths, residents demanded answers. What they got was compensation. And this led to an interesting nickname for Gruinard.
Perhaps because of the sheep carcass, locals renamed Gruinard “Island of Death,” which turned out to be a remarkably accurate moniker. The now-contaminated site went back to being uninhabited, save for periodic visits from Porton Down scientists. And they only stayed long enough to check contamination. Those levels remained so high that the island remained quarantined for almost five decades.
Despite all that earlier secrecy, the British government posted signs around Gruinard, warning of the anthrax danger. But no further efforts were made to decontaminate the land. In 1981, however, newspapers began receiving threatening messages about the isle. The notes, reportedly sent by “Operation Dark Harvest,” demanded the government do its duty and remove the toxins from the Island of Death. And they were prepared to use Gruinard itself as ammunition.
The messages received by the newspapers suggested that a team of scientists had landed on Gruinard and removed a quantity of soil. The group then promised to leave packages containing the contaminated earth “at appropriate points that will ensure the rapid loss of indifference of the government and the equally rapid education of the public.” And they did more than just make threats.
In fact, the same day that the newspaper received the menacing letter, a package containing some suspicious soil turned up at Porton Down. Could it be a coincidence that the parcel had arrived at the very facility responsible for Gruinard’s contamination? In short, no. Testing of the packet’s contents confirmed anthrax. The group, then, meant business.
Following the delivery at Porton Down, a second mysterious package arrived, but this time the target was far more public. Sent to the city of Blackpool, a few days later, its destination just happened to coincide with the Conservative Party Conference taking place there. As the Conservatives were in power at the time, their selection as recipients is perhaps understandable. However, on this occasion, no anthrax was present. But the soil matched that found on Gruinard.
Was Operation Dark Harvest successful? Well, just before the soil-in-the-post campaign, tests of the island showed contamination levels had fallen to just a few acres. This meant that it was now possible to decontaminate the rest of Gruinard. All the same, that process wouldn’t even begin for another five years. In 1986, though, boffins finally came up with an ingenious idea.
At the cost of more than a million dollars in today’s money, the island was finally declared anthrax-free, after being drenched from coast to coast with a sea water-and-formaldehyde solution weighing thousands of tons. Left to marinate for four years, Gruinard was eventually declared safe in April 1990, nearly 50 years after the tests. Prior to that official announcement, yet more sheep had been drafted in to prove that the danger had passed. But not everyone agreed that the Island of Death was no longer deadly.
Around the same time as the official lifting of quarantine on the Island of Death, the Glasgow Herald newspaper carried an interesting interview. An archaeologist, Dr. Brian Moffat, expressed concern that people might visit the place. “I would not go walking on Gruinard,” he said. And he had good reason to be worried.
Director of a dig in Soutra, just south of the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, Moffat had worked on excavating a hospital from the medieval period. There, he had personal experience with the deadly disease. “If the anthrax is still active at Soutra, there is no reason to believe that it has not survived on more recent sites,” he told the Herald. “It’s a very resistant and deadly bacterium.”
As for the island itself, the original owner’s heir bought Gruinard back from the government for the princely sum of around $1,200 in today’s money. And while Porton Down once was responsible for unleashing anthrax, things have changed somewhat. In fact, a vaccine for the deadly disease has since been produced at the facility. And the lead scientist on the project was a Scot. How’s that for coming full circle?