About 15 miles North of Gairloch you might notice Gruinard Island sitting just a few hundred metres from the shore. On sunny days this low-lying piece of land can look peaceful and idyllic, but the fact it's known locally as Anthrax Island ought to clue you in to the fact that a darker history lies hidden beneath its surface.
However, long before its involvement in and subsequent notoreity from the Anthrax experiments carried out there, the island had its own, more peaceful history with ruins and points of interest still visible today.
History and Archaeology of Gruinard
Gruinard is uninhabited now, but back in the 18th century parts of the island were used for farming. This was unlikely to have been a particularly profitable enterprise for the tennants, however, as Peter May, a land surveyor who conducted a survey of the island in 1756 found the arable land (concentrated on the southern portion of the island) to be "of the bad kind, being full of stones and rocks," commenting further that the farm, "would make a poor subsistence living."
Image from Peter May's 1756 survey with North at the bottom and the farmyard recorded at the top of the island (courtesy of Gairloch Museum).
However, make a living from the island people did and the Valuation Rolls from 1855-1935 (available at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk) reveal a multitude of tenants and occupiers right up to the period immediately before the island's purchase by the government.
Remains of buildings and other structures can still be seen today with drone photography now allowing us to see further hidden details, such as the cultivation lines of rigs - a rig being a traditional form of farming that saw the land divided into narrow strips which were rotated between tenants as part of a system of communal tenure.
From a distance, the lines of 'rigs' can be still be clearly seen today (courtesy of Gairloch Museum).
In 2018, staff from Gairloch Museum made a trip to the island to undertake a survey of the archaeological features. They found the ruins of a house and barn still clearly visible, as well as dykes that may date from an even earlier period.
Further details can be found in the Gruinard Island booklet produced by the museum.
The remains of structures still stand on the island (courtesy of Gairloch Museum)
One of these signs warning against setting foot on the contaminated island can be viewed in Gairloch Museum.
During World War II the British army used the island as a testing site for a new strain of Anthrax they'd been developing. For the price of £500, the Ministry of Defense bought the island from its owners. Sheep were brought over to be the test subjects and Anthrax bombs were fired at the island from mortars. Needless to say, the experiment proved a success and all the sheep died within days of exposure to the deadly chemical.
Pleased with their results, the military moved on, but Gruinard now presented a highly toxic environment with Anthrax contamination believed to potentially last for at least a thousand years. Although uninhabited, the island had previously been used on occasion by fishermen and with its proximity to the mainland could be easily reached by anyone curious enough to try.
To avoid human contamination, signs were erected warning people to stay away from the island, but the reasons behind this prohibition were not initially made public. Rumours, however, did circulate about the supposedly poisoned island and, had the military not eventually come clean about their activities, the potential dangers may have become nothing more than folklore. It may be interesting to speculate what real world events, if any, could have been the root of the more ancient stories surrounding other islands around Gairloch.
Certainly, to the presenter of this BBC expose on the island, there was more than a whiff of the superstitious to the locals' talk of a supposed 'Isle of Death'. His sentiment that: "The War Office say that it wouldn’t be in the public interest to disclose the facts. And who should know better what is good for us than a government department?" is one that would perhaps resonate rather less well with a modern audience than it would have at the time.
Dark Harvest Commandos
Eventually, the island would be cleaned up and it is now a safe spot to visit - if you can get there. However, it required the intervention of a group of people some may consider terrorists and a threat to politicians that became international news to force action from the government.
You can find a whole, fascinating podcast on Gruniard Island, encompassing the Highland clearances, former agricultural industries and the anthrax experiments in this Stories of Scotland podcast, including the tale of these 'eco-terrorists'.
Further Reading and Resources
The Press and Journal has an extensive look at the story of Gruinard Island featuring several photos and newspaper clippings regarding events surrounding the island.
Click on image to enlarge.
In 2019, Ian Cumming (Eòin Cuimeanach) won the Film G Award for Gaelic - Fluent Speaker, Best Young Filmmaker for his Gaelic language short film on the island.
Gruinard at the Museum
In Gairloch Museum, you can find further details on Gruinard Island and can even see a real example of one of the signs posted on both the island and the mainland shores facing the island warning people away. If you look at the date in the bottom right of this sign, you can see that the order had to be updated annually.
In 2018, the museum researched and printed a seventy page booklet on the island. This resource covers the history and topography of the island as well as documenting the wartime experiments. Physical copies can be purchased at the museum or online with all proceeds going to Gairloch Museum.