Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Gruinard Island

Gruinard Island is a lozenge shaped sandstone island 2.5km by 1 km and lies on the east side of Gruinard Bay around 1km from the shore.  Once wooded, it was used as sheep pasture from the 18th century.  The island hasn't been permanently inhabited since the 1920's.

In 1941, during the Second World War, government scientists decided that this "useless" island would be ideal for testing a biological weapon.  It was suspected that the Germans were testing weapons containing virulent diseases, so the British scientists decided to act. They penned sixty sheep on the island and bombed them with Anthrax spores. Unsurprisingly, the sheep died (experiment successful?) and were buried in a cave on the island. 

The difficulties began almost straight away.  Firstly, there was no vaccine for Anthrax at the time, and a poor understanding of the propagation and viability of the spores.  Anthrax has the unfortunate qualities of being both a deadly and a very resilient bacillus. Then a sheep carcass floated out of the cave and infected livestock on the mainland.  That was quickly "hushed up".  It became obvious that the spores in the soil were not dying, and the Government bought the island in 1947 from the Eilean Darach estate for £500 and put up the "Keep Out" signs.  As information gradually leaked out post-war, Gruinard was tagged in the popular imagination as "Anthrax Island".

In 1986, amid increasing environmental concern, the UK government's Chemical Defence Establishment conducted new sampling and discovered that there were still relatively high levels of spores in the soil on the island.  A combination of environmental concern and fear of infection/litigation forced action.  The entire surface area of the island was soaked in formaldehyde and sea water to disinfect it, then sheep and rabbits were reintroduced to test the effectiveness of the clean up.

In 1990 the island was declared free of Anthrax and sold back to Eilean Darach estate for the original purchase price - together with a 150 year indemnity.  Some scientists however, claim that  the spores will continue to be brought to the surface by vegetation for hundreds of years......

The one good thing to have come out of the whole experiment was that it did help toward an effective vaccine for Anthrax in both livestock and humans.

(The information above has been paraphrased from Hamish Haswell-Smith's indispensible guide "The Scottish Islands")

Although I feel that it is safe to visit the island - at least on the shore - one can't help having just a little apprehension.  After paddling the 4km across from Mellon Udrigle I landed on the west coast of the island near this arch, which at higher states of the tide could be paddled.

The north west coast of Gruinard Island is an unexpected rock-hopping delight with pinnacles, channels and boulders to explore.

Heading around the north end and down to the south east tip, the spit of Sron a' Mhoil reaches out toward Gruinard House and provides a convenient landing place.

This ruined shepherd's hut seems to be the only building on the island.  Beyond is the 106m high point, An Eilid (the Hind).

It would be good to think that such things will never be happen again, but who knows?  The attitude from far away government which sees this part of a northern land as "useless" is a continuing factor.

Perhaps the last word on the whole affair should be left to Gruinard Island itself.  In the north west corner, a tiny bay contains an eloquent response in stone to the scientists who infected it.

                                       The land always endures, always has the last word!

A thin and chilly wind was blowing, and it was time to leave the island, though I'm glad I visited..  I paddled back to Gruinard into a wintry looking sunset.  I'd managed around 32km during the day without hurrying, and the wild calls of Divers welcomed me back to the beach.


  1. Beautiful, and a bit spooky at the same time.

  2. Hi Maria, The island does have a bit of a strange atmosphere, and I guess is less visited than almost any other island in the region!