“Hereabouts, they call it the island of death, the mystery Island, and for good reason,” said windswept BBC reporter Fyfe Robertson as he stood across the sea from the remote and desolate Scottish island of Gruinard in a 1962 TV report. “Now, this is not a story of old dark deeds or Highland superstition. No, this story started in 1942.”

       Robertson was aiming to investigate the stories of dangerous government experiments that were believed to have happened on Gruinard. At the time he was reporting, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence had already declared the island off-limits, and Robertson couldn’t persuade fearful locals to sail him around the island to get a closer look at it.

       The truth was that Gruinard Island had been the site of a clandestine attempt by the U.K. during World War Two to weaponise Anthrax, a deadly bacterial infection. The exact details of what had happened there would only come to light when in 1997 the government declassified a film that the military had shot at the time, which detailed the experiments. 

       The project, called Operation Vegetarian, was to infect linseed cakes with Anthrax spores and drop them by plane into cattle pastures around Germany. The cows would eat the cakes and contract Anthrax, as would those who ate the infected meat.

       Anthrax is a naturally occurring but deadly organism. Symptoms of infection can take time to fully appear but when they do, they are horrific and can become lethal very quickly. The proposed plan would have decimated Germany’s meat supply, and triggered a nationwide Anthrax contamination, resulting in an enormous death toll.

       In the summer of 1942, the military bought the remote, uninhabited 522-acre island of Gruinard, and banned locals from landing there. A military team, under the supervision of scientists, then began to conduct chilling experiments. Using livestock brought over to the island to serve as test subjects, they started a series of trials releasing Anthrax spores across the island’s terrain. 

       Eighty-odd sheep were tethered at various stages downwind of the simulated “drop” site; they were testing whether the infected linseed cakes would remain potent after an airdrop. The simulation was remotely controlled, and a draught of highly potent spores moved down on the wind, causing infection and death wherever it went.

       The results were devastating. Within days of exposure, the sheep started showing symptoms of Anthrax and rapidly began to die. Their infected bodies were autopsied and then incinerated or buried under tons of rubble.  

       The secret trials carried on until 1943, when the military deemed them a success, and scientists packed up and left. Five million linseed cakes laced with Anthrax were produced, but the plan was ultimately abandoned as the Allies’ Normandy invasion progressed, leading the cakes to be destroyed after the war.

       By 1952, Britain had developed a different weapon of mass destruction and had succeeded in its ambition to become the third nuclear power in the world. Four years later, it ended its offensive chemical and biological weapons programs, and in 1975 ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, which bans all use, production or stockpiling of them.

       The aftermath of Operation Vegetarian was catastrophic to the Island of Death. Anthrax is a very resistant bacteria and can persist for decades in the soil, causing infection when ingested even years after an outbreak. The military’s experiments had left the island too dangerous for people or animals to live on, with even the rainwater washing from the island being potentially lethal.

       In the months following the tests, animals on the mainland near Gruinard Bay began dying. The U.K. government quietly paid out compensation to those affected but claimed the deaths were the result of a diseased sheep that had fallen off a passing Greek ship. One local told the BBC in 1962: “It was quite obvious to us that they knew something about it, or they wouldn’t have paid up so quick as they did.”

       The military quarantined the island indefinitely and posted signs warning away visitors. In the decades that followed the end of World War Two, attempts were made to decontaminate the site using chemical treatments and controlled burning, but they proved largely ineffective. A series of tests in 1971 showed that while there were no longer Anthrax spores on the surface, they still lingered on in the soil underneath, posing a grave risk to anyone setting foot on the island. 

      In 1981, an environmental group called the Dark Harvest Commandos landed on the island and took samples of Anthrax-infected soil. They left a bucket of that soil outside a major government establishment to highlight the deadly contamination on the island: The aim was to force the government to do something. 

       Five years later, scientists returned to try decontamination efforts again, soaking the island in a mixture of seawater and formaldehyde, as well as removing and incinerating contaminated topsoil. This time they were more successful and finally, on the 24th of April 1990, after 48 years of quarantine, the UK Government declared Gruinard Island Anthrax-free. 

       Gruinard, the Island of Death, was not the only site where the UK conducted secret biological warfare tests, but it was the first. The consequences of what happened there stand as a grim testament to both the dangers of biological warfare and humanity’s capacity for destruction.

       Certain elements in today’s world appear to be re-considering the use of biological weapons – Putin is alleged to have “tested the waters” in Ukraine, for example, and other have, and are, considering it.

       I write this piece not only as an interesting historical event but also as a warning to us, the public, that such experiments are almost certainly still going on somewhere, and with those experiments, comes the potential, and the temptation, of their deployment.

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