UK’s creepy ‘anthrax island’ left uninhabitable for 48 years after deadly tests

Dark tourism is growing in popularity among holidaymakers as people seek out hotspots with a macabre past. Whether it’s visiting Chernobyl or heading to prisons like Alcatraz, people are fascinated by their terrible history.

But, did you know that there’s an island right here in the UK that will horrify most visitors? In fact, what occurred on the Scottish island left it unsafe to live on for 48 years…

Gruinard Island sits 1km off the coast of Scotland near Laide and Ullapool. It’s visible from the mainland on a clear day, but holds a terrible past dating to World War II.

READ MORE: Inside creepy 'Island of Death' haunted by plague and 160,000 lost souls

Interested in the application of deadly chemical and biological weapons, British military scientists began to test them on the island in 1942. This included the use of anthrax – a deadly bacterial infection which, when breathed in, eaten or absorbed through broken skin causes a range of devastating medical effects including huge sores.

Gruinard Island was chosen for this testing as it was remote and uninhabited. It was recognised that it would contaminate the area for a long time.

The island was then filled with 80 sheep and germ bombs were detonated close to certain groups of the animals. The sheep began to die within days.

Records of the germ bombs, and even videos, show brown clouds of spores drifting from them towards the animals. But, the island could not be decontaminated from the tests after the release of the spores for many, many years.

In fact, when the island’s owner wanted it back in 1945 – after the war had ended – the Ministry of Supply noted that it couldn’t be handed over until it was deemed safe and so the government took over the island. They noted that the island and its heirs could buy it back for £500 when it was "fit for habitation".

Anyone who ventured onto the island after the tests was at risk of dying a horrible death. In 1981 – 40 years after the germ bombs were tested – newspapers received messages headed Operation Dark Harvest. A team of microbiologists claimed that they had taken 140kg of soil from the island – and said they would leave samples of the infected soil around the UK until the island was decontaminated.

Packages of soil were then left at the military research facility in Porton Down as well as in Blackpool. Thankfully they did not contain anthrax – but the soil was apparently similar to that on the island.

Finally, in 1986 the island began to be stripped of anthrax. Formaldehyde solution diluted in sea water was sprayed over the island and the worst topsoil removed. Eventually sheep were able to remain healthy when living on Gruinard and in 1990 – 48 years after the test – it was declared safe.

The original owners heirs did indeed purchase the island back for £500. Now, you can visit the infamous “anthrax island” for short trips. Sailboats will take you over to the island from Ullapool – however, you should only do so at your own risk.

Dr Brian Moffat, then archaeological director of an excavation of a medieval hospital near Edinburgh, told BBC News in 2013: "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."

There is little to see on the island except for a few ruins from the 1800s and a lot of open space. As such, it may be safer to spot the deadly island from the mainland – just to be sure.

The Dark Tourism website states: "What there is to see: Nothing but the treeless flat island itself. What remains of its grim history is just a certain dark aura. You may justifiably feel that you don't need to actually set foot on the island – which would be a disproportionate logistical effort anyway, though it's not impossible. But there's really no need. There's absolutely nothing there to see.

"You could simply stop by the road on the mainland and view the barren piece of land lying there in the bay and contemplate the dark legacy. It's not quite like Vozrozhdeniya Island, but close enough in nature to exude a certain uncomfortable thrill …"

The Torridon offers a trip from 9am to 5pm from Ullapool which takes resort guests on a tour near the island. Their site states: "Skip past Loch Maree’s ancient islands where mythical fairies abound in some of Scotland’s last original pine forests before visiting Gairloch.

"Here you will enjoy golden sands, local shopping and historical knowledge. Further round the coast you’ll visit Gruinard Bay and discover the dark secrets of Gruinard Island before visiting the deeply mysterious Corrieshalloch Gorge, one of Scotland’s finest glaciated gorges formed more than 10 thousand years ago by rapidly melting ice sheets."

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