A new documentary reveals an astonishing story of deadly bacteria, biological warfare, and a shady protest group – all played out around an unassuming small Scottish Island.
Gruinard Island, just a few miles off the coast of Wester Ross, was taken over during the Second World War by government scientists from the MoD’s Porton Down to carry out testing on sheep of a deadly strain of anthrax.
From 1942 onwards, people were forbidden to go onto the uninhabited island for fear of the spores they could inhale from the contaminated soil; spores which had the potential to remain fatally potent for decades.
Stern warning signs were erected on the island and the adjacent mainland and Gruinard was dubbed ‘The Island of Death’ or ‘Anthrax Island’.
A dramatic tale in itself, but almost 40 years later, the story of Gruinard took another major twist.
This documentary reveals an extraordinary – and largely forgotten story – of a group calling themselves the Dark Harvest Commandos.
In 1981, they claimed they had landed on the island and removed 300lbs of infected soil, then left a small package of the potentially lethal substance just outside the perimeter fence at Porton Down. Their aim, they claimed was to force a clean-up of Gruinard.
A letter sent to the media sparked banner headlines, with further outrage following when a second package of soil was found five days later at Blackpool Tower – close to the location of Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party Conference.
A Special Police Task Force was formed with investigations centring on Wester Ross, but nothing definitive emerged with locals reportedly saying very little.
A few years later – some say as a direct result of the protest – MOD scientists began an extensive programme to clean up Gruinard Island and by 1990 the island was declared safe, and now anyone can land there and explore it for themselves.
But what of the Dark Harvest Commandos? They were never found, leaving a last pithy note pinned to the door of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh to say they had called an end to their campaign.
But as this documentary reveals, their messages contained more than just a farewell to their activities with warnings that could possibly still have repercussions today.
This film, directed and produced by John Maclaverty of Indelible Telly, features archive from the times alongside interviews with media, police and locals caught up in the drama of the events.
The Mystery of Anthrax Island will be shown today, Tuesday 1 March, on BBC Scotland from 10-11pm. It will be available on iPlayer thereafter.