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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 12:19 GMT
Living with anthrax island
Anthrax Island: Still beautiful but no longer deadly
The prospect of coming into contact with anthrax terrifies many. But for the residents of a remote Scottish community the biological agent was a part of normal life for half a century, writes BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

The western coast of the Scottish Highlands is speckled with islands. Isle of Ewe. Horse Island. Bottle Island. And not forgetting "Anthrax Island".

Gruinard Island, to give it its proper name, is just a few hundred metres from the mainland village of Mungasdale. In 1942, it became the focus of the UK's secret effort to find a weapon capable of defeating the Nazis.

Winston Churchill during World War II
Why should the devil have the best weapons?
To test the potency of their biological arsenal, War Office scientists took a flock of 60 sheep to Gruinard and exposed them to a bomb packed with the anthrax spores.

"I understand Winston Churchill was very keen on using anthrax," says local historian Donald McIntyre. "He didn't see why the devil should have all the best weapons."

Mr McIntyre, who was away serving in the RAF during the tests, says he doubts local people would have put up any resistance to the island becoming such a deadly laboratory.

'Doing our part'

"It was a nasty business, but nobody would have dreamt of making a protest. It was wartime and people wanted to show their patriotism and do their part. Anyway, the powers-that-be wouldn't have taken too kindly to any complaints."

There was lots of activity. It was a great fun.

Local resident Alice MacIver
The authorities were not entirely oblivious to local feelings. When the carcass of one dead Gruinard sheep washed up on the mainland after a storm, infecting other livestock, compensation payments were quick in coming.

"It's not often you put in a complaint and get paid straight away," says Mr McIntyre.

Top secret

Alice MacIver, whose father's farm was one of those affected, says such was the secrecy surrounding the Gruinard tests, residents actually had no inkling of what was going on.

"There was lots of activity. It was a great fun, when you remember this is very quiet place. We just thought it was some military exercise."

Gruinard Island
Churchill's deadly laboratory
With Germany defeated, 520-acre Gruinard Island was deemed off-limits and abandoned by the government.

"It wasn't for a long time after the war that we found out about the anthrax tests. We weren't worried at all about it. Nobody ever went there as far as I know," says Mrs MacIver.

An unflappable breed, not all locals avoided "Anthrax Island" if there was a good enough reason. Fisherman Alexander Wiseman admits to having ventured passed the 'Keep Out' signs.

Deadly legacy

"I've been there many times to recover loose buoys which had washed up on the beach. I didn't think anything of it."

It took the authorities the best part of 50 years to begin the decontamination of the island. Will Kay was the contractor put in charge of the tricky operation of killing any remaining spores with tonnes of seawater and formaldehyde.

London during the Blitz
Anthrax could have helped hit back at Hitler
"I'd never done anything like that before. We were vaccinated against anthrax before we went, but were actually at greater risk from the formaldehyde which is quite difficult to deal with."

Mr Kay says far from being a barren wasteland, the island was rich in wildlife and "on a nice day very pleasant".

"Having lived with anthrax for so long there was no noticeable sense of relief among the locals that the island was being cleaned up. I was told people had even had picnics on Gruinard's beach."

'Perfectly safe'

Despite suggestions by some experts that the island can never be freed of its anthrax legacy, Mr Kay says he would be perfectly happy to return there. Many locals, including Mrs MacIver's son, have also been tempted to tour Gruinard since the all clear was given in 1990.

RAF member in protective clothing
Anthrax remains a potent military threat
Carol McGregor, owner of Sand House hotel overlooking the island, says Gruinard's history has never put off visitors. She doesn't even expect the renewed fears about the disease to hurt trade.

Locals, who are currently up in arms over a proposed nuclear waste dump, seem fully resigned to their place in the history of biological weapons research.

"If I could have suggested anything," says Mr Wiseman, "it would have been that they used another island. Gruinard's beautiful and there are plenty of others around here that are no use to anyone."

See also:

25 Jul 01 | Scotland
Britain's 'Anthrax Island'
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