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BBC Scotland documentary to explore murky past of 'Anthrax Island'; use of Gruinard Island in Wester Ross as a World War II biological testing site, and infamous 80s incidents, highlighted in show

By Philip Murray

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An illustrative scene from new documentary The Mystery of Anthrax Island. Picture: BBC Scotland/Indelible Telly.
An illustrative scene from new documentary The Mystery of Anthrax Island. Picture: BBC Scotland/Indelible Telly.

THE notorious anthrax-linked past of a Wester Ross island will be explored in a new BBC Scotland documentary which airs next week.

The Mystery of Antrhrax Island, which airs on the TV channel next Tuesday at 10pm, will explore Gruinard Island’s infamous past as a World War II biological weapons testing site that rendered it uninhabitable – and deadly – for decades.

The island was taken over by UK government scientists from the MoD’s Porton Down during the war 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 then Prime Minister Margaret 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,” said a spokesman for BBC Scotland.

“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.

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