9th October 1981

First warnings received in Operation Dark Harvest

“Where better to send our seeds of death than to the place from whence they came?”

That chilling sentence was included in a letter received by Scottish newspapers on 9 October 1981, at the start of Operation Dark Harvest.

The ‘seeds’ to which the threat referred were anthrax spores, which had been released on the island of Gruinard, close to Ullapool almost 40 years earlier. The British government had purchased the island during the Second World War and used it as a site for testing biological weapons, convinced that Nazi Germany must be doing the same thing.

Thus, scientists at Porton Down, Britain’s centre for biological research, developed a particularly virulent strain of anthrax, which they transported more than 500 miles north to the island. When they arrived, they brought across a flock of sheep by boat, then used small bombs to expose the anthrax spores to the open air.

Anthrax island

The wind carried the spores towards the unsuspecting flock. Within hours, the sheep were dying, and although the UK’s anthrax bombs were never used during the war, the experiment was deemed a success.

However, Gruinard was left heavily polluted and uninhabitable for an indeterminate period. Anthrax, given the right conditions, can remain dormant for up to 200 years and still cause harm if ingested or inhaled. Thus, signs were put up warning the public to stay away, for their own safety and that of society at large.

Operation Dark Harvest

But one group claimed it had ignored the signs and, in the letters sent to news organisations, the Dark Harvest Commando of the Scottish Citizen Army claimed that it had removed 300lb of soil from locations right across the island. It explained its plan to distribute the soil around the mainland, with the aim of having the British government take responsibility for Gruinard Island’s clean-up.

The first bucket was left by a perimeter fence of the Porton Down research establishment, where the anthrax spores had initially been developed. The bucket was discovered on 10 October – the day after the letters had been received.

A second bucket was discovered behind a locked door at Blackpool Tower four days later, at a time when the ruling Conservative Party was holding its annual conference in the town.

Analysis of the soil in the first bucket confirmed that it did indeed contain anthrax, although the spores were not present in the second. A major operation had by then been launched, with police and the military searching for the remaining soil and the people who had taken it. They were also trying to work out how best to keep people off the island.

Gruinard Island clean-up

However, things went quiet for some time, and it wasn’t until 7 December that another letter appeared. This was pinned to the door of St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, and it announced the suspension of Operation Dark Harvest as, it claimed, the group’s goals had been achieved.

The government set about cleaning up the island by spraying a mix of sea water and formaldehyde on the land and testing at regular intervals. Eventually, on 24 April 1990, after four years of clean-up operations, Gruinard Island was declared anthrax free. It was sold back to its original owners.

However, somewhat worryingly, it was also revealed that the soil hadn’t come from Gruinard at all, but from the land opposite it, on the mainland. If that’s true, it would suggest that anthrax spores had blown across the channel between the island and mainland during the tests.

Moreover, the remainder of the 300lb of soil held by the group has never been recovered.



Other events that occured in October

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