Gruinard Island, Scotland

  - darkometer rating:  6 -
A small island off Scotland's north-western coast, Great Britain's wildest and least inhabited corner. Also known as "anthrax island", it was used for secret British tests with biological weapons, namely anthrax, in 1942. It remained contaminated for many decades but is now said to be "safe".

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: To find out whether anthrax could be delivered by explosive bombs, the British military conducted tests on the small Scottish island of Gruinard, which was purchased by the government specifically for the purpose.

The test, conducted in 1942, in the midst of WWII, was "successful" – more so than anticipated: the sheep used in the experiment did indeed die of anthrax after they had been exposed to the anthrax spores released by the detonation of the test devices.

Afterwards, the poor creatures were incinerated and buried on the island, but the assumption that the highly virulent anthrax spores would then simply die off on their own, however, proved wrong. It was discovered that anthrax was still alive and kicking and highly dangerous in the top soil of the island.

Initial efforts to decontaminate it were unsuccessful, so the island was closed off – a quarantined no-go area! With warning signs put up to keep out potential intrepid passers-by. They would have needed a boat, though, so the likelihood was low. And so it remained until in the late 1980s another concerted effort was made to clean up the island. Hundreds of tons of formaldehyde were spayed all over the island and soil at hotspots of contamination removed.

In 1990 the warning signs were removed and the island was officially declared safe to visit again. Not that many would want to go there, though. Simply because there's just nothing there. However, today sheep graze on the island without keeling over, and apparently loads of rabbits live a happy untroubled life on the island too.
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 …
Location: in Gruinard Bay, in Scotland's North Western Highlands, Great Britain, between 3 and 0.7 miles off the coast, about halfway between Gairloch and Ullapool.
Google maps locator:[57.882,-5.466]
Access and costs: very remote, not regularly accessible, but you can drive past it on the coastal road.
Details: You'll see Gruinard Island from the A832, coming from Gairloch once you pass the village of Laird (where there is a small caravan park) on and off for the next six miles or so. The road gets closest to the island just before it dips inland eastwards away from Gruinard Bay at Mungasdale.

Getting to the island itself is difficult (and unrewarding). But local sheep farmers (one uses the island for his flock) or fishermen could possibly provide lifts by boat. (Cost subject to negotiation – apparently some were quick to milk journalists who wanted to go there a few years back, charging them grossly inflated "fares" for the service … maybe they'd be more accommodating with non-journalistic dark travellers. I can't say.)
Time required: Just a brief stop for a moment's contemplation. Five minutes or so – unless you want to take the opportunity to have a picnic with a view of anthrax island … Trying to get to the island itself and actually setting foot on it (though pretty pointless) would take significantly longer if it can be worked out at all.
Combinations with other dark destinations: none in the vicinity, unless you count the presence of the military, including thundering jet fighters on exercise sorties. At the very north-western end of the British mainland, Cape Wrath, a rock off the north coast has been used as a test target for live bombs for decades (but it's still there). The route to Cape Wrath leads through a military danger zone and is only accessible when no exercises are going on. As there are no proper roads, it takes a boat crossing of the Kyle of Durness and then a bumpy minibus ride, past abandoned settlements, to get to the Cape. These trips (May to September, weather and military activity permitting) can be arranged via Durness Tourist Information. The name Cape Wrath, by the way, has nothing to do with the dramatic landscape (Clo Mor cliffs near Cape Wrath are the highest on the British mainland), nor has it anything to do with the weather, which can indeed be ferocious up here. No, it simply derives from an Old Norse word for 'turning point'.

Travelling on eastward along Scotland's north coast towards Thurso will take you past the infamous Dounreay nuclear site, another very dark and ominous (and pretty much inaccessible) place in this otherwise so friendly part of the world …
Combinations with non-dark destinations: location, location – this is one of Scotland's most dramatic parts, not just Cape Wrath, there are scores of fantastic stretches of deeply impressive scenery – of the raw, wild, desolate variety. I love it. In fact, it's one of my favourite parts of the world.

Ullapool makes a convenient base for exploring the area, as it has the most facilities in this sparsely inhabited land. But more scenic stopovers can be found – allow yourself sufficient time and make use of the tourist information offices (note that in winter many places more or less close down, and that in summer peak season accommodation can fill up – the best time to travel is spring or early autumn, esp. September).

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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