The Mystery of Anthrax Island (2022) - full transcript

How shadowy Scots activists used deadly anthrax to get a Scottish island cleaned up.

Scientists are carrying
out tests on the package of soil

contaminated with anthrax spores.

Anthrax, it's pretty lethal.

Some pretty horrific ways
to die from anthrax.

The whole country had been
put at risk as the result

of an environmentalist group's protest.

And everyone was thinking,
"I wonder who the hell did that?"

I felt that there was more
known than was being said.

She obviously had form,

and it wouldn't have been her
first run-in with Special Branch.

You know, there were folk
getting their phone tapped.

and we were seen as, you know,
the enemy of the state.

Oh, there we go.

It really is, it's releasing death.

What were these scientists
up to on the island, do you think?

I couldn't very well tell
you what they were up to.

We were told not to talk about this at all.

Anthrax must never been mentioned.

Were you involved in Dark Harvest?

They thought we were all hippies.

This reporter, he said, "Come on,
go on, you can tell me. Who did it?"

Were you involved?

This was a person of great
interest to the authorities.

On the map, this is called Gruinard Island.

Hereabouts they call
it the Island of Death.

Hebrides, Bailey,
westerly six to gale eight,

but locally severe gale nine
in Hebrides at first.

# There's a storm coming

# You'd better run

# There's a storm coming

# Goodbye to the sun

# There's a storm coming

# You better run, boy, run

# You'd better run. #

# Can you feel it
coming in the air tonight?

# Oh, lord

# Oh, lord... #

The police in Scotland
have set up a special task force

to investigate a statement from the
group calling itself Dark Harvest

and sent to the Glasgow Herald.

It said...

By the time you read this,

the campaign will have started in earnest.

The first delivery will have been made.

And where better to send the seeds of death

than to the place from whence they came?

I thought at the time the
authorities were pretty worried.

Bombs were going off in Ireland.

They probably thought, "Oh, God,
this is all we need."

A great, long, lengthy letter.

The language is quite
dramatic, quite theatrical.

A biblical reference - most unusual
to have a biblical reference

in something like that.

"Seeds of death." The implication
is, you reap what you sow.

We are simply delivering it back to them

and saying, "We don't want this."

The letter was from an unknown group
called the Dark Harvest Commandos,

and their first target was
this secret research facility

in Wiltshire.

Inside this ordinary-looking building,

scientists work with some of
the most dangerous substances

in the world. It's Porton Down,

the Ministry of Defence's
chemical defence establishment.

Porton Down was one of the most
secretive places in Britain,

and was closely guarded.

They were on the alert,
and they did an initial search

of their premises and found nothing.

They checked again, and this bucket
was found outside the perimeter.

The bucket was filled with soil,

but according to their letter,

this soil also contained a
deadly agent of germ warfare.

Bacillus anthracis.

Better known as "anthrax".

A Government minister said today
that the whole country had been

put at risk as the result of an
environmentalist group's protest.

The group dumped a sample of soil,
which they claimed

was contaminated with anthrax,
near the perimeter

of the Porton Down biological
research station, in Wiltshire.

First thing that they did is deny it.

They said it's a hoax,

it's not really anything
to alarm the public about,

there's no public risk here.

Those scientists at the
station are conducting tests

on the package of soil.

We understand that they
think it's very unlikely

that there's any anthrax in the sample.

Anthrax is a naturally
occurring but deadly organism.

In the Bible, it was one of
the ten plagues of Egypt,

and any outbreak can
have fatal consequences.

The bacterium forms spores.

If they're in the air
and you breathe them in

and they get into your respiratory
system or get into your lungs,

the little seeds will
germinate into bacteria,

the bacteria will start to grow,

and then they start producing nasty
things which will cause you to die.

It's pretty lethal.

On the skin, blisters,
often with very black spots,

look very ugly.

Swellings, flu-like symptoms -
you're getting the whole works.

You're getting nausea,
you're getting hoarseness,

you're getting bloody vomit,
abdominal pains,

bloody diarrhoea, septicaemia, meningitis.

Some pretty horrific
ways to die from anthrax.

In a rabbit, symptoms
will appear in about 18 hours.

In a man, about 24. In a child,
perhaps a little sooner.

If you can imagine the tissues swelling.

You start bleeding

from the inside out,
so it's really quite unpleasant.

The suspect soil that
the Dark Harvest protesters left

outside Porton Down was brought
into the facility for analysis,

and Government scientists
quickly established

it came from over 600 miles away.

Gruinard Island...

..sitting just a
mile from the mainland

in the far northwest of the British Isles.

It's a place that holds many secrets.

I've come a long way to visit
that island lying out there

in its lonely sea loch.

Hereabouts, they call it the
Island of Death, the Mystery Island.

But in the years before
the Second World War,

Gruinard Bay was a peaceful place.

The island had been
uninhabited since the Clearances,

but was overlooked by a
scattering of mainland villages,

which in the pre-tourist era were home

to God-fearing, Gaelic-speaking
crofter folk.

Now, this is not a story of old, dark deeds

or Highland superstition.

No, this story started in 1942.

In the early years of the Second World War,

the Northwest Highlands were
strategically important -

sparsely populated and
far away from enemy eyes.

The British Army arrived in droves.

There were battleships in the bay,

armoured cars in the ditches

and a warm welcome in the villages
of Laide, Aultbea,

Gairloch and Ullapool.

The area was changed
completely during the war years.

A huge amount of activity.
I mean, as a kid,

you loved seeing all the
things that were happening.

Soldiers crawling everywhere.

Operations on the island
were shrouded in secrecy,

and the locals were kept at a distance.

It was secretive. We knew there
was something going on there.

And there was a barrier across the road,

people in white suits going to the island.

There was that feeling that
there was things happening,

that people weren't sure what was going on.

I was working on the farm along
there, opposite the island,

and I was seeing them back and forth

with the cattle and the sheep.

They ferried them right
across to the island.

What were these scientists up
to on the island, do you think?

I couldn't very well tell
you what they were up to.

I was seven or eight.

We were going to Ullapool
in the car, passing the island...

..and when we came to Gruinard,
there were sort of puffs in the air.

A few little explosions going off.

But just on this near the part
of the island, on this side,

there were several of them,

and they were little
sort of puffs in the air.

What on earth is it?
What are they doing there?

There were rumours and whispers about

what might be going on on the island,

but over on the mainland,
disturbing things began to happen.

My brother went out about
eight o'clock in the morning.

First of all, he went to the barn,

and he found one of
the cows dead in the stall.

He came in to tell my father.

Then he went down to the hill
to have a look at the sheep,

and he found eight dead.

Follow me.

This is the community church in Aultbea.

Please come in.

Danny Grant is an elder
in the local church.

As a child, he witnessed
something he'll never forget.

I actually saw it with my own eyes -

a big horse dumped in
this hole, with the legs...

Rigour mortis had set in, so that...

I remember having to cut...
They cut the legs off the horse.

That wasn't a very pretty thing
for children to be watching,

but we all...
I remember seeing this.

And then telling the adults about
all they sheep lying in the fields

with their legs in the air,
and they're all dead.

Maybe a dozen or more.

Within hours, I believe,
they were finding cows.

And people were obviously alarmed.

I lost one horse, and I
lost six or seven sheep.

Now, what happened to these animals?
Have you any idea at all?

Well, I'm sure they would be poisoned.

Scientists at Porton Down in Wiltshire

are carrying out tests
on the package of soil

contaminated with anthrax spores,

which was dumped at the
chemical defence establishment

by a Scottish protest group.

It's taken three days of tests here
at the public health laboratories

to confirm that anthrax
spores were in the soil,

which was dumped on the perimeter

of the Government's defence establishment.

We've shown that there
is anthrax in the soil.

It could be dangerous, but under
very unusual circumstances.

It would have to get in
through a cut in the skin,

and that would be very unlikely.

The Government seemed very
keen to play down any danger,

but the story was now front-page news.

Public attitude changed at that
point, and the media as well.

It suddenly became a really serious
thing because anthrax,

you know, this stuff is dangerous.

The MOD scientists knew
very well how dangerous.

Dark Harvest had targeted
Porton Down for a reason.

"Where better to send our seeds of death

"than to the place
from whence they came?"

With the war on a knife edge,

Churchill feared the Nazis
had developed a biological bomb,

so he tasked his team of top scientists

with finding ways to
harness anthrax as a weapon.

This was highly secretive.

You can get all sorts of
different strains of anthrax,

but this was one of
the more potent strains.

Some of the moral
equivocations of peacetime

had to be put to one side
just to see the potency

and potential of this
form of weapon system.

To see whether this particular strain

would have the effects they expected.

What they didn't know, of
course, was what would happen

if they were trialled in more
realistic field conditions.

They had to find a testing site
that was remote, uninhabited,

isolated but accessible from the mainland.

And that's where you bring
the story up to Gruinard.

Wartime scientists carefully
packaged their weaponised anthrax

and headed 600 miles north.

Transporting this was a risk in itself.

It's a long, long way from Porton,

but it's also a long, long way from

people who could be affected
by an accidental downwind

draft of anthrax spores.

A beautiful and uninhabited little island

was about to witness one of the
first weapons of mass destruction.

In a lot of ways, this island is
the key to some of the big secrets

and what ifs of 20th century history.

It was here in 1942

that the very first scientifically
controlled BW field trials

were carried out.

You have the UK using the Highlands
as a base of operations

for war on a scale that people
hadn't comprehended before.

You're seeing on this seemingly
uninteresting island

the beginning of a kind of
terrifying military power

that was just as great as nuclear weapons.

There were no facilities
anywhere for these tests,

which were, of course, much more hazardous

than comparable chemical warfare trials,

and so this island was picked
especially for its isolation.

What actually happened on Gruinard Island

was a source of mystery and
rumour until the declassification

of this extraordinary MOD film,

which captured every
detail in technicolour.

The sheep are being
put into exposure crates.

The crate is necessary to hold
the animal in the right place

on the layout and to ensure
that it faces the cloud.

It's an incredible historical document,

the cutting edge of science,

and they're documenting
it as they go along,

step by step, so that potentially
they could do this again in future,

somewhere else.

The ambition was to develop
a frightening new weapon -

an anthrax bomb.

It is quite a chilling film.

The aim was to test,
first, whether the anthrax

would survive explosion in the field.

They didn't know that.

And then, would it remain
virulent thereafter?

The men wear ordinary cloth
overalls, rubber boots and gloves,

a respirator with particulate filter

and a cloth hood to keep the hair clean

and reduce risk of leaks.

One of the men in the protective
suits was Allan Elton Younger.

Anthrax is almost indestructible.

Therefore, it was perhaps the best
organism to stand up to the blast.

80-odd sheep were
tethered at various stages

downwind of the likely explosion.

The explosion was done by remote control.

And you see them all lined up.

The bomb was fired
and the wind carries the cloud

towards the line of animals and impingers.

Oh, there we go.

This tiny moment, this puff
of powder, and it really is,

it's releasing death.

It isn't a great bang -
a draft of highly potent spores

moving down on the wind and
causing infection and death

wherever it goes.

They sent up clouds of
bacillus spores into the air,

the sheep inhaled them, and then
they observed the sheep

to see how quickly they died.

On the third day after
exposure, the casualties begin.

Dead sheep can be seen
further down the line.

Also watching from nearby
shores were local crofters.

Did you ever see anything?

Well, I used to watch the smoke

coming down on the top of them.

What do you mean "the smoke"?

Was it a cloud of...?

A cloud rolling above
the Earth... Uh-huh.

..coming towards these animals.

Where were the animals?

They were staked over there.

I see, they were tied up in a
line, were they? Yes, in a line.

I've heard it said that some
people did see these animals

falling dead when this cloud hit them.

Well, I'm sure I did
the same. Did you?


All the sheep in the cloud died.

Postmortem is usually carried
out to confirm appearances.

One useful feature of this
operating theatre is running water.

There's a little waterfall close by.

I think, had I been living
locally, I would've...

..been very anxious to
hear about it. You know,

there's live anthrax being released
less than a mile from your home,

from your farm, I think is
enormously anxiety inducing.

Infected sheep carcasses were burnt

or buried under tonnes of rubble...

..when a cliff on
the island was blown up.

The experiment was deemed a success,

and in 1943, the scientists packed
up and returned to Porton Down...

..but the anthrax remained.

The examination of
soil samples from the layout

showed heavy contamination.

It soon became clear that the contamination

wasn't confined to the island.

A message came down from here that
there had been a case of anthrax,

and that we were suspected.
And this came in clear,

and of course, the great secret,
as far as we were concerned...

I mean, we were told not
to talk about this at all,

and particularly anthrax
must never be mentioned.

And this signal came in clear,

which horrified all of us.

On the mainland, in the six
months after the experiments,

between 30 and 50 sheep, seven cows,

two horses and three cats died.

Government officials promptly
paid compensation to crofters

and persuaded them that the
anthrax infection had come ashore

when a carcass was dumped
from a passing Greek ship.

Porton Down dispatched two men
to Gruinard in another attempt

to rid the island of spores.

We've gone with all our equipment
and just set fire to the heather,

which, by that evening,
was burning right over the island,

a huge cloud of smoke.

Churchill's anthrax bomb was never used.

By the end of the war,

Gruinard had been poisoned,
burned and abandoned.

As months turned to years,
and years to decades,

the deadly spores remained.

The contamination has continued very heavy

over all these years,

and we might have to wait as long
as 100 years for it to get clear.

You don't get any trouble now, of course,

from this long-ago affair, do you?

Well, yes. In this particular
place, yes, I lose sheep,

you know, in the spring.

It wasn't until 24 years
after the experiment

that the warning signs
even mentioned anthrax.

Generations of Highlanders

grew up in the shadow
of the Forbidden Island.

They didn't know exactly
what happened on Gruinard,

but they were warned they must never
set foot on the Island of Death.

Let me get this light on here.

But every year, one local made the
short journey across Gruinard Bay.

'83, '82.


Every January, we had to go
out and bolt these ones on.

'85, '86, '87, '88...

The island is still so
heavily contaminated with anthrax

that anyone wanting to land
there needs a protective suit

and a seven-and-a-half
month course of injections.

The sign just was to stop people landing.

Anywhere you could possibly get
a boat ashore, there's a sign.

It was under experiment
and landing was prohibited.

My great, great, great grandfather
was born on the island.

When I always hear it
being dubbed Anthrax Island,

I kind of feel, well, there was
something happened there before.

There were people there before,
living there before.

There's no written documents,

so it was just snippets of
oral history that's come down.

They would've been cleared off the island.

They were forced out of their homes,
like most people were back then.

If you say that an island is forbidden,

I think it does come with a
sort of perverse fascination.

This idea that the ground is poisoned

and that it might be
dangerous for you to be there

all adds to that sense
of taboo, of forbiddeness.

There is some kind of
legendary aspect, I think,

to the concept of the toxic island,

the poisoned island, that we all tap into,

and it has some kind
of psychological power.

We were never warned, we were
just told not to go up on the land.

Just stay on the shore.

It was less than £200 a year.

To go to Anthrax Island?
Aye. Yeah. Yep.

It was a lot of money in them days to us.

Yeah. Yeah.

Four decades passed, and
Gruinard was still not safe.

Can you foresee a time when
the island will be free

for people to land on?

No. The spores are surprisingly
resistant to degradation.

Indeed, that was one
of the reasons for them

being selected in the first place.

And we would expect there to
be an area of contamination

for the next tens, perhaps
even hundreds of years.

Four days after bringing infected
Gruinard soil to Porton Down,

the Dark Harvest Commandos
were to strike again.

"That we still have the
problem to worry about today

"is due to 40 years of
total official indifference.

"That's indifference
is about to end."

The Conservative Party conference of 1981

was held in Blackpool
amidst tight security.

But it wasn't only
Thatcher, Heseltine and Heath

making headlines by the sea...

At Blackpool this afternoon,

a second suspect package was found.

It was left in the Tower
buildings near where

the Conservative conference is being held.

The Blackpool Tower was closed
to the public after the discovery

of a tin box believed to
contain soil contaminated...

And the oil, contained in a tin box,

was sent to Porton Down for analysis.

This was found behind a locked door,
and somebody had somehow managed

to get in to that door during normal
operational hours of the tower.

Two packages in five days
meant that this was a campaign.

The letter to the newspapers had claimed

that 300lbs of soil had been taken,

enough for many more attacks.

So this was very alarming. Raising
the prospect of massive escalations

of this contaminated soil was a huge issue.

The MOD considered putting
soldiers on Gruinard to protect it.

They considered sending a
gunboat to patrol the waters

or stationing police on
the shore to keep guard.

But securing Gruinard
seemed next to impossible.

They needed to catch those responsible.

A general alert was
issued throughout the UK,

and a special taskforce
was formed to track down

the Dark Harvest Commandos.

At the time I was based in Inverness,

I was instructed to go and deal with it.

Detective Inspector Colin MacDonald

followed the winding Highland roads

to Gruinard Bay and
the tiny village of Laide.

And I found it quite difficult.

It was a close-knit community,

and they didn't want to
say anything, sometimes,

in case they said too much.

That's the only way that
you could describe them.

At the local post office,

the police found a petition calling
for the clean-up of the island.

One name was of particular interest.

The campaign organiser, John Alick MacRae.

I was involved in
getting this list of names

to draw attention to
the fact that human beings

were surrounding the island.

They wanted to know who
had initiated in the list,

and that is when I was interviewed.

Declassified Government
documents that have lain unnoticed

in the National Archives for over a decade

reveal John Alick was indeed a suspect.

"By way of confidential background,

"the Minister may like to know
that the local Scottish police

"have a strong suspicion that Mr MacRae,

"the organiser of the petition,

"was party to the action
of the Dark Harvest group."

They were convinced because
they suspected a local.

But there were other locals
living close to the island

who had already carried out covert
operations that made headline news.

Here in the vaults of Gairloch Museum,

they hold evidence that
connected one local woman

to a very similar caper.

I've got letter here to
Kay Matheson from the stonemason

who repaired the Stone of Destiny.

You know, it was broken in two
whenever it was stolen.

On Christmas morning, the stone was gone.

The Dean of Westminster
called the disappearance

an act of sacrilege

and spoke of the stone as a precious relic

treasured by millions throughout
the British Commonwealth.

Kay Matheson is from the local area,

became involved with a group of students

who were also passionate
Scottish nationalists.

A nationwide search was organised.

The police have issued the
description of a man and woman

who were seen in a
Ford Anglia car near the Abbey

in the small hours of Christmas morning.

So that was described by one journalist

as the greatest heist in history.

And of course, it was all
over the papers at the time.

And Kay achieved great
notoriety through that.

These initials, JFS, apparently
newly scratched on the chair,

are thought to stand
for Justice For Scotland,

and support the theory that
the stone's disappearance

is the work of extreme
Scottish nationalists.

Inevitably, the local woman
who famously stole the stone

was suspected of stealing the soil.

She obviously had form in that sense,

and it wouldn't have been her
first run-in with Special Branch.

She would have had strong feelings,

I think, about the British Government

using Scottish land in that way.

Behind closed croft doors,

locals speculated and gossiped
about this Highland whodunnit,

but nobody was naming names,

and they still won't.

I think they thought a
woman might be involved.

A well-known activist woman
for other things.

She was definitely for
the Highlands, for Gaelic,

for education.

Who was that?

I don't know if I can
say much more than that.

We really went round
nearly every house in Laide

to see if we could get anything,
but it was a closed shop, really.

I felt that there was maybe
more known in the community

than was being said.

And it was just an instinct.

The police weren't even allowed
to go to Gruinard and inspect

the scene of the crime.

But one person who was
authorised to visit the island

was boatman Stuart Flett.

'85, '86.

In his diary, he recorded
an important breakthrough...

"Police probe new clue
in Gruinard mystery."

..the raiders had used his boat.

It was chained to a tree in the wintertime.

The chain was broken, and a note saying,

"Sorry about the chain, thanks for
the use of the boat - Dark Harvest."

The newly found note helped
the police build up a better picture

of what happened,

and the letter to the newspapers
spelled out in detail

why it happened.

"A team of microbiologists
from two universities,

"guided by members of our local population,

"affected a landing on
the island last week.

"A large number of soil samples
from all over the island,

"with a total weight of 300lbs,

"were securely bagged and
removed to the mainland.

"For the next 12 months,
these bags will be deposited

"at appropriate points."

The really terrifying
thing is that they say,

"This is just the start." This is
just the start of a campaign,

and that's when I think the full machinery

of the Secret State would get into gear.

The mystery of who
the Dark Harvest Commandos were

played out in a climate of Cold War
paranoia and polarised politics.

The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool
was a forum for the kind of debates

that radicals and left-wingers were having

throughout the 1980s in Scotland.

We do have to make sure that
our view is clearly stated.

We are opposed to nuclear weapons.

We will eventually get rid of them.

People don't expect

any kind of hotbed of
radicalism in the Highlands.

But they're wrong.

Jean Urquhart ran the Ceilidh Place
and formed the local branch of CND.

As a prominent activist,

Jean was interviewed about Dark Harvest,

and it wasn't the local bobby
asking the questions.

It was military police who came up,
and we were quite taken aback.

We were quite naive because CND
was seen as, you know,

as kind of the enemy of the state.

And of course, it's quite a different thing

to the friendly polis in Scotland.

With these, there was no relaxed
conversation about anything.

I mean, it was pretty grim,
I remember that.

You know, there were folk getting
their phone tapped.

And it did, it did have an effect.

In a climate of fear and suspicion,

the Dark Harvest protests were vilified

by the press and politicians.

The Ministry of Defence called their
action incredibly irresponsible,

and they warned anyone finding any
other packages not to touch them.

But the mysterious group
wrong-footed the authorities again

when it was discovered
that the second package

placed in the Blackpool Tower was
actually harmless, uninfected soil.

The MOD were interrogating,
the Special Police Task Force

were investigating, and
the press were digging.

Oh, we went after it big time.
And it was a really exciting story,

of course it was.

It's a story which it
seemed the authorities

couldn't get to the bottom of.

We kind of thought maybe

we had some pretty good candidates.

Iain found out about a hidden community

just across the bay from Gruinard.

This film is about Scoraig,

in the Western Highlands of Scotland.

There are two ways of getting there -

by footpath through the hills,

or by sea,

across what in past times was
called the loch of the many winds.

Scoraig was a small alternative community

inhabited by anti-establishment

and all off grid.

Topher Dawson, in his boathouse at
the very centre of the community,

is well-placed to observe the passing sea.

Topher set up, without much previous
experience, as a boat builder.

They thought we were all
hippies, which we weren't, but...

..we were different,
and it was kind of homespun.

It wasn't like,
"Let's set up a commune."

It was just people arrived one at a time

and gradually it evolved something.

Well, the house is round.

This is the stairs going up to my
bed, which hangs from the ceiling.

I don't know if it's a bed or a bedroom.

I haven't really worked that out.

People were conscious that we couldn't live

the way we're living.

They wanted to grow as much
of their own food as possible,

to recycle stuff and re-use stuff.

And we were very definitely
against nuclear weapons,

and so by extension, bio-warfare too.

We all kind of disapproved
of it and felt that

it was a pretty irresponsible thing to do.

Gruinard was just a short
boat trip away from Scoraig.

I'd be astonished if the cops
didn't look at Scoraig,

because they were living
an alternative lifestyle.

They weren't terribly impressed
with the establishment in general.

If you wanted to call them hippies,

nonconformist of one kind or another,

well, I suppose that's a
qualification for the kind of people

who might've been in Dark Harvest.

It's called gossip, and a lot
of people don't like gossip.

I mean...

..I suppose there's a
fine line between that

and talking behind people's back.

I got rung up by this reporter,
and he said,

"Come on, go on, you
can tell me. Who did it?"

And I-I couldn't tell him anything.

I do definitely remember coming
home and people saying to me,

"Oh, you missed this
great excitement!"

I do remember that.

Topher cannot account for his exact
whereabouts at the time of the raid,

but he insists he
wasn't on Gruinard Island.

I don't know how many people
could think of an alibi for,

I don't know, two, three days,
40 years ago.

I can't.

You weren't driving down to Blackpool?

Oh, no.

After two months,
the investigation was going nowhere.

Nobody in the wee coastal
villages of Wester Ross

was talking to the police.

They didn't want to say anything that would

take us to a neighbour or to a relation.

There were no clues, no
trace of the soil to be found.

And everyone was thinking,
"I wonder who the hell did that?"

Running possible candidates past.

In our household, there was definitely

a name thrown about of
someone who was local.


A neighbour of mine on Scoraig,

he was being pestered by several reporters,

and in the end, he said,

"The person you should speak
to is that Topher Dawson.

"He's got a degree in microbiology
from Cambridge University."

And, of course, that got them very excited.

I don't have a degree in microbiology.

I'm an engineer.

That's what I... I know
nothing about biology.

But he really...
He really dropped me in it.

In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins

As the end of 1981 approached,

it seemed everyone was aware of
the poisoned island of Gruinard.

Dark Harvest put that
story front and centre.

They succeeded in putting
the spotlight on what was,

when you think about it,
an absolute scandal.

They claimed to have 300lbs
worth of infected soil,

and no-one knew where
they would strike next.

# I can feel it coming in the air tonight

# Oh lord... #

A new letter appeared...

..pinned to the door of
the Scottish Office.

You have a kind of heart in mouth moment.

What have they done now?

Instead of threats,

the letter declared that the aims
of the protest had been met,

and there would be no further
action... for now.

They thought they'd done enough.

They were suspending the operation.

Just as mysteriously as they'd appeared,

the Dark Harvest Commandos disappeared.

In 1986, locals again
watched as the men in white

returned to the island.

Today, Gruinard is a hive
of almost surreal activity

as teams of scientists,
vaccinated against anthrax

and dressed in protective clothing,

prepare to return the
island to its natural state.

The Government had to act
and clean up the island.

There's quite a lot of
political pressure on us.

I mean, to be frank, it is
a political embarrassment.

I just remember we were all delighted.

Somebody's done something.

Rows of tubing, not unlike garden hose,

but infinitely more sophisticated,

will spray the infected areas with
hundreds of gallons of sea water

and a chemical, formaldehyde.

11 of the 500 acres of the island

were treated with this toxic solution,

and the Gruinard soil was
again tested at Porton Down.

Hundreds of soil samples
are being analysed,

but it's almost certain that the island

is virtually clear of anthrax,

though there are likely to be a few
deeply buried spores left,

and anyway, no test is foolproof.

The scientists worked to find out

if they had solved
the problem they created.

But for the authorities,

the investigation into who carried
out the Dark Harvest operation

remained unsolved.

And the mystery would
deepen some years later

when an investigative
journalist uncovered evidence

that implicated a
fiery Scottish politician.

It was after I came up to
Scotland that I became interested

in Dark Harvest Commandos

and a Glasgow lawyer called Willie McRae.

William McRae, the SNP candidate,

was born in Wester Ross and
is now a solicitor in Glasgow.

The name of Willie McRae must be linked.

Thinking about who lived in the area,

he was an activist there.

It was the area he had aspired
to represent in Parliament.

And I say that, so far
as Scotland is concerned,

that is a standing disgrace,

and the primary scandal of
over 250 years of union.

He was a great deal more
nationalist than most people,

than most nationalists, you know.

We say it's Scotland's oil.

We expect to control and spend
the revenue on Scotland's oil.

Willie McRae was a vocal
campaigner who successfully opposed

the contamination of Scottish
soil with nuclear waste.

He attracted quite a lot of admirers

because of his skilled opposition to this.

Among those was Adam Busby.

I would only condone violence
as a last resort anyway.

What do you mean by a last resort?

I mean, as a last resort.
I can't really define it.

An incendiary device
addressed to the Prime...

An incendiary device
inside a letter went...

Adam Busby was a violent extremist,

who would go on to organise
a campaign of letter bombs

and intimidation to further the aims

of the Scottish National Liberation Army.

Adam Busby was a person of great
interest to the authorities.

And then you go into a much more
sinister aspect of the whole story.

Adam Busby was a young man with

even more fierce nationalist views.

He was friendly with Willie.

I know that Adam had
very high regard for Willie.

The self-declared leader of
the SNLA claimed that Willie McRae

had been the inspiration
behind Dark Harvest.

Adam Busby told me that this
was the idea of Willie McRae.

Willie McRae's suggestion was what
about giving the English Government

a taste of its own medicine?

They want to dump nuclear waste here -

why don't you dump
anthrax-contaminated soil on them?

Busby, however, was known
for self-promotion,

hoaxes and false claims,
and even for fellow radicals,

he's an unreliable witness.

Adam Busby, now, he said he
was involved with Dark Harvest,

but I very much doubt that.

He claimed a lot more than that.
He claimed everything.

Every dog in the street that was
run over, almost -

we used to laugh - Busby claimed it.

Things that were done by other
groups, he claimed it.

Busby's later actions seem
much less sophisticated

than the Gruinard raiders.

But there is a theory that
the style of the letter

indicates some involvement of McRae.

I met Willie McRae once,
heard lots of speeches by him,

and the dramatic language,
the almost biblical language,

in parts, of the letter betrays
many of his personal traits.

McRae joined a list of possible suspects,

each with different motives
but the same aim.

It's really about getting
the island decontaminated

on behalf of the local community.

After being forced to act,
after millions of pounds,

after years of spraying and sampling,

the MOD declared Gruinard anthrax free.

It was a moment of joy
for the people of Gruinard Bay

and a victory for those
watching from the shadows.

The people who carried out
the Dark Harvest Commando operation

should've been patted on the back

for trying to bring to
the public's attention

what had gone on up there.

I think they're to be commended,
to be quite frank with you.

It was a really effective
and imaginative action,

and it resulted in a clean up,
so I think they're good guys.

And that should have been
the end of this sorry tale.

Extensive testing of the island
soil meant it was deemed safe

for people to once again go to Gruinard.

But there was a final twist
that wrong-footed MOD officials

and raised serious questions
about secrecy and safety.

The second letter that had been

pinned to the door of the Scottish Office

not only signalled the successful
end of the Dark Harvest campaign,

it also contained a startling new claim

that has implications to this day.

That's when they also
revealed that the soil

had not actually come
from Gruinard Island at all,

it had been taken from
the mainland opposite Gruinard.

That actually it's from the mainland.

It's not just the island that's infected,

this is a much more serious risk,

and far more irresponsible.

At the time, the authorities publicly said,

"We do not really have
any evidence to justify

"doing tests on the mainland."

But recently declassified
documents show that Dark Harvest

forced the MOD to reassess
their wartime experiments

and that their secret findings
were extremely concerning.

"On at least one occasion,
a test was performed

"when the surface wind direction
was at the limit of safety.

"It is possible that one or more
clouds of the anthrax aerosol

"passed over the mainland coast."

Forensic examination of these once
secret documents is revealing.

This clearly accepts that
some clouds of anthrax

could've blown over from
the island to the mainland,

and that there was no absolute guarantee

there could be no contamination.

"It would be extraordinarily
expensive to sample and measure

"the area that
could've been affected."

"I do not believe that it
would be sensible to disturb

"the sleeping dog of whether
there is any anthrax contamination

"on either of the two headlands
downwind of Gruinard Island."

So what he's saying is we
should just let it lie

and hope that it will go away.

Timescale over which spores
can exist is 40 to 50 years,

but under some conditions might
even be viable after 200 years.

I think if somebody were
to provide new evidence

that there are anthrax spores in
the environment on the mainland,

then, you know, that would be a concern.

These documents raise questions
about whether the MOD in Porton Down

in the 1980s, in the wake of the
Dark Harvest incident, were honest.

But if it's true, there's been no
serious clean-up of the wider area,

the story's not over.

Today, for those touring the Highlands,

Gruinard is just another picturesque
little island off the coast,

and anyone can go there.

But the legacy of its
past lingers in the mind,

if no longer on the land.

You sort of feel, when you
travel through that area,

this terrible irony between
the beauty of the landscape

and the horror of what has happened there.

It is a real conflict.

The fact that something so
impossibly awful happened

in such a beautiful place does
add a lot of psychological depth.

There are a number of MOD documents
that remain sealed until 2069...

..and the question of who were
the Dark Harvest Commandos

remains unanswered.

Were you involved in Dark Harvest?


And I know nothing whatsoever
about who was involved.

Kay Matheson wasn't backward
in promoting the cause

that she obviously felt
very strongly about.

But by the early 1980s,
she was standing for MP,

and I would suspect that
she was perhaps trying

to keep her nose clean.

I think the Gruinard story
was probably pivotal for us

because it made us
realise, actually, how sensitive

the Government was to groups like ours.

Were you involved
in the taking of the soil?

In an era before eco-warriors
and direct action,

this protest saved at least
one small piece of the Earth.

It's a bit like Greenpeace before
Greenpeace got famous, I think.

Would you have liked to have done it?

I kind of, you know, it would be... would be something
you could be proud of.

You know what I mean?

It's a kind of exciting exploit,

and I just wish I could say that
I was part of it, cos I wasn't.

I wish I had been.

I would love to have been
that person, but I wasn't.

The people of the Highlands

could once again set foot on Gruinard soil.

Apart, that is, from the 300lbs
worth of contaminated soil removed,

put into sacks and hidden
away by Dark Harvest.

To this day, it's never been recovered.

The tourists who follow the North Coast 500

up past beautiful Gruinard Bay
might want to take care

if they spot an old sack of soil

behind a Highland hideout.