Schoolboy memories of monkey and guinea pig experiments off Scottish island recalled

Schoolboy memories of biological experiments conducted on monkeys and guinea pigs on a floating laboratory moored off the Isle of Lewis almost 70 years ago have been recalled.

Monday, 8th March 2021, 2:47 pm
Tolsta Bay, where the experiments took place.

The recollections of Operation Cauldron come as a new novel set against the backdrop of the experiments, which unfolded in the waters off Tolsta Bay is due to be published next month.

Biological bombs, containing agents such as the bubonic plague and brucellosis, were set off by scientists in westerly winds with clouds of the disease then passing over animals lined up in cages on a pontoon.

Around 2,400 guinea pigs and 100 monkeys were used in the experiments, which were designed to establish antidotes as interest in biological warfare peaked in face of the Cold War.

Government scientists in hazmat suits.

Donald Murray, 81, a retired physics teachers, was 13 years old when the ship Ben Lomond arrived off the coast near his home. He remembers clearly seeing the scientists at work as he played and fished on the beach.

Mr Murray said: “You could see all the activity when the scientists took the animals out to the deck . They used to set the monkeys out in a row.

"The boat would clear away and you would see the flash first as they exploded the gas and then you would hear the bang. You would then see the gas drifting away over the pontoon.”

People were told not to venture onto the cliffs at Tolsta with fishing boats also stopped going in and out of the village.

Donald S Murray whose book looks at Operation Cauldron.

Mr Murray recalled there were plenty of fish to catch as a result. Sailors on the Ben Lomond would come onto the beach on a Sunday to relax on the sands, he added.

Mr Murray said there was “no fuss at all” about the experiments taking place off the island.

He added: “My father had been in both World Wars and his view was ‘the Navy knows what it is doing’.

"The navy wasn’t testing it to use on people – they were testing to find the antidote.

"We knew they were testing on animals. There is no such thing as ‘Top Secret’ on Lewis.”

Operation Cauldron lingered long in the memory of islanders with stories passed on about the trials through time.

Author Donald S Murray, who grew up on Lewis, is set to publish In A Veil of Mist, with his novel using Operation Cauldron as way of looking at hidden histories and the power of tales left untold. The Gazette will feature Donald’s latest book next week.

Donald, now of Shetland, recalled the "schoolboy gossip” surrounding the experiments.

As the nature of the trials remained secretive to most islanders, unchecked truths were left to percolate.

The seeds of the novel had long been planted in the mind of young Murray, who stayed in a hostel in Stornoway during the week so he could attend the island’s secondary school, The Nicolson Institute, where he would later become a highly-respected English teacher.

Mr Murray said: “There would be stories at the back of the bus about the experiment. There were a lot of half truths going around which would be impossible to prove now.

“It is fair to say that this book has been brewing in my head for a long time.”

Details of Operation Cauldron were only made public in the 1980s when a daily newspaper published the only file on the operation which had not been destroyed.

Parliamentary questions had earlier been asked by former MP for the Western Isles, Donald Stewart and by his successor Calum Macdonald.

The only real breakthrough came when the Ministry of Defence was ordered by the Information Commissioner to release a 48-minute film made at the time of Operation Cauldron.

After the animals had been exposed to diseases, they were taken back to the on-ship laboratory for assessment or post mortem, with those who died later cremated.

The experiments, were ultimately deemed to be a failure.

However, major panic erupted in government and naval offices after a Lancashire-based trawler defied shipping restrictions and sailed through a cloud of biological agent.

According to accounts, the crew, from Fleetwood, went back to shore as normal but were put under government surveillance for two weeks as they went about their daily business.

The men remained unaware of what had happened until they were approached by a BBC crew decades later with information about the risk they had been exposed to.

Mr Murray said : "I think we have to remember the context of the time. We would judge this behaviour very harshly but then you are talking about Hiroshima, Nagasaki...islanders may have perhaps knowingly turned their head away. You can take it out of all historic context and we think it is indefensible. But in the context of time, it was perhaps more understandable.”