The abandoned Scottish island that was home to a remarkable medical experiment

The island guinea pigs: Mr and Mrs Betteridge, who looked after the island community during the experiment and who themselves took part in the research, are pictured with the Aberdeen University students who volunteered for the research on Roan. PIC:  David Andrewes / reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine .The island guinea pigs: Mr and Mrs Betteridge, who looked after the island community during the experiment and who themselves took part in the research, are pictured with the Aberdeen University students who volunteered for the research on Roan. PIC:  David Andrewes / reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine .
The island guinea pigs: Mr and Mrs Betteridge, who looked after the island community during the experiment and who themselves took part in the research, are pictured with the Aberdeen University students who volunteered for the research on Roan. PIC: David Andrewes / reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine .
An abandoned Scottish island became the scene of a remarkable medical experiment 70 years ago when 12 people were quarantined there to research the spread of the common cold.

Roan off the coast of Sutherland lost its last permanent resident in 1938 with a community of 22 people disbanding the island which was prone to being cut off completely by storms in the Kyle of Tongue.

In 1950, the abandoned cottages were taken over by medical researchers who identified Roan as a perfect setting for their study into transmission of the bug.

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The Duke of Sutherland granted permission for the island be used with it sealed off to visitors from early July with those who kept their flocks of sheep on Roan going early to shear their animals to clear the way for the island lockdown.

Supplies for the experiment arrive on Roan in July 1950. PIC:  David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine .Supplies for the experiment arrive on Roan in July 1950. PIC:  David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine .
Supplies for the experiment arrive on Roan in July 1950. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine .

Meanwhile, George Anderson, the boatman at Skerry on the mainland, was tasked with insuring that no one crossed the water to “taint the atmosphere with the mildest sneeze,” a newspaper report of the day said.

It added: “The only contact with the island will be by radio transmitter, the instrument on the mainland having been installed in the village store at Skerray, where mail will be opened and its contents, with the news of the day, read across the Kyle.”

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A doctor from Tongue was also placed on standby should a medical emergency occur, with the GP given a hooded protective cape to be worn in case of a call out

Students dry the dishes after a communal dinner on the island. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.Students dry the dishes after a communal dinner on the island. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.
Students dry the dishes after a communal dinner on the island. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.

The experiment was run by Harvard Hospital in Salisbury and was supported by the General Medical Research Council and the government.

Scientists had noted for a long time that many people infected with a cold virus who were then exposed to sudden drops in temperature by getting wet and sitting in draughts failed to take the cold, or had it only very mildly.

On the other hand, those who routinely experienced harsh weather but lived in isolation for long periods, such as Arctic explorers, enjoyed a high degree of immunity.

Roan was selected given the deserted environment offered ideal conditions to built up immunity from infection before being exposed to ‘super spreaders’ who arrived on the island 10 weeks into the test.

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The Isle of Roan was abandoned by its last permanent resident in 1938 given the harsh living conditions, with islanders frequently cut off from supplies given the storms in the Kyle of Tongue. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.The Isle of Roan was abandoned by its last permanent resident in 1938 given the harsh living conditions, with islanders frequently cut off from supplies given the storms in the Kyle of Tongue. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.
The Isle of Roan was abandoned by its last permanent resident in 1938 given the harsh living conditions, with islanders frequently cut off from supplies given the storms in the Kyle of Tongue. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.

Selected for the Roan experiment were seven students from Aberdeen University, one from St Andrews, another from London University and a student of foresty.

After arriving from Skerry, they were chapperoned by Mr Frank Betteridge, a retired superintendent of police in Salisbury, who acted as camp commandant, and his wife, who did most of the cooking.

Living conditions during the experiment were described as “far from primitive” with students living four to a house with enough food and coal shipped to the island to last for the 12-week test.

A report said: “There is a well equipped kitchen, a central mess and a storeroom with a three months’ stock of tinned food and fruit, eggs, flour —from which bread will be baked—sauces; everything, indeed, to appease the heartiest appetite.

The students, most who came from Aberdeen University, passed their time with fishing and birdwatching on the island. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.The students, most who came from Aberdeen University, passed their time with fishing and birdwatching on the island. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.
The students, most who came from Aberdeen University, passed their time with fishing and birdwatching on the island. PIC: David Andrewes reproduced from Scottish Islands Explorer magazine.

“There are adequate supplies of coal and paraffin, and miniature library.

“Golf clubs have been brought over, and a pitching and putting course will be laid out. There is a stretch of turf where cricket can be played.

“Ornithologists in the party hope to learn something of the habits of the storm petrel and those interested in natural history will try to discover whether the grey seal breeds on the coast of Roan.

"A good time is hoped for by all. September is far off and there appears to be nothing disturbing in being a human guinea pig who aims to catch what all the rest of us can contract without trying.”

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As the experiment got underway, the students passed the time studying, fishing and starting their own mail system by posting letters in bottles to their parents.

One student, James Davidson, sent his message in a bottle to his family in Peterhead with the note picked up by two girls playing at