Insight: Dunblane 20 years after tragedy

TWENTY years after the Dunblane shootings, the town can flourish yet still feel a deep affinity in grief, writes Dani Garavelli

Snowdrops in bloom outside Dunblane Cathedral. Picture: John Devlin

It’s a bright, crisp day in Dunblane. In the cathedral, a group of tourists stands gazing up at the stained glass windows. Not far away at Hairways salon, old ladies chat under old-fashioned driers. In the surrounding streets, mothers push buggies, workmen clatter and the aroma of freshly baked pies wafting from David Bennett & Son is enough to make your stomach rumble.

On the other side of the river, at Dunblane Primary School, the children are enjoying their break. You can hear the laughter before you see them moving like blurry red pixels across the grey concrete. And all around the town – at the entrance to the school, in the cathedral gardens, along the river – there are patches of snowdrops; stoic white sentinels, keeping watch for spring.

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It is as incomprehensible now as it was in 1996: that an ordinary day, with all its humdrum comings and goings, could descend, in a heartbeat, into unimaginable chaos. But that’s what happened in Dunblane. In the three or four minutes it took Thomas Hamilton to kill 16 P1 pupils and their teacher, Gwen Mayor, and to injure many more, it was transformed from a pretty commuter town to a byword for slaughter; and it had no choice but to cope with its fate as best it could.

On the 20th anniversary of the shooting, it continues to cope. It would be facile to suggest its residents have “come to terms” with the tragedy. The BBC documentary – Dunblane: Our Story – demonstrated how anguish and regret and unjustified guilt refuse to relinquish their grip on those most intimately affected, reaching out to ensnare even those who were unaware of the impact it would have on their lives. Isabel Wilson’s younger daughter Catherine was just three months old when her sister Mhairi died. “I’ve lost something but not experienced what I’ve lost, I suppose,” she said, while her mother’s second husband, Guy, (her first died not long before the shooting) lamented his powerlessness to fix her pain. Those less directly involved have struggled too. Last week, Malcolm Robertson – whose father, George, was Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland at the time – described his own conflicted emotions and described the community he grew up in as “bound forever by tragedy”. But they have all got on with their lives. “It is what it is,” as Wilson put it.

The town too seems to have reached a painful accommodation with the shooting. Its buildings have long been dotted with plaques chronicling its history: its Celtic origins and tales of individual Jacobite rebellions. Now these are interspersed with memorials – gardens, benches, small statues – to the 17 victims. In the last couple of years, however, other, happier monuments have been added to the mix, most notably the golden postbox that marks Andy Murray’s Olympic gold medal and the bench that marks his Wimbledon win. There are fresh memories too: of streets lined with cheering crowds for his triumphant post-Olympic home-coming and of his wedding, which took place at the cathedral. Dunblane mourns its dead with dignity. It accepts the massacre will always be an integral part of its story; but it’s not the whole story.

“People – mainly journalists – have often asked me: ‘How has Dunblane moved on?’” says Stirling provost Mike Robbins who has lived in the town for 30 years. “And when you are on the end of a microphone, it’s all too easy to say, ‘Well, it’s moved on like this’. Then you think to yourself, ‘Really?’ What happened will never go away. But no-one wants to feel they’re being defined by that moment. They want to deal with it, but to be remembered for other things as well.”

Back in March 1996, Robbins was the chair of the school with a son in Primary 4. He was working in Helensburgh when he heard the news and drove back to Dunblane to join the throng of anxious parents outside the gates.

Even now, he sounds dazed when he talks about the weeks that followed: having to face a battery of cameras and give interview after interview, while dealing with his own emotions; and the way the town was swamped by flowers, which flowed like a river along the street outside the school, and by enough teddy bears to fill a church hall.

In the end, the gifts, though overwhelming, played a role in the grieving process. Not only were they testament to an outpouring of international support, they gave those not directly involved something constructive to do. Groups of volunteers moved the flowers from the roadside to the cemetery before the school reopened and distributed the soft toys as widely as they could. Others planted the many daffodil bulbs that had been sent.

“That’s what I remember most: that everyone I came across wanted to do something to help – and the way that, in the days afterwards,you would see people hugging each other in the street,” says Robbins, who stresses he is speaking to me in a personal rather than an official capacity.

The churches – which gave ritual to the mourning of believers – also commissioned a series of understated, but affecting memorials. In the cathedral is a simple standing stone with quotes about children that stop the heart. One of them, by American poet Bayard Taylor, reads: “But still I dream that somewhere there must be, the spirit of a child that waits for me.” At the Holy Family Church, a beautiful stained glass windows with three panels suggest light emanating from darkness.

Malcolm Robertson has nothing but happy memories of his school days. “It was a kind of idyllic childhood in many ways,” he says. “The gym [which was quickly demolished] was my gym. I can still see it clearly the way I remember it. You know what it’s like. When you look back, you remember the good times. In my memory, the sun was always shining in through windows.”

On the day of the tragedy, Robertson remembers being pulled out of a meeting by someone who knew of his connection to the town. “Like everyone else, I just headed home; we sort of closed the doors. There was a horrible period when no-one knew exactly what had happened. But there was also a dignity. I would never try to articulate how the people most intimately affected felt, but amongst the people I knew there was a resolve to not let it beat us.”

George Robertson travelled to Dunblane with Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, the MP for Stirling. For the next few weeks, he acted as a spokesman for the victims’ families. “Listening to my dad’s speech in the House of Commons [the following day] was really difficult, one of the hardest things I had to do because he talked about us having gone to the school,” Malcolm Robertson says. As a child he had been pulled out of Hamilton’s boys’ club because several parents, including his father, were uneasy with the way in which it was being run. This led to an angry confrontation with Hamilton on the family’s doorstep.

Today, Robertson, one of the founders of Charlotte Street Partners, believes the gunman should be talked about and depicted as little as possible. “I feel strongly that the people who carry out barbaric acts like the one in my home town do so precisely to live long in the memory of those places,” he says.

In the wake of the massacre, the Snowdrop Campaign, which called for a ban on the private ownership of handguns, provided a cause for people to rally behind. The petition gathered 750,000 signatures; As a result, the then prime minister, John Major, introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned all cartridge ammunition handguns with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons. Following the 1997 general election, Tony Blair introduced the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997, banning the remaining .22 cartridge handguns and leaving only muzzle-loading, historic handguns and certain sporting handguns legal. While new legislation is unlikely to assuage grief, at least Dunblane had the comfort of knowing that something changed in its wake; unlike communities in the US, where school shootings are met with an impotent wringing of hands and the sure knowledge that it is only a matter of time before more children die.

Dunblane has changed significantly in the past few years. It has seen new houses and a fresh influx of commuters for whom moving into a town touched by tragedy has brought its own challenges. “The people I know that have come here since treat [what happened] with the respect and quiet dignity it deserves, but you still get the feeling there’s an unspoken affinity between the people who were here at the time,” says Robbins.

With the new residents have come a flurry of coffee shops and boutiques which in turn increase its pulling power. The biggest potential development is the proposed £37.5m tennis and golf centre backed by Colin Montgomerie and Judy Murray which would be situated between the town and Bridge of Allan. Stirling Council rejected the plan in December, but developers are appealing to the Scottish Government.

Whether or not it goes ahead, the Murray family are responsible for giving Dunblane a lift. Their pride in the town is especially poignant given that Andy, then eight, and his brother Jamie, then 10, were both inside the school when the attack took place. Andy was on his way to the gym when the shooting began. In an interview in 2013, he said it had affected him deeply. When he received the Freedom of Stirling at a ceremony at Dunblane High, he cried and said: “It’s good to be home.”

“Andy Murray’s contribution is well-documented, but probably underplayed,” says Robertson.

“It is hugely significant. It has changed the story around the town. It used to put people in quite a difficult position when you told people you were from Dunblane because they didn’t know where to look. Now if you say ‘Dunblane’ people instantly say ‘Oh, Andy Murray’.”

Today, as always on 13 March, thoughts will turn inexorably to the atrocity: to those whose lives were lost and those who lives were damaged. At the memorial garden in the town cemetery, where almost all the victims are buried, it feels as if time has stood still. As indeed it has for the children, destined to stay forever five or six as their younger siblings outgrew them.

There are many flowers on the graves and in the garden: primroses, tulips, daffodils. And of course snowdrops in little pots. As Robertson has pointed out, Dunblane must be the only place in the world where these white blooms which force their way through the frost-hardened soil are viewed with ambivalence; a symbol both of sorrow and of hope.

In Dunblane: Our Story, survivor Amy Hutchison – whose thigh was shattered by a bullet – said she had been offered skin grafts to cover up her scars, but had turned them down. “To me that wasn’t an option. They’re my scars, they’re on my body, it’s my story, so I’m not going to hide them. I’m not ashamed of them,” she said.

But she also said she refused to let Hamilton ruin her life. As with Hutchison, so too with Dunblane itself. Twenty years on, the town makes no attempt to conceal its wounds; it accepts them as part of an identity it would not have chosen, but cannot alter. However, neither has it let itself be overwhelmed; despite everything, it perseveres, it grows, it flourishes.