Martyn McLaughlin: Dunblane anniversary a humbling lesson in grief’s guises

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
Have your say

There was a time when Dunblane was paralysed by grief. Today, it walks side by side with its sorrow.

No-one would ever wish for such a companion, but the events visited on the Stirling community 20 years ago offered no alternative. Its onward journey was bound to be arrested by emotional obstacles impenetrable to those of us fortunate enough to live lives untouched by darkness.

It is a reckoning that is difficult to articulate and anyone seeking to comprehend its uniquely savage cruelty ought to be wary of offering their own appraisals. The convenient narrative, the one we in the media so often seek to impose – especially when anniversaries with round numbers roll around – would submit that ordinary life, in its inimitable way, goes on.

Such an assertion does not want for evidence – the survivors are now adults, families have been rebuilt, and their picturesque cathedral town has had ample moments of jubilation in recent years – but it remains an ill fitting and simplistic dramatic structure.

There can be no conclusion to Dunblane’s story, only hope that the next chapter will be easier than the last. If any certitude is worth stating, it is this: it is not grief that has defined the people of Dunblane, but their response to it.

This evening, BBC Scotland will screen a new documentary to mark the two decades that have passed since 16 children and their teacher were murdered in the worst mass shooting in British history. 
Dunblane: Our Story is as candid an hour of television as you will ever see, at once a disquieting chronology of that sombre March morning and a testament to the human spirit.

Rightly, the perpetrator of the hellish act – the only one who could have answered the question, why? – is relegated to the programme’s periphery. Neither does it have need of a narrator. Featuring interviews with survivors and the relatives of those who were killed, several of whom speak publicly for the first time, it is harrowing yet illuminating to hear how those who lived through an almost inconceivable tragedy have come to construe it.

The story is one of extraordinary suffering and loss, but its abiding quality is the way its protagonists have been able to broker a truce between their past and future. To hear Ron Taylor, Dunblane Primary’s headteacher at the time, speak so eloquently is to begin to understand the duality of a grief so great.

He is, and forever will be, tied to the events of that day. Like many who shared the most awful of experiences, he is racked by a sense of culpability, the idea that he could – or should – have done more. “I felt enormous guilt, more than a survivor’s guilt,” he explains. “It was my school. I felt violated.”

The same doubt has long nagged Dr Mick North, who lost his five year-old daughter, Sophie. Others, particularly the parents of those children who made it out of the school traumatised, terrified, but alive, also endure the agony of self-reproach.

They know such feelings to be groundless, but they loom large. That is the nature of irrationality. Those who feature in the documentary have come to accept that, in all likelihood, they will carry these thoughts to their grave.

“People have to cope in their own way,” Mr Taylor tells the programme. “One of the things I have at home is a box full of newspaper articles and it includes my own written version of the events of the day and I did that to help.

“I locked it away and thankfully I have never looked at it again. It’s quite easy to keep that box locked. It’s much more difficult to keep the box in my head locked.”

For Mr Taylor and others, the anguish is not something to be vanquished, but accepted. It has been a gradual process. Thankfully, the hardest legs of their journey are perhaps behind them. From birthdays and Christmases, milestones have come and gone, marked with sadness, but a little light also.

One early counselling session saw the parents gather in a large circle and introduce themselves. Karen Scott was the first to speak. 
“Hello, I’m Hannah’s mum,” she said. Next came Willie Turner, who told the room: “Hello, I’m Willie, I’m Megan’s mum.” For a moment, the numbness turned to something else – laughter.

Over the months and years that followed, it morphed into other forms: the determination and resilience that gave rise to the Snowdrop Campaign and, ultimately, sweeping legislative changes surrounding gun control.

Or the fortitude that saw the Dunblane parents play host to relatives of the pupils killed in the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado; two groups of families united by a sore and senseless loss.

The metamorphosis was only ever temporary, of course. The pain remained. How could it ever leave? It is a scourge that is ever present, something to be processed and, they hope, accommodated.

Grief, the programme tells us, is not something to be hidden. It is out in the open, an awkward and unwelcome intruder, but one that provides focus when the road ahead is unclear. Most of it all, this qualified peace allows them to remember those taken so suddenly.

There is pain in remembrance, but what has passed remains part of our lives. Those who loved them will never forget. Neither must we.

l Dunblane: Our Story is on BBC1 at 9pm