EARLY morning in Lockerbie, 21 December, 2013. A grey sky stretched over low hills. On a simple wreath in Dryfesdale Cemetery’s garden of remembrance, a card fluttered in the wind.
“For Jean Murray. A quiet spoken elderly lady who lived a quiet life,” it read.
Jean Aitken Murray was 82 years old in 1988. She lived at 14 Sherwood Crescent. It was 25 years ago on this day that she, along with 269 others, perished when Pan Am Flight 103 fell from the skies and on to a little Scottish town that was preparing to celebrate Christmas.
Here in this place of remembrance, later in the day, a formal memorial service would take place with dignitaries, families, cameras, a lone piper playing Amazing Grace. There would be ritual and ceremony and fine words. The UK, US and Libyan governments would release a joint statement declaring their determination to get to the “full facts” of the bombing.
For now though, in the still moment of the morning, this small corner of a small cemetery in a small town belonged to the quiet spoken.
Those who come to Lockerbie often talk of its peace. It is a pretty town, understated and Presbyterian, with a lanky High Street and tall, imposing clock tower. On lamp-posts, Christmas lights – white stars with tiny blue trails – glittered in the winter gloom. The hills that wreathe the town are small and emerald green. The field just north of Tundergarth Church, where the nose cone of Flight 103 landed, is where 100 bodies came to rest that night. In the cold morning light 25 years later, it is empty and silent. In an adjacent field, sheep huddled for warmth.
Down at Cafe 91, a dancing toy Santa on the door invited diners to indulge him in a Jingle Bell Rock. Inside, jolly snowmen hung from the ceiling while a waitress rushed round fetching Saturday morning fry-ups and tall, frothy milkshakes.
Today there are many young families in the town: couples with children, some of whom were children themselves when the bombing happened. Others moved here long after the disaster. A quarter of a century on, it is a sad truth that many townspeople who witnessed that night of horror have themselves passed away.
“It isn’t really the same town that it was,” said John Gair, a local and volunteer in his 70s who has lived here all his life. This is not a criticism. The older members of the community are delighted that young people have moved in, helped regenerate a community nursing a huge and painful wound.
For Lockerbie is a name synonymous with horror. It has become a byword for terrorism; death; destruction. A political football that has split Scotland and America. And when it is a word so often twinned with bombing, named in courts and trials and investigations and by endless politicians, it becomes easy to forget that Lockerbie is also still a community, and a home.
Sherwood Crescent was home to the 11 locals who perished that night. The crash left a 30ft crater that gouged out much of the street. The houses have long since been rebuilt, distinctive for their late 1980s architecture, itself now a little dated. While coloured Christmas tree lights twinkled in windows yesterday, the blinds on many windows remained resolutely pulled shut. At Dryfesdale Lodge, however, the old gravedigger’s cottage converted in 2005 as a place near the garden of remembrance where family members and visitors could stop to reflect, the door was open. A wreath had just arrived from Pan Am – dedicated to the stewardesses who lost their lives. On the wall, handwritten messages had been left by visitors.
One childish scrawl read: “I’m sorry to all the people on the plane”. There was a little drawing of an aircraft.
A man came in to sign the visitor book. He had been working as a policeman that night 25 years ago, had been brought in to help with the rescue and recovery. “We were told to look for survivors. That we could come back for the dead later.” He shook his head.
He stayed for a while, sitting on a chair that had come from Camp Zeist, where a Scottish court sat in the Netherlands and convicted Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi of the Lockerbie bombing on 30 January 2001. He chatted to Gair, who as a volunteer of this community-run centre, feels it is part of his duty as a local to listen to these stories.
“It’s important that we are here,” he said. “That there is a place where people can come. So that they can talk, and we can listen.”
Much like Royal Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire town that saw many military cortèges bearing the bodies of solders killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and where the locals chose to line the streets every time they came, the people of Lockerbie have made a conscious decision to remember the dead and welcome the living, along with their grief.
This is certainly true on days like this, when the world’s media descends alongside politicians and the great and the good. But it is true on every other day of the year too. Lockerbie’s arms are always open.
That does not mean, however, that the town has not moved on. A recent regeneration of the High Street has given the town a facelift, even some pretty sculptures of sheep peppering the pavement. There is talk of converting an old school into a community centre – a new focal point, Lockerbie natives hope. It is, as Louise Steedman of the Flower Pot Gift Shop said, a town with a strong sense of community, and grace. “What happened that night is part of us, part of our history,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to Lockerbie, there is. But it is important that we remember.”
Gair is more blunt. “Some of the local people saw some absolutely appalling sights and some of them find it difficult to forget. The majority of people have their lives to lead, though. They’re getting on.”
Some in the town mutter that Lockerbie has become a morbid tourist attraction, where ghouls come to gawk at the place where horror once rained down from the skies.
And yet for others – families of the victims in particular – it has become a haven of peace. Jane Schultz, from Connecticut, whose 20-year-old son Tom was on Pan Am Flight 103, broke down when she laid a wreath at the memorial yesterday, gently kissing the marble plaque erected in his memory. She comes to Lockerbie often, and several years after the disaster discovered she had a cousin who lived nearby. “When I leave Lockerbie I feel like I am leaving a piece of my heart behind,” she said. “I like to come here. You can see the sheep in the hills. Occasionally you hear a plane flying overhead. I find it comforting.”
It is, perhaps, Lockerbie’s lasting legacy that it has become a place of comfort for all affected by the events of that night. And that even now, 25 years on, it is still providing a voice for the quiet spoken.