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The Dunblane Massacre

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On the morning of Wednesday 13 March, 1996, a gunman armed with four legally-held guns: two semi-automatic pistols and two Smith and Wesson revolvers, with 743 rounds of ammunition, entered a primary school in Dunblane, a small close-knit Scottish town. He proceeded into the gymnasium, where he committed Britain's worst modern gun-related massacre. It was reported at the time that the gunman had intended to arrive at Dunblane Primary School during assembly. However, this plan was thwarted when he was held up in traffic on the icy roads.

The Victims

Instead, he chose the school's gymnasium as the scene of his crime, and the five and six-year-old children of Primary One class and their teachers as his victims. By the time the gunman turned the gun on himself - ending his own life and the three-minute massacre, in which approximately 105 bullets were fired - 15 children lay dead, along with their class teacher. A further 12 children and two teachers lay injured, bleeding and shocked. One of the injured children later died in hospital.

The gunman entered the gym wearing a woolly hat and earmuffs with his gun outstretched in his hand; he started shooting almost immediately. His first targets were the adults; possibly because they were a threat to him. Physical Education (PE) teacher, Eileen Harrild, was the first victim of his bullets; she was shot in the chest. As Eileen put her arms up to protect her body, she was shot three more times in her arms and hand. Next was Mary Blake, a supervisory assistant; she was shot in both her legs, and her head. Gwen Mayor was shot six times, including in her right eye; she died almost instantly. The gunman then turned his gun on the children, who by this time were running around, panicking and screaming. Meanwhile, Eileen and Mary had crawled to the storeroom, which was a blind spot from the door the gunman had used to enter the gym. Some of the children had followed them, and had been shot; several were lying at their feet. Eileen, concerned that the noise of the children's crying would attract the gunman's attention, tried to quieten them by putting her finger to her lips and saying 'shush', Mary did the same. The children seemed to understand the importance of being quiet; their noise ceased.

Between the noise of the gunshots, Eileen heard the metal scraping noise of the fire exit being opened; shortly afterwards, the gymnasium became silent. Unknown to Eileen, the gunman had killed himself. Subsequently, the voices of teachers and staff were heard. The killing had stopped and help had arrived.

One Boy's Survival

The most seriously injured child who survived was six-year-old Coll, who was initially shot in the foot. As Coll hopped towards the teachers and children near the storeroom, he was shot again, in the arm and then in the back. Coll fell face-down; he saw one of his friends in a pool of blood, staring at him. As Coll lay there, he heard the gunman approach and saw his boots in front of him; the gunman again shot Coll in the back.

Coll had slipped into a coma and was rushed by air ambulance helicopter to Yorkhill hospital, Glasgow. He had extensive injuries caused by the two bullets fired into his back. One had caused two collapsed lungs and broken ribs. The other had exited through his head; breaking his jaw and fracturing his cheekbone. It narrowly missed Coll's brain. However, Coll lost his sight and hearing on his right-hand side.

His parents were advised that Coll's chances of survival were slim. However, Coll defied the odds and woke from the coma three days later. In those three days his parents were almost constantly at his bedside. Coll, a football fan, collected football stickers; every day his dad brought him some more and opened them at his bedside, telling him about the players on the stickers.

About a week afterwards Coll was well enough to go home. Although he still needed medical care, the doctors felt being in his own familiar surroundings would help his recovery. By coincidence, on the same day Coll was due to be discharged from Yorkhill hospital, a visit from Princess Anne had been arranged. Given the choice between waiting to meet Princess Anne and going home, Coll chose to go home. However, he felt a little guilty and left Princess Anne a sweet and a note, thanking her for the visit. Coll was delighted when he received a reply on Buckingham Palace notepaper thanking him for the sweet.

Rumours and News

As the rumours of a shooting incident at the school spread around Dunblane, worried parents rushed to the school, passing ambulances with sirens blaring, that were ferrying some of the the wounded children and teachers to the Stirling Royal Infirmary.

When the parents arrived at the school they could go no further than the school gates, where police prevented them from going into the school. There they waited; tearful, huddled and anxious. Investigations discovered it was Mrs Mayor's Primary One class who had been the victims. The school was closed; children from other classes were taken in small groups to waiting parents.

Parents of children in Mrs Mayor's class were separated and directed to a house on the right-hand side of the school entrance. Affected parents among those who had been stopped by a police roadblock and directed to the nearby Westlands Hotel later joined them. From there, they were transported by minibus and taken to a room inside the school. There, after waiting for hours, one by one the parents of the murdered children were taken to another room and given the news that their child was dead.

As the media descended on Dunblane, reporting the full horror of that Wednesday morning across Britain and around the world, the news was met with shocked disbelief, numbness and tears.


Worldwide messages of condolence and cards, flowers, thoughts and prayers were sent to the bereaved parents and the mourning community of Dunblane, including the Queen, the then Prime Minister John Major and Labour Leader Tony Blair as well as from MPs and ministers from all political parties. The area around the school soon became a sea of flowers.

On Friday, two days after the shooting, John Major and Tony Blair, political rivalry put aside, made a joint visit to Dunblane. After witnessing the scene of Britain's worst modern gun-related massacre they pledged the money to demolish and rebuild the gymnasium. They also visited the wounded children and teachers at the Stirling Royal Infirmary.

Later that Friday evening, all religious differences were abandoned as the Dunblane community, which included people of different faiths, joined together for a vigil and prayers at Dunblane's Cathedral. Eight clergymen attended from Dunblane's five principal religions.

Two days later, on Mothering Sunday, a memorial service was held in the cathedral, attended by the Queen and her daughter, Princess Anne, on their visit to Dunblane. A minute's silence was held throughout the nation. The Queen spoke to some of the bereaved parents after the service. The Royal pair then visited the wounded children and teachers at the Stirling Royal Infirmary.

The Funerals

Over the following four days, from 18 March to 21 March, came the funerals of the 16 children and their popular and respected teacher. A corner of the Dunblane Cemetery serves as a silent classroom where a teacher and 13 of the 16 children who died that day lie at rest surrounded by flowers.

  • Gwen Mayor, 45 years old
  • Victoria Clydesdale, five years old
  • Emma Crozier, five years old.
  • Melissa Currie, five years old
  • Charlotte Dunn, five years old
  • Kevin Hasell, five years old
  • Ross Irvine, five years old
  • David Kerr, five years old
  • Mhairi McBeath, five years old
  • Brett McKinnon, six years old
  • Abigail McLennan, five years old
  • Emily Morton, five years old
  • Sophie North, five years old
  • John Petrie, five years old
  • Joanna Ross, five years old
  • Hannah Scott, five years old
  • Megan Turner, five years old

On 22 March, the school was reopened, except for the gymnasium, which was demolished on 10 April.

The Memorials

A large amount of money was donated to the people of Dunblane, along with cards and letters of condolence. Some donors specified how they wished their donation to be used; either in aid for the families directly affected or for the community as a whole. It was soon recognised that a central fund for donations was required and the Dunblane Appeal Fund was launched.

A combination of three groups - the Primary School, the Dunblane Appeal Fund and the Stirling Observer - originally managed and distributed the money donations. Later, it was managed and distributed by Dunblane Community Trust on behalf of the community and the Primary School Trust to enhance educational needs.

Memorial Service

In October, seven months after the massacre, a memorial service organised by the bereaved parents was held in Dunblane's Cathedral. The service was televised live by the BBC. The parents spent weeks carefully planning, and a few days rehearsing the event. More than 600 people attended the service; including Prince Charles, representing the Queen, and the UK nation. One of the guest speakers was Lorraine Kelly, who had befriended some of the families while reporting the tragedy for GMTV (Good Morning Television (UK)). Lorraine read an adapted version of a poem by Eugene G Merryman Jr, Little Lost Child. After she had read the poem, Lorraine read out the names of the dead victims, as their families lit a candle in their memory.

Memorial Gardens

The memorials funded by the Dunblane Community Trust include two memorial gardens. One garden is inside the perimeter of the cemetery, which includes a fountain and a commemorative plaque. Another garden, designed by Stirling District Council Landscape Department, includes a seating area, but was built on an old quarry site, which is now under threat of being purchased and redeveloped.

Youth Centre and Sports Hall

In September 2004, eight years after the massacre, a youth centre and community sports hall commemorating the victims was opened. Four doves, symbolising peace, were released at the centre’s opening ceremony. Inside the centre are various glass engravings paying tribute to the dead and injured.

It had taken eight years of planning, organising and building. The planning included ideas from the Dunblane Youth Project Trust. The funding was from various individuals and organisations including SportScotland Lottery Fund and the Dunblane Golf Club as well as the Dunblane Community Trust.

The Dunblane Commemoration

The newest artefact, which stands between the arched pillars in the nave of Dunblane's 13th-Century Cathedral, is the Dunblane Commemoration; a tall engraved stone tablet commemorating the tragedy, which was unveiled at a ceremony on 12 March, 2001.

Knockin' On Heaven's Door - CD

A local musician, Ted Christopher, wrote the following new verse for Bob Dylan's recording of Knockin' On Heaven's Door.

Lord these guns have caused too much pain
This town will never be the same
So, for the bairns of Dunblane,
We ask, please, never again.

Dylan agreed to Christopher's remake, which also included some of the children from the school, including some of the survivors from Mrs Mayor's class, singing the chorus, and Mark Knopfler on guitar. The revised version was released on CD and the proceeds were divided between three children's charities.

Fatal Accident Inquiry

As Gwen Mayor's death occurred during her working hours, a Fatal Accident Inquiry was held in accordance with Scotland's employment laws. The Inquiry took place at Stirling Sheriff Court in November, 1996. The Sheriff Principal recorded that Gwen had been unlawfully killed. The two-hour hearing included the following information on Gwen's injuries:

Her most serious injury was caused by a bullet which entered her right eye. It shattered her skull and caused extensive brain damage. It would have been instantly fatal. A second shot entered the back of her left shoulder and tore through her lungs and chest, out of her right armpit and into her upper right arm. A third hit her in the chest and came out of the side of her neck. A fourth entered her neck and went up into her mouth. Any of these last three bullets would also have been fatal. A fifth shot, which shattered her right lower arm before entering her left wrist, showed her arms had been crossed in front of her. A sixth hit her near the collar bone. She had tried to protect herself as the bullets flew.

The Snowdrop Campaign

The Snowdrop Campaign was launched in the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre. Its aim was to ban the private ownership of handguns across Britain in the hope of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again. Mrs Ann Pearson, a friend of some of the bereaved families, led the Snowdrop Campaign, named after the flowering snowdrops in March. The campaign quickly gathered support; this was something ordinary people could do for Dunblane.

In July a group of organisers from the Snowdrop Campaign, including some of the bereaved families, travelled to the House of Commons in London to present a petition containing approximately 750,000 signatures. This was the second petition urging the government to ban handguns. The first, containing approximately 400,000 signatures, organised by the Sunday Mail, had previously been delivered to the government by a group of bereaved families. The group from Snowdrop also had scheduled meetings with Labour Leader, Tony Blair and Diana, Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace.

Despite pressure from shooting clubs, rifle clubs, gun enthusiasts, and other interested parties not to make a decision based on the emotional reaction to the shootings, the then Conservative Government introduced legislation; the result was the Firearms (amendment) Act of February, 1997. All handguns, apart from pistols able to fire .22 or smaller cartridges, could no longer be legally bought, sold or possessed in the UK.

After a change of government in May 1997, the Labour administration proposed new legislation to ban all handguns. The proposal was passed. In November, 1997 the private ownership of all handguns became illegal in the UK. With their aim successfully completed, the Snowdrop Campaign quietly dissolved.

Gun Control

The Snowdrop Campaign was a huge success in its achievement of changing the UK's handgun laws; which was combined with a handgun amnesty. More than 160,000 handguns were anonymously handed in to police stations across the UK.

However, a report published in 2001 revealed that within two years of the handgun legislation, crime involving them had risen by 40% and that the possession of illegally-held handguns had continued to rise. Another handgun amnesty was held in 2003, after the murder, involving handguns, of two teenage girls from Birmingham. Over 40,000 illegally-held weapons were handed in to police. Statistics on the current (2006) amount of illegally-held handguns are not known.

The 1997 Firearms Act included plans for a central database of gun-users. In October 2002 the scheme was delayed due to technical problems. The central database of gun-users is due to be implemented by the end of 2006.

The Gunman

The gunman who committed the atrocities in Dunblane was 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who lived in a council flat in nearby Stirling. Hamilton was known to be a firearms enthusiast, and possessed six licensed guns. He also had a history of interest in running boys' clubs.

Hamilton was a Scout leader from July, 1973 to March, 1974. He resigned at the request of the Scout Association following complaints from parents. In 1988 he applied to rejoin the Scouts and was refused.

He set up various boys' clubs over the years, which attracted the attention of the police and local authorities after complaints from parents. In the 1980s he founded and ran a youth club in Stirling; called the Stirling Rovers Club. He also ran a youth club at a high school in Dunblane. Official complaints from concerned parents about Hamilton's behaviour towards boys in his care dated back at least ten years and the police had investigated some of the complaints. However, there was no proof of any improper behaviour towards the boys.

A week before he carried out the massacre, Hamilton had sent a letter to the Queen, complaining that he had been branded a pervert, particularly by parents of children in Dunblane. Proclaiming his innocence, he requested Her Majesty to intervene on his behalf. This letter is one of 3000 documents filed in the public inquiry on the shooting.

Public Enquiry

The government at that time appointed Lord Cullen as chairman of a public enquiry into the shooting. The aims of the enquiry included deliberating on issues concerning school security, the vetting and supervision of adults working with children and the control of firearms, as well as discussing Thomas Hamilton. There are around 3000 documents, including witness statements, in the files of the Cullen enquiry.

Under the 100-year Closure Act, the findings of the enquiry were originally to be held secret for 100 years, due to the deaths including those of children. However, the Freedom of Information Act superseded the previous act and made the enquiry available to the public.

On Hamilton, the witness statements included some stating that he was paranoid and resentful towards the Scout Association, the police and Dunblane parents. He was said to feel that everyone was against him. One witness, who had spoken to Hamilton on the telephone the night before he carried out the massacre stated that 'he started going on about being lonely and saying that he did not want to spend his life alone.'

The Cullen enquiry concluded that Hamilton's actions on that day could not have been predicted.

Some of the details and personal accounts are from Dunblane: Our Year of Tears, by Peter Samson and Alan Crow, Mainstream Publishing Company (Edinburgh) Ltd.

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