I’d like to think that for many now the name of that Scottish town evokes thoughts of tennis. After all, the town supplied us with the Murray family which in no small part helped Great Britain win it’s first Davis Cup in 80 years. Jamie is a successful mens and mixed doubles player and Andy has won Olympic gold as well as two of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Their mother, Judy, is arguably just as famous as they are, having played a huge part in getting her boys to where they are today.
But of course, twenty years ago those two boys were part of something that Dunblane may very well be even more famous for. At ages eight and ten, both were in attendance at Dunblane Primary the day Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and their teacher, while injuring a further 15 before taking his own life.
There is nothing I can possibly say here that hasn’t already been said before. As crimes go, you would be hard pushed to come up with something more horrendous, more heartbreaking, more inexplicable and more shocking than gunning down a class full of children. These kids were five years old, to call them innocent doesn’t do them justice.
Im not going to go into the details of Hamilton and his greviences with the authorities in the area, or the many stories that came out about him in the time that followed the massacre. Others can give the facts there far better than I. But I can give my own story of that day, and how it affected me.
I was at school that day myself. Specifically, at 14 years old on March 13th 1996, I was in my fourth year of high school. For those who may not know, I went to high school in Denny, a bus journey from my home village every day.
To put that into perspective on that infamous day, have a play on Google Maps. Hamilton started that same day at his home in Kent Road, Stirling and made the 7.7 mile journey north to Dunblane Primary. Had he gone that same distance south instead of North however, he would have come to my school.
Now, I know it’s not that simple. Hamilton had many ties with Dunblane and that’s why he went there. I was also in a far bigger school, a secondary rather than primary, so really there is no chance Hamilton would have come my way.
But even knowing that, that kind of proximity to an event so horrendous still haunts me. And if a small fact of direction and distance haunts me, think how everything else must haunt those who were at or otherwise involved with Dunblane Primary that day.
Then you’ll realise why Andy and Jamie Murray never speak of it. I don’t blame them, there’s no way this day should define them. Nor should it define the town of Dunblane.
Not that my school completely escaped the events that day. When you’re that close there’s always a chance it will affect someone, and in our case there was one English teacher who rushed out of our school to check on his own family since it was Dunblane Primary that his kids attended. Fortunately for him and his family, they were unharmed.
But imagine that scenario for a moment. A shooting at the school your kids attend. You yourself a teacher, at work at the time. Of course you drop everything and head up the road as quickly as possible. But there must be a part of you that thinks later on when you find out your kids are fine: “at least it wasn’t my class”.
I can only imagine that’s how it goes. It’s not my kids, it’s not the class I was teaching, it’s someone else’s. It’s a horrible kind of guilt ridden relief.
But what do you tell your class that you’re teaching at that point in time as you rush out the door? Well, nothing as it turns out. Another teacher apparently took over and the class carried on as normal. I never witnessed this, he was never my teacher.
Indeed, that silence was mirrored throughout the school. Our morning classes went by with all of us completely oblivious to what had happened a few miles up the road.
Remember, this is 1996. No kid at school has a mobile phone, and even the computers we use in computing classes aren’t networked to anything. There is no way for any of us to find out what’s on the news.
Now, as I said earlier, I got a bus to school every morning. That meant that going home for lunch was never an option for me. It was, however, an option for the kids that lived in Denny. So by the time lunch was over, the cat was out the bag as news finally filtered through to the rest of us from our friends.
For some reason, I know I had Modern Studies class the period immediately after lunch. I couldn’t tell you what any of my timetable was for any other time in my six years of high school, but that afternoon I know exactly where I was.
At the time, I remember being both stunned and angry. Stunned that something like that could possibly have happened in a place I had been. Back in my primary school days I’d been orienteering in Dunblane, so I felt like I had even the smallest connection with the town. I’d been on those streets, and so it made it even more real.
But the anger was directed at my own school for keeping us in the dark. I couldn’t believe something like that could happen and we had to find out from our friends after lunch. How could they keep that from us?
Im older now, I fully understand that telling us would have gained nothing. There was no threat to us, and all it may have done was panicked us, so really they did the right thing. But at the time I was 14 years old, a ripe age for challenging authority even if I was completely wrong.
I didn’t challenge anything though, I just got on with the rest of my classes. At least I think I did. I’ve a feeling I was distracted the rest of he day and just wanted to get on the bus and go home.
When that time came, it was one of those evenings where the news was on constantly. Sky News was an option for us even back in 1996 and I don’t think we changed the channel at all that night, except maybe to get the local news perspective.
At times like that you feel like you want to do something but know there’s nothing you can do. It’s a horrible, empty feeling. And probably explains what happened next.
A day or two later, it emerged that our local chapel was going to have an evening service for the victims. Being someone who went to non-denominational schools and coming from a family that were in no way religious, I’d barely set foot in our local parish church never mind the Catholic equivalent.
I say barely because on good weather days our end of term services in primary school would see the entire school marched across the village to the parish church. On bad weather days we had to settle for the minister coming to our assembly hall. As I’ve said previously, non-denominational my arse.
So because of all that, my first visit to the chapel for the Dunblane service would be the day I’d learn that Catholic churches are better decorated than Protestant ones.
Yes, I know why and yes I know that seems like an odd thing to include in this blog. However, I genuinely had that thought when I first set foot in it. I only learned why that was the case much, much later.
For me, this service transcended religion. I went there with my friends – Protestant and Catholic alike. The only way you could tell the difference that night was by how much participation there was. I didn’t have a clue when to stand and when to kneel and when to sit and when to speak up and when to be silent. To be honest, I still don’t, and I’ve been to a few more Catholic services since that day.
But it didn’t matter. The whole service could have been conducted by the voice of the teacher from Charlie Brown and Snoopy cartoons for all it mattered to us. What mattered was that everyone had come together to grieve and to draw strength from each other. If that strength came through the words of God for some people in that room, whatever version they happened to prefer, then that’s fine too.
I’ve never experienced anything like that, and I hope I never do again. Not like that anyway. As far as people coming together as one, I wish humanity was like that more often. Would be nice if it was for better reasons though.
But the coming together didn’t end there. What followed was a lobbying campaign the likes I’ve not seen before or since. After it emerged that Hamilton had used guns he had legally obtained, people wanted to ensure it could never happen again. That didn’t mean better background checks or ensuring good people also had guns to stop the bad people with guns, that simply meant banning guns altogether.
And that’s precisely what happened.
It sickens me to look over at the US and see how much the NRA control things every single time there’s a school shooting. Here we had one and banned the lot. One was still too many, but at least we’ve done all we can to ensure it doesn’t become two. Twenty years on and it hasn’t, I dread to think how many there have been in the US in that same period. Poor President Obama alone is sick of dealing with them, and he’s two presidents on from when the Dunblane Massacre occurred.
I’m rarely proud of the UK, but in that instance we got it spot on. Sadly I read yesterday that some see this twenty years as an opportunity to loosen the rules.
No. Firstly, that’s tasteless in its timing. Secondly, what do you need a gun for? We’ve just proved for twenty years you don’t need them and we’re better off without them. It’s a no brainer, leave our gun laws as they are.
That wasn’t the only change though. School access became a lot tighter afterwards. When I was a kid at school, the playground was easily accessible. Now I look at schools and they’re surrounded by fences. They look like prisons. It’s depressing, but I understand. Even before I had a child of my own I appreciated the importance of keeping our children safe.
Twenty years on from this tragedy, it’s hard to think that those kids have been gone four times as long as they were here. Their classmates who survived will be having kids of their own now. I’d like to think those kids will never experience anything even remotely like what their parents did.
Nor should anyone else’s. Ever.