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Mourners looking at floral tributes lining the road by Dunblane Primary School (Picture: PA)

Dunblane – 1996

There were 29 small children in the gymnasium of Dunblane Primary School when Thomas Hamilton walked in and opened fire at point-blank range. He was armed with semi-automatic 9mm pistols and two .357 revolvers. He was also carrying 743 cartridges of ammunition, he sprayed and re-sprayed the room. In just three minutes 16 children were dead or dying along with their teacher, and 12 were wounded. Just one of the five and six-year-olds escaped the carnage physically unscathed. Then, without pausing, Hamilton shot himself. It was the worst multiple murder Britain had ever known.

Hamilton’s dogged focus on young children as his victims made the Dunblane massacre even more horrific than Hungerford, nine years earlier. Michael Ryan, the Hungerford killer, had been deemed a fantasist whose violence had been nourished by a lifetime of voluntary isolation from normal societal interchange. As police and psychologists desperately sought to identify Hamilton’s motivation – if only to help grief-ravaged parents make some sense of the horror – it became clear that Hamilton had been isolated. Facts about him included being rejected as a suitable leader of all manner of boys’ clubs, including the Boy Scouts, over a number of years; and he certainly had a clinical ‘persecution complex’, evidenced by his dozens of complaints to councils, parliament, the police, the Ombudsman and even the Queen about his mental stability being questioned. Yet his firearms license was not revoked, and afterwards, his keen membership of a gun club was interpreted as a ‘behavioural try out’.

Thomas Hamilton was born in Glasgow on 10 May 1952. He was the son of Thomas Watt and Agnes Graham Hamilton or Watt. He was named Thomas Watt. Shortly after his birth, his parents separated and in 1955 they were divorced. He and his mother moved to the home of his maternal grandparents in Cranhill, Glasgow.

On 26 March 1956, he was adopted by them and his name was changed to Thomas Watt Hamilton. In 1963 he accompanied his adoptive parents when they moved to 11 Upper Bridge Street, Stirling. He grew up in the belief that his natural mother was his sister. In 1985 she moved to live in a house of her own.

In 1987 Thomas Hamilton and his adoptive parents moved to 7 Kent Road, where he continued to live until 13 March 1996. In August 1987 his adoptive mother died; and 5 years later his adoptive father moved into sheltered housing, so leaving Thomas Hamilton in sole occupation. He remained in contact with his natural mother, visiting her about twice a week.

After a primary education in Cranhill and Stirling Thomas Hamilton attended Riverside Secondary School, Stirling and Falkirk Technical College, obtaining a number of O Grades in 1968. In that year he became an apprentice draughtsman in the County Architect’s Office in Stirling.

In 1972 he opened a shop at 49 Cowane Street, Stirling known as “Woodcraft”, which specialised in the sale of DIY goods and supplies, ironmongery, and latterly the sale of fitted kitchens. After about 13 years he gave up the shop and registered as unemployed. He received state benefits until November 1993. However, at the same time, he carried on the activity of buying and selling cameras and camera equipment and carrying out some free-lance photography.

In July 1973 Thomas Hamilton, who was then a Venture Scout, was appointed as Assistant Scout Leader of the 4th/6th Stirling Troop. This followed the normal checks into an appointee’s suitability. He seemed very keen and willing and did not present any problems. On one occasion he volunteered to take some boys on his boat on Loch Lomond for their proficiency badge work but this was not permitted as the boat had insufficient life jackets and no distress flares or oars, and he had inadequate knowledge of the waters. In the autumn of 1973, he was seconded to be the leader of the 24th Stirlingshire troop which was to be revived at Bannockburn.

A number of complaints were made about his leadership, the most serious of which were concerned with two occasions when the boys who were in his charge were forced to sleep overnight in his company in a van during very cold weather at Aviemore. His excuse on the first occasion was that the intended accommodation had been double-booked and he was warned of the need to double-check such arrangements.

On the latter occasion, it was found that no booking had been made by him on either of these occasions. The County Commissioner, Mr Brian D Fairgrieve had a discussion with the District Commissioner, Mr R C H Deuchars, in which they agreed that Thomas Hamilton should be asked to resign.

Thereafter Mr Fairgrieve had a meeting with him. He did not think that Thomas Hamilton was a particularly stable person. He said in evidence “I formed the impression that he had a persecution complex, that he had delusions of grandeur and I felt his actions were almost paranoia”. He was doubtful about his moral intention towards boys. Thomas Hamilton was informed that in view of his lack of qualities in leadership his warrant was being withdrawn. On 13 May 1974, Mr Deuchars wrote to him requiring that he return his warrant book. Despite repeated requests, he did not do so for some months.

Mr Fairgrieve wrote to the Scottish Scout Headquarters in order to give them his views about Thomas Hamilton as he considered that he should not be a member of the Scout movement. In this letter dated 29 June 1974, he wrote:

“While unable to give concrete evidence against this man I feel that too many ‘incidents’ relate to him such that I am far from happy about his having any association with Scouts. He has displayed irresponsible acts on outdoor activities by taking young ‘favourite’ Scouts for weekends during the winter and sleeping in his van, the excuse for these outings being hill-walking expeditions. The lack of precautions for such outdoor activities displays either irresponsibility or an ulterior motive for sleeping with the boys… His personality displays evidence of a persecution complex coupled with rather grandiose delusions of his own abilities. As a doctor, and with my clinical acumen only, I am suspicious of his moral intentions towards boys”.

Mr Deuchars also submitted a form to Scout Headquarters to the effect that Thomas Hamilton was not considered to be a suitable applicant due to his immaturity and irresponsibility. This resulted in his name being entered on the “blacklist” which is intended to ensure that unsuitable applicants are denied an appointment in the Scout Association. Such a record is also consulted on occasions when an outside enquiry is made as to whether a former Scout leader has provided satisfactory service. In the case of Thomas Hamilton, it was effective in preventing him in his attempt to become a Scout leader in Clackmannanshire.

A look at Thomas Hamilton background gives you a fair idea of what he was about. For starters, he loved the guns he collected. He also had another love – young boys. A rather lethal combination in his case. In fact, his love for young children was fairly well known in the village of Dunblane where Hamilton lived – so much so that he was given the not so bizarre nickname of “Mr Creepy.” And add this together with the fact that he was a scoutmaster and we soon see an almost complete picture of a pervert.

But things went wrong for Hamilton in the 80’s. His ‘love’ of little boys eventually saw him lose the role of scoutmaster. It seems that he liked to get the boys to take their shirts off so he could take photos of them – and the child’s parents obviously thought this was not why they let their children go to scouts. After a few complaints, it was all over for Thomas Hamilton.

But he landed on his feet – He took over a boy’s athletic club where he got to see all the bare chests he needed to to get through the day.

But like all good things, it came to an end.

It’s not known how Hamilton lost this job but he didn’t take the news too well.

In the first week of March 1996, Thomas Hamilton wrote a letter to the Queen. It was basically a massive rave about how unfairly he was treated by the scouts. He also complained about a campaign to ruin his reputation. The shame was just too much for him.

Queen Elizabeth ignored his plea for help and Hamilton was left to handle his problems by himself. And it would seem it was all just a little too much for his mind to handle. Among those he complained to besides the Queen was the local Member of Parliament, Michael Forsyth. In the 1980s, another MP, George Robertson, who lived in Dunblane, had complained to Forsyth about Hamilton’s local boys’ club, which his son had attended. On the day following the massacre, Robertson spoke of having argued with Hamilton “in my own home”.

On March 13, 1996, Hamilton walked from his house to the Dunblane Primary School. He was going to sort things out, and he had four handguns with him. He had chosen the gymnasium as the site of his revenge.

About 8.15 am Thomas Hamilton was seen by a neighbour to be scraping ice off a white van outside his home at 7 Kent Road, Stirling. They had a normal conversation. Sometime later he drove off in the van in the direction of Dunblane. At about 9.30am he parked the van beside a telegraph pole in the lower car park of Dunblane Primary School. He took out a pair of pliers from a tool wrap and used them to cut the telephone wires at the foot of the telegraph pole. These did not serve the school but a number of adjoining houses.

He then crossed the car park, carrying the weapons, ammunition and other equipment and entered the school by way of a door on its north west side which was next to the toilets beside the gym. Had he used the main entrance to the school it was more likely that he would have been seen as there were many persons in the vicinity of the entrance at that time.

The school day had started at 9 am for all primary classes. Morning assemblies were held in the school’s Assembly Hall which was situated between the dining area and the gymnasium. The school had 640 pupils, making it one of the largest primary schools in Scotland. The Assembly Hall was not large enough to accommodate the whole school at one time, with the consequence that assemblies were limited to certain year groups in rotation.

On 13 March all primary 1, 2 and 3 classes had attended assembly from 9.10 am to 9.30 am. They consisted of a total of about 250 pupils, together with their teachers and the school chaplain. They included Primary 1/13 which was a class of 28 pupils, along with their teacher Mrs Gwen Mayor. This class had already changed for their gym lesson before attending assembly. Twenty-five members of the class were five years of age: and three were six-years of age. Mrs Mayor was forty-seven years of age.

Sixteen young Primary One pupils lost their lives, as did class teacher Gwen Mayor (left). Those who died included Kevin Hasell, 5 (back row, third from left); David Kerr, 5 (back row, third from right), Charlotte Dunn, 5 (second row, second from left), Emily Morton, 5 (second row, third from left); Joanna Ross, 5 (second row, middle), Emma Crozier, 5 (second row, third from right), Abigail McLennan, 5 (front row, left), Sophie North, 5 (front row, second from left), Hannah Scott, 5 (front row, third from left), Megan Turner, 5 (front row, middle), Mhairi McBeath, 5 (front row, second from right)

Hamilton entered the gym. He was wearing a dark jacket, black corduroy trousers and a woolly hat with ear defenders. He had a pistol in his hand. He advanced a couple of steps into the gym and fired indiscriminately and in rapid succession. Mrs Harrild was hit in both forearms, the right hand and left breast. She stumbled into the open-plan store area which adjoined the gym, followed by a number of the children. Mrs Mayor was also shot several times and died instantly. Mrs Blake was then shot but also managed to reach the store, ushering some children in ahead of her.

From his position near the entrance doorway of the gym, Hamilton fired a total of 29 shots in rapid succession. From that position, he killed one child and injured others. During this shooting four injured children made their way to the store. In the store, Mrs Blake and Mrs Harrild tried to console and calm the terrified children who had taken refuge there. The children cowered on the floor, lying helplessly in pools of blood hearing the screams and moans of their classmates in the gym, and waiting for the end or for help.

Thomas Hamilton walked up the east side of the gym firing six shots. At a point midway along it, he discharged eight shots in the direction of the opposite side of the gym. He then advanced to the middle of the gym and walked in a semi-circle systematically firing 16 shots at a group of children who had either been disabled by the firing or who had been thrown to the floor. He stood over them and fired at point-blank range.

Thomas Hamilton then re-entered the gym where he shot again. He then released the pistol and drew a revolver. He placed the muzzle of the revolver in his mouth, pointing upwards and pulled the trigger.

Mrs Mayor and 15 children lay dead in the gym and one further child was close to death. They had sustained a total of 58 gun shot wounds. 26 of these wounds were of such a nature that individually they would have proved fatal.

In the result, the deaths of the victims were caused by gunshot wounds caused by Thomas Hamilton’s actions in shooting them. All of these victims died within the gym, with the exception of the sixteenth child, Mhairi Isabel MacBeath, who was found to be dead on arrival at Stirling Royal Infirmary at 10.30 am. While it is not possible to be precise as to the times at which the shootings took place, it is likely that they occurred within a period of 3-4 minutes, starting between 9.35 am and 9.40 am.

The survivors of the incident were taken to Stirling Royal Infirmary. They consisted of the remaining 12 members of the class; two pupils aged 11 who were elsewhere than in the gym when they were injured; and Mrs Harrild, Mrs Blake and Mrs Tweddle. Thirteen of them had sustained gunshot wounds, 4 being serious, 6 very serious and 3 minor. Of the remaining four, two had sustained minor injuries and two were uninjured.

One child, sobbing, leaned heavily against a car door. Another, her eyes glazed, stumbled through the jostling crowd at the primary school gate.

In the main street nearby, a woman shrieked, “Victoria! Victoria!”

Dunblane, a tranquil cathedral town at the foot of the Scottish Highlands, roiled in grief and horror after a disgraced former Boy Scout leader armed with four guns killed or wounded all but one of 29 kindergartners playing in the school gymnasium and killed their teacher.

The slaughter of the innocents was over in moments.

Mrs Agnes Awlson, the Assistant Headmistress, had been making her way across the playground from her classroom when she heard several sharp metallic noises and screaming coming from the gym. She ran along a corridor and saw what she thought were cartridges lying outside its doorway. Realising that something dreadful was happening she ran back to the office of the Headmaster, Mr Ronald Taylor, who was making a telephone call.

The call began at 9.38 am. He was conscious of hearing noises like indistinct bangs. This puzzled him and his reaction was to think that there were builders on the premises about whom he had not been informed. Mrs Awlson entered his office in a crouched position saying that there was a man in the school with a gun. Mr Taylor cut short his call and made an emergency call to the police, which was received at 9.41 am.

He then ran along the corridor to the gym. On the way, he heard no further noises. A student teacher told him that he had seen the gunman shooting himself. Mr Taylor’s estimate was that some 3 minutes had lapsed between his first hearing the noises and being told this by the student teacher.

Mr Taylor burst into the gym. He was met by what he described in evidence as “a scene of unimaginable carnage, one’s worst nightmare.” He saw a group of children on the right-hand side of the gym who were crying and obviously less injured than the others. He asked the student teacher to take them out of the gym and give them comfort. He then ran back to his office and instructed the Deputy Headmistress, Mrs Fiona Eadington, to telephone for ambulances. That call was made at 9.43 am.

He then ran back to the gym calling for adults, and in particular the kitchen staff, to come and help. He moved through the gym along with the janitor Mr John Currie. He noticed Thomas Hamilton lying at the south end of the gym. He seemed to be moving. He noticed a gun on the floor beside him and told Mr Currie to kick it away, which he did. He also removed the revolver from Thomas Hamilton’s hand and threw that aside. By this time the Assistant Headmaster, Mr Stuart McCombie, and members of the kitchen staff were in the gym endeavouring to help the injured children until the arrival of the police. When Mr Taylor went to the store area he discovered the injured that were there. Other members of staff arrived and endeavoured to attend to the injured, which were taken to the Assembly Hall.

By this time the police and medical teams had arrived. Attention was turned to the difficult problem of identifying the children. Since Mrs Mayor was dead, help was sought from members of staff, including nursery staff, who had looked after the children during the previous year. However, not all of the children had been through the nursery. This was an extremely harrowing experience for all the members of staff who were involved. They had to be taken into and out of the gym on several occasions.

The record cards were consulted in order to aid identification. Unfortunately, the class register had not been marked for Mrs Mayor’s class as the class had proceeded directly to the gym after assembly. A further difficulty was encountered when it was discovered that one child was wearing clothing with the name tag of another child. The record card for another child was not in its expected place but this did not delay identification. Mr Taylor and his staff did everything that they possibly could to assist, far beyond what might reasonably have been expected of them.

Five-year-old Stewart Weir will never forget the man with the guns. The boy ran, escaped with only a bullet-grazed leg and was able to tell his dad about it.

“Stewart said he thought the gunman was shooting at him,” Robert Weir said after comforting his son in the hospital. “He got hit in the leg, so he took a run and just hid with another wee girl. It is lucky the man turned the gun on himself before he got the rest of the kids.”

Frantic parents tried to get into the school while police and ambulance workers inside confronted unspeakable horror.

“I can only describe what I saw … as a medieval vision of hell,” paramedic John McEwan said,”There were little bodies in piles, dotted around the room, and items of children’s clothing like shoes and pumps around the floor.”

The final toll was 16 dead children, 12 wounded children and two dead adults, one of them the gunman, who took his own life.

Dunblane is the sort of place people almost never leave, a place whose 9,000 residents clearly care about each other. Just 35 miles northwest of Edinburgh, it straddles the River Allan in the spectacular Perthshire countryside leading into the highlands.

An ecclesiastical centre since the seventh century, it has a cathedral, which, like the town’s life, was described by Victorian social theorist John Ruskin as “perfect in its simplicity.”

It also had Thomas Hamilton, 43, a reclusive individual who lived in a public housing project in Stirling, five miles away, and came to Dunblane to supervise a boys’ athletic group.

Balding and bespectacled, Hamilton belonged to a local gun club and liked taking photographs. Beyond that, neighbours did not know much about Hamilton. Not, for example, that he was a Scout leader in Stirling in the early 1970s but was expelled for what the Boy Scouts Association called “complaints about unstable and possibly improper behaviour following a Scout camp.”

He kept up his involvement with young people, however, running boys’ groups that met in municipal halls in Stirling, Dunblane and neighbouring towns through the 1980s.

Some parents then expressed suspicions about his activities, and boys complained about his habit of photographing them once he’d made them assume strange poses, thrusting out their chests or executing gymnastic moves, usually after stripping off their shirts.

No one interviewed remembered seeing Hamilton set off yesterday along the two-lane motorway to Dunblane, or turn up Doune Road to the school, or wander onto the unguarded playground, through the unlocked front door, across the dining hall and into the gym.

In Dunblane, no one had ever thought of guarding a school.

At 9:30 a.m., teacher Gwen Mayor, 44, was supervising 29 lively youngsters as they ran around the gym and took turns scrambling up the climbing bars. That’s the moment Hamilton appeared in the doorway — and opened fire on them all.

Elsewhere in the school, children heard a noise like firecrackers and jumped up from their desks and ran to windows to see what was going on.

Teachers ordered them under their desks. The principal dialled the police.

Parents learned of the shootings quickly and rushed to the school. The lucky ones, sobbing with relief, hugged the older children who emerged. There was neither relief nor solace for those led to an adjacent building or the nearby Westlands Hotel to be told the worst possible news, that their daughters or sons were dead.

Shortly after the massacre, a group of teenage boys walked around to the rear of the roped-off school and stared at bullet holes in the gym windows.

They recalled Hamilton as a strange man who made them feel uncomfortable.

“He used to walk me down from the boys’ club and try to invite himself into my house. He seemed queer,” said one young boy.

Scottish police described the crime scene as a medieval vision of hell with “little bodies in piles.” The Prime Minister decided this would be a great chance for some good publicity. He said the massacre was a “sick and evil act.”

Almost a month after the massacre the gymnasium was demolished. In its place, there is a play area and a flower garden. To avoid having any trophy hunters try to claim a piece of the building as a plaque, officers placed a 24-hour police presence around the demolition site.

When Thomas Hamilton’s body was dissected by the coroner it was found that he had broken ribs. This was to be a bit of a strange case for the coroner – until an ambulance officer came forward and admitted that he gave Hamilton’s corpse a ‘bit of a kicking’ when he had seen the destruction he’d caused.

The ambulance officer was never even reprimanded.

Prior to the events of 13 March 1996, Hamilton was already well known to Central Scotland Police. There were a number of investigations and reports compiled, the exact number and content cannot be verified. However, some police involvement with Hamilton is known.

In October 1994, Hamilton was cautioned by Lothian and Borders Police in Calton Hill, Edinburgh, when he was found with his trousers down in a “compromising position” with a young man.

In 1991, following Hamilton’s Loch Lomond summer camp, complaints were made to Central Scotland Police and were investigated by the Child Protection Unit. Hamilton was reported to the Procurator Fiscal for consideration of 10 charges, including assault, obstructing police and contravention of the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act of 1937. No action was taken.

The tragedy at Dunblane had serious and wide-reaching implications. Public opinion had an enormous impact on the legislative changes that occurred as a result of the massacre. The Snowdrop Campaign was founded by families and friends of those affected by the tragedy in Dunblane and gained 750,000 signatures to a petition for a ban on private gun ownership in six weeks.

The campaign stopped short of calling for a total ban on all guns, but rather called that guns for recreational use be held securely at authorised clubs, and all private ownership of handguns be banned.

The combination of the public pressure, driven by the Snowdrop Campaign, with the anticipation of the findings of an official Inquiry into Dunblane by Lord Cullen, caused a near-political crisis for the Conservative government. The gun lobby, which had won the concession of the establishment of the Firearms Consultative Committee after Hungerford, now looked out of touch and unsympathetic. The Labour party meanwhile, supported the Snowdrop Campaign in calling for a total ban on handguns. With only months until a general election, the government had no choice but to pass legislation that prohibited all handguns above .22 calibre.

Due to public and political pressure, the government legislated far beyond the recommendations of the Cullen report. Although the report concluded that the attack could not have been predicted, it raised serious questions about Hamilton’s firearms licence, which in Cullen’s opinion should have been revoked in light of what the police knew about him.

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