Suffer the little children: Dunblane 20 years on


Gwen Mayer and her class targeted by Thomas Hamilton – 16 children died alongside their teacher

In the cathedral church of Dunblane stands a simple carved stone. Its smooth surface is at odds with the weathered pillars supporting the cathedral’s ceiling. Until the roof was restored in the 1890s, the nave had been opened to the elements for 300 years, and the Scottish climate had taken its toll.

The building is one of those anomalies of the Reformation. It is a Presbyterian church built by a Catholic saint with the encouragement of the pope; and a cathedral without either a bishop or a grand city to sustain it – Dunblane is a sleepy little town, almost a village.

Just a few hundred yards from the cathedral’s entrance is a post box painted gold – a reminder of the 2012 Olympics, and the victory of one of its most famous sons in the tennis finals. A year later Andy Murray won the Wimbledon men’s singles title too – the first Briton to do so in living memory.

Dunblane is the place Murray thinks of as home, and the cathedral was where, last April, he married Kim Sears.

A commuter town, just an hour from Edinburgh and Glasgow, Dunblane is the sort of place where nothing much happens. We all know places like that. But terror is no respecter of sleepy towns.

Dunblane’s time came 20 years ago. On March 13 1996, Thomas Hamilton – a bit of an oddball – entered its primary school and headed to the gym. He was carrying four legally-held handguns and more than 700 rounds of ammunition.

Hamilton murdered 16 children and a teacher before killing himself. It was mass murder on a scale almost unprecedented in Great Britain (in 1987 gunman Michael Ryan killed 16 in Hungerford).


Tennis champion Andy Murray speaking about Dunblane in a BBC interview with Sue Barker

Andy Murray and his brother Jamie were pupils at the school. Eight-year-old Andy’s class was on the way to the gym when Hamilton struck. It’s not something the Murrays talk about much, and who can blame them.

The two boys knew him, in an interview given two years ago to Radio Times their mother Judy said: “They had been to boys’ clubs he ran locally at the high school.

“I knew him too, I’d given him lifts from the boys’ clubs to the station. He was a bit of an odd bod, but I wouldn’t have thought he was dangerous. So he’d been in my car.”

There is controversy still about what could have been done to prevent the massacre. Concerns had been raised about Hamilton’s behaviour in the run-up to March 13. The inept handling of the aftermath too by the police added to the anguish of the victims and their families. And just last week questions were being asked about the independence from political considerations of the judge-led inquiry.

Had Hamilton’s arrival time been later, the course of British tennis could have been so different. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Murrays’ careers is their capacity to transcend this most appalling of events.

And who is to know what the 16 children who died would have achieved?

The stone monument in the cathedral is a fitting tribute to those young souls. It is not maudlin or macabre. It celebrates the joy children bring to our world, and the hope.

In every child there is the potential to be something great – a great mother or father, a great statesman or stateswoman, a great friend or companion, a great teacher, a champion.

On one face, the stone mason has carved words from Richard Henry Stoddard’s Children’s Prayer: “If there is anything that will endure the eye of God because it is pure, it is the spirit of a little child.”

I am not a great fan of anniversaries. They can trap us in the past. But if we do not remember the things that shaped our world, we cannot build a better one. It was right yesterday to mark the day a cloud descended over a small Scottish town, as it is right to remember the countless other dark deeds that robbed the world of young lives – each with so much to offer.

In doing so, we should also consider the Dunblanes happening around us now: victims of barrel bombs in Syria, suicide bombers in Afghanistan, the boy soldiers in Somalia, and the bodies of babes washed up on Mediterranean beaches.

We cannot save every child, but we have a duty to do what we can to create a world where children are treasured and given the opportunity to become champions.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on March 14 2016