• The True Crime Edition

Dunblane: The Shooting That Shocked a Nation

Before Sandy Hook, there was Dunblane.


Outside Dunblane Primary School via aoav.org.uk


Wednesday the 13th of March 1996 started like many others. Men and women went to work, store shutters opened welcoming customers, and children entered their classrooms, ready to learn. It took just three minutes to change that day for an entire community, forever.



43-year-old Thomas Watt Hamilton spent a lot of his life helping out with the Scouts. In July 1973, he was made assistant leader within the Stirling Scout Association and later was made leader of his own group.


The complaints quickly began when parents found out the Scouts were forced to sleep inside Hamilton’s van during overnight outings with their leader. Some boys told their parents that he’d ordered them to strip and run around in their swimming trunks, and there were photographs of boys in their swimwear, covering the walls of Hamilton’s home. In 1974, Hamilton’s Scout Warrant was taken from him, and he was blacklisted.


Thomas Hamilton via murderpedia.org


Rumours about Hamilton began to spread across the small town, but still, he continued to run several clubs, including football and summer camps for boys at nearby lochs. He was eventually banned from Loch Lomond’s campsite when the police turned up, inquiring about him. The council also got Hamilton banned from using Dunblane schools for his clubs due to the inaccuracies that he was still part of the Scouts Association.


In frustration, he wrote to Buckingham Palace in the hope of clearing his name, but he received no reply. He set up new clubs for athletics, citing his leadership in the Scouts as evidence of his legibility, but attendance began to decline as word spread of his behaviour. By 1995, there were almost no boys going to the clubs. In August, he posted letters through the parents’ doors, explaining that the gossip about him was false, but by then, he had already been given the nickname Mr Creepy by the local children.


When he wasn’t helping out with the boys’ clubs, Hamilton owned a kitchen fitting store in Dunblane. When the allegations from the Scouts began, and the rumours circulating about his inappropriate behaviour around children continued, his business eventually collapsed.


Between November 1981 and March 1996, Hamilton ran or was involved with fifteen different boy’s clubs around the Stirling area.


Though the motive for the massacre was never revealed, it’s likely that the events that came before it impacted what Thomas Hamilton did next.



On the 13th of March, Hamilton’s neighbour saw him scraping the ice from his van around 8.15 am. From there, he drove towards Dunblane, around 5 miles away from his home on Kent Road in Stirling.


He parked his van in the carpark of Dunblane Primary School and cut the cables of a nearby telegraph pole. He armed himself with four handguns and over 700 cartridges of ammunition and walked towards the school.


Lessons had begun thirty minutes earlier, and the children were in their first class of the day. Hamilton made his way to the school gym, firing a few shots as he walked. Twenty-nine children were in the gym for their physical education (P.E) lesson, aged between five and six.

When he entered the gym, he immediately began shooting at the children. The P.E teacher, Eileen Harrild and assistant Mary Blake were hit with flying bullets but managed to take shelter in a cupboard, grabbing as many children as they could in the process.


Hamilton eventually left the gym and continued through the school. He fired into the library cloakroom and another classroom, where all the children were lying on the floor, trying to protect themselves. He finally went back to the gym, where he took another of his guns and killed himself.


The entire attack took three minutes, but it tore apart the community for decades and continues to do so. Thomas Watt Hamilton killed fifteen children and one teacher in his attack. He also wounded a further fifteen adults and children.

  • Victoria Elizabeth Clydesdale (5)

  • Emma Elizabeth Crozier (5)

  • Melissa Helen Currie (5)

  • Charlotte Louise Dunn (5)

  • Kevin Allan Hasell (5)

  • Ross William Irvine (5)

  • David Charles Kerr (5)

  • Mhairi Isabel MacBeath (5)

  • Brett McKinnon (6)

  • Abigail Joanne McLennan (5)

  • Emily Morton (5)

  • Sophie Jane Lockwood North (5)

  • John Petrie (5)

  • Joanna Caroline Ross (5)

  • Hannah Louise Scott (5)

  • Megan Turner (5)

  • Gwen Mayor (45)


Class One via thescottishsun.co.uk


Headmaster Ronald Taylor called the police at 9.41 am, shortly after a colleague told him she thought there was a gunman on the premises. Taylor ran in the gym's direction as the shooting stopped, where he saw the extent of what had happened to the children in his care. He called for ambulances a few minutes after the call to the police.



It took almost a week to bury all the children, and Father Basil O’Sullivan, who presided over many of the funerals, was deeply affected by the killings.


“For about a year or two years, the very sight of a five-year-old would make me cry. I knew I that I wasn’t any use, because you can’t have a priest going around the town crying, you just couldn’t. That’s not what a priest is for. You have to cope, life goes on, time is a great healer.”

Thomas Hamilton was cremated privately ‘far away from Dunblane’.


In October 1996, the nation was able to mourn as one when a large memorial service was held at Dunblane Cathedral and televised on BBC1. Over 600 people attended the service, including Prince Charles.


Aftermath


As parents mourned the loss of their children, the nation grew angry. Complaints about Hamilton were made to the Central Scotland Police in 1991. The investigation reported that he could be charged for ten offences, including obstructing police, assault, and flouting the 1937 Children and Young Persons Act. No action was ever taken against Thomas Hamilton.


Daily Mirror front page via mirror.co.uk


The residents of Dunblane launched the Snowdrop Campaign, named for the flower that was in bloom in the March the attack took place. The campaign garnered over 750,000 signatures to seek changes for current gun laws in Britain.


In 1997, Prime Minister John Major passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, a law banning private handgun ownership above a .22 calibre. Nine months later, the ban was updated to include all handguns. It became one of the strictest gun reforms in the world. Security checks for gun clubs were more stringent, and gun killings in the United Kingdom dropped drastically.



Many years after the events in Dunblane, Father Basil O’Sullivan contacted Father Bob Weiss in Newtown, Connecticut. In 2012, another school shooting had been reported, and Father Weiss had been the man to help comfort the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims. Father O’Sullivan was able to share his experiences of the role he took as a prolific member of the community during the events of Dunblane.


The Netflix short, Lessons from a School Shooting focused on many letters that Father O’Sullivan and Father Weiss sent to each other over the year, with the pair eventually meeting in person at the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings.


In 2018, the survivors of the Dunblane Massacre sent an open letter to the parents and survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Another seventeen children and adults lost their lives, and the Dunblane community wanted to share their wisdom and experience with the mourners. They also sent a video message.

Dunblane survivors via The Guardian


Each of these shootings left a devastating legacy on their towns but what shocked the United Kingdom most was the use of guns in a country where the weapons aren’t as common. Dunblane was a tragic lesson in gun laws for Britain, but as we’ve seen, unfortunately, little has changed in the United States.


“You learn and how frail and how precious life is. It’s a very precious gift indeed.” — Father Basil O’Sullivan.

Further reading


The Public Inquiry into the Shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996

The life and death of Thomas Watt Hamilton