9 March 2016

Memories of Dunblane


The thing, weirdly, that I remember best – can’t unremember – is the rustle. Thomas Hamilton was a regular visitor to the Stirling Observer offices and he always wore the same grimy anorak, which would rustle as he waddled towards you, his fat arms rubbing against his blimpish torso – shik shik shik.

At the time, he seemed to be the typical oddball that haunts local newspaper offices everywhere. It was always the same list of complaints: he wanted to run his boys’ clubs but the council wouldn’t let him; people were spreading terrible lies about him; there was a conspiracy to ruin his life. It was my first job in journalism and that’s exactly what he seemed: odd. It was all he seemed. Odd, but not, well…


I was at the school about two hours after the atrocity. I’d moved on to the Mail by then, a raw 23-year-old reporter sent back to his home turf on rumours of a shooting – rumours that soon became fact; unspeakable, shattering, inexplicable, nihilistic fact. Standing at the gates of Dunblane Primary, we watched parents arrive. We watched the lucky ones leave with their children. We heard the screams and sobs of those who were learning their children wouldn’t be coming home.

I didn’t leave the district for another six weeks. When I think back now, I can’t believe some of the things I did. I was a journalist on autopilot. I knew the area, knew the people. I found out some of the victims’ names. I knocked on the door of a mother who had lost a child only hours before: she opened it, weeping, and shook her head wordlessly as she closed it again. Then we were told that all the editors had agreed none of the families should be approached. I tracked down the photograph of Hamilton that was used on the cover of the next day’s paper – him having a cup of tea in a pal’s sunny back garden, his white shirt partially unbuttoned, a vest peeping over the top; he was seemingly in mid-sentence, a declaratory arm raised. He looked utterly unremarkable, except the headline was a single word: MONSTER.

I doorstepped Hamilton’s mum every day for a week and chased after his father. I was there when the politicians came, setting aside their party differences amid the naked desolation. One of my best friends was a Central Scotland policeman and had to go into that gym, and witness that scene. My aunt had withdrawn her son from one of Hamilton’s gymnastics classes after watching a sample video he provided in which the camera seemed to linger too fondly on boys hanging topless from rings or jumping the vaulting horse.

After the event came the inevitable investigation. I covered every day of the Cullen Inquiry, followed every cough and spit of Hamilton’s life, the conspiracy theories and the debate on banning guns.

In time, I got to know some of the grieving parents – some amazingly strong people – and became on first-name terms with the anti-handgun campaigners. It was only some time later, probably months later, that I became aware I hadn’t emerged psychologically unscathed.

Here we are, 20 years on. I haven’t thought about Dunblane for a long time, and suddenly, like everyone whose life was touched even tangentially by the tragedy, I’m struggling to think of anything else. Those children would now be in their mid-20s, with the jobs, families and experiences, perhaps even children of their own, that the monster denied them. The country will unite in commemoration and grief this weekend and we will all remember in our own way. God bless them.

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.