In the second of a series of articles exploring some of the main themes of his new book, 'The Broken Journey: a life of Scotland 1976-99', Kenneth Roy discusses the political and judicial reaction to the Dunblane massacre

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On 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, a 41-year-old organiser of boys’ clubs, entered Dunblane Primary School. Between 9.35 and 9.40am, he fired 105 rounds with a self-loading pistol, most of them in the gym. Standing over a class of primary 1 children, he fired at point-blank range, murdering 16 of them; he also shot dead their teacher Gwen Mayor, before killing himself. Thirteen of the survivors were wounded, six seriously.

By mid-morning, news of the atrocity had reached every corner of the civilised world. Yet those immediately affected – the families – knew rather less than most. There was a severe problem of identification, partly because the one person – Gwen Mayor – who knew all the dead children was herself dead but also because a strategic error was made before the injured children were removed to hospital: the police decided not to ask them for their names.

The process of elimination was made more difficult by the lack of communication between the hospital and the incident room at the school; little or nothing was heard from Stirling Royal Infirmary for some time, intensifying the distress and frustration of parents. A police officer could have been sent to the hospital to extract essential information, but this simple expedient seems not to have occurred to the high command, including the chief constable of Central Scotland Police, who were dealing with the emergency. As a result, the injured children were deprived of the presence and comfort of their parents.

Worse, there was a long delay in informing the parents of the dead children. According to the police, the first of the bereaved parents were told at 1.45pm, the last around 2.30pm – five hours after the shootings. But it may have been even later: according to corroborated accounts, some families were still waiting for information at 3.30.

If the police operation was a shambles, the political response was more adroit. The morning after, the secretary of state for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, who happened also to be the local MP, met the lord advocate, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, to discuss the events at Dunblane. Later that day, Forsyth sent a memo to the prime minister, John Major, recommending a judge-led inquiry: '[We] consider that the judge may find it necessary to address questions relating to the way in which firearms legislation is applied in practice, about security of school premises, and about the supervision of voluntary youth workers. I think we have to allow these matters to be exposed to public scrutiny, and I have confidence that, providing the right judge is selected, we need not fear any over-reaction on his part’.

Twenty-four hours had elapsed, and the secretary of state was already concerned about the possibility of 'over-reaction’, whatever that meant. Lord Cullen – apparently a judge who could be relied upon not to over-react – was appointed later that very day.

On 21 March, Forsyth hosted a supper for Lords Cullen and Mackay at Bute House, his official residence, to discuss the terms of the inquiry. The fact of this meeting was not made public for many years. By then interest in the Dunblane massacre had faded, and this curious get-together failed to attract much attention.

The official note included the revealing statement: 'Lord Cullen said he would find it helpful to be kept in touch with developments in government thinking on relevant issues and hoped it would be possible to have regular meetings on policy issues’. From the outset, then, there was some doubt that the judge-led inquiry would be truly independent of, and aloof from, the political machine.

A week after the Bute House supper, Lord Mackay sent a notice to editors warning them to cease their investigations into the massacre – otherwise they would be held in contempt. In contempt of what, though? The judge-led inquiry was not a criminal trial since the only conceivable accused – Thomas Hamilton – was dead. The inquiry had the formal status of a tribunal. To Mackay it made no difference. Legitimate press interest was somehow in danger of prejudicing the non-trial. The Crown Office added a Kafkaesque flourish to the communique: editors must not publish or broadcast the nature of his lordship’s instructions.

The Scotsman disobeyed the latter oppressive order with a spirited piece by Ian Bell, who wrote that 'the very sort of people Lord Mackay seeks to protect – police officers, councillors and local authority officials – have taken cover behind Cullen. It seems the public’s interest, and the public’s right to know, are to be allowed only one representative. Such are the number of potential witnesses to the long, squalid career of Thomas Hamilton, indeed, that the media need hardly now dare speak to anyone’.

If only Ian Bell had known the full extent of the audacity – that the judge leading the inquiry, the integrity of which had to be protected at all costs, had already asked to be 'kept in touch with developments in government thinking on relevant issues’.

II
By the end of the inquiry, there should have been no doubt that Thomas Hamilton combined a sexual interest in young boys with an irresponsible use of guns; yet the junior counsel for the Crown, Iain Bonomy, in his closing speech to Lord Cullen, delivered a surprisingly equivocal verdict: 'Such evidence as is before you that he was a pervert in the sense of abusing children you may consider to be not entirely reliable. There is, however, clear evidence that he was odd, eccentric and creepy...on the other hand he ran well-disciplined or regimented activities for boys...the signs are that most boys did not feel threatened by his behaviour’.

The 'well-disciplined’ clubs had invoked comparisons with Hitler’s youth movement, and the suggestion that most boys were unthreatened by his treatment of them was not borne out by the consumer reaction. Typically the attendance at his clubs dwindled after a few months from as many as 70 to as few as a dozen. Hamilton’s response was to close down and start again elsewhere, in this way establishing a succession of such ventures in different towns and villages across central Scotland. If – setting aside the murder of 17 people – the worst to be said about him was that he was 'odd, eccentric and creepy’, it was not saying very much.

The novelist Frederick Forsyth described the Cullen report as 'one of the weirdest documents the Scottish establishment has ever produced’. It may not have been weird; feeble it certainly was. The senior police officer who had approved the renewal of Hamilton’s gun licence, disregarding a written warning from the force’s child protection officer that Hamilton was unfit to hold such a licence, escaped with the mildest of reprimands. According to Cullen, he 'should have made further inquiries’. But at least the officer in question was obliged to account for his actions. The same could not be said of the procurator fiscals who repeatedly decided to take no action against Hamilton. Cullen decided that it would be 'inappropriate’ to expect them to defend their decisions publicly.

The judge had heard an eloquent rebuke for the police from the junior counsel for the families, Laura Dunlop, who deplored the long delay in informing the bereaved parents that their children were dead. 'It is a form of torture’, she said, 'to be kept waiting in the knowledge that something terrible has happened without having details of what or to whom’. She added that it was 'particularly unfortunate that the parents of the injured children were not able to be with them in the first few hours’ and stated firmly that the parents’ request for someone senior to come and speak to them should not have been denied.

Lord Cullen chose to overlook these failures of emergency planning and simple humanity. It was an inexplicable omission, helping to fuel the long-standing anger and bitterness felt by grieving parents and confirming that little if anything had been learned from the bureaucratic insensitivity apparent eight years earlier in the immediate aftermath of Lockerbie.

More baffling still, Lord Cullen passed up an opportunity to influence meaningful legislative reform. Colin Campbell QC had entered an impassioned plea on behalf of the families 'that never again should we tolerate the possibility of crimes such as this being carried out with legally-held weapons’. After all he had been told of the intense suffering at Dunblane, the judge remained unconvinced of the need for fundamental change:

The banning of multi-shot handguns would have a very damaging effect on the sport of target shooting and would give rise to claims for compensation and adverse effects on the economy.

I have italicised the sentence out of sheer astonishment at its complacency. Among the many strange utterances of official Scotland in the period 1976-99 (the timespan of 'The Broken Journey'), this surely qualifies as the most extraordinary.

A year later, in one of its first constructive measures, the Labour goverment of the much-maligned Tony Blair did what Cullen should have recommended. It banned handguns. Few cared about the effect on 'the sport of target shooting’ – the lives of young innocents counting for so much more.

The endangered economy? It survived somehow.

Kenneth Roy's deconstruction of the Dunblane tragedy, 'One of Us', appears in his book, 'The Broken Journey', out this month. Next week, he remembers the forgotten victims of Lockerbie

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SR Week
Bailey Gwynne: The untold story: 18 October

Revisiting the Dunblane tragedy: 13 October

Revisiting the Orkney child abuse scandal:
6 October

Suspected of murder: 29 September

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Kenneth Roy’s new book, ‘The Broken Journey: a life of Scotland 1976-99’, will be published at the end of this month. In its 500+ pages, 'The Broken Journey' charts in vivid and compelling detail the events and personalities of the last quarter of the 20th century in Scotland.

Published in hardback by Birlinn, ‘The Broken Journey’ is available direct from the Scottish Review at £30 (inc. p&p). Advance copies have just arrived. To obtain your copy or copies ahead of official publication, call 01292 478510 with your credit/debit card details – or click below.

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