WEDNESDAY, 13 March 1996 will stay etched in my memory for every day of my life.
But it started like any other day.
It was a typically dreich spring morning in Edinburgh as I settled down to a diary of interviews and enquiries in my job as an investigative reporter at The Scotsman – at the time Scotland’s most pre-eminent broadsheet newspaper.
Back home in Perth – some 33 miles north of my office – my partner was planning a shoe shopping expedition for our two young daughters. Over a rushed slice of toast a few hours earlier she said she planned to browse a couple of shops in our fair city and maybe venture out to Dunblane or Stirling later in the day.
Here in The Scotsman’s Victorian offices I looked out over the grey North Bridge towards Princes Street, checked my diary and clocked a quick coffee before waiting for a telephone interview with Scottish born actor Tom Conti.
Tom was a champion of the London based organisation Justice, which campaigned on behalf of those imprisoned as a result of miscarriages of justice by the Scottish and English courts.
At the time I was running a campaign on behalf of a young man named Craig MacKenzie who had – in my opinion and according to the facts I had obtained – been wrongly convicted of murder of a fellow Edinburgh teenager David Edwards. My campaign had been running over three months with little movement from the Scottish legal system to intervene. I saw the interview with Tom Conti as a key move to add weight to our demand for an appeal.
The newsroom was quiet and I sipped my coffee. The phone rang at the arranged time and the unmistakable burr of Mr Conti’s voice greeted me at the other end.
The star of Shirley Valentine and The Norman Conquests was relaxed as we shared notes on the weather in Edinburgh and London and the state of British politics. It was like meeting an old friend for a coffee in town as we progressed to discuss our work and recent challenges.
Eventually, after what seemed 20 minutes we began to discuss the Craig MacKenzie case. Tom was up to speed with the case and agreed with me that MacKenzie’s conviction was probably unsafe and we should press hard for an appeal.
We began to discuss the details in earnest when suddenly the Press Association (PA) updates on my monitor began to flicker an instantly disturbing piece of news: “Six children believed shot in Dunblane”.
I reported the news immediately to Tom, just as a clamour of noise erupted around me in the newsroom. And with it came a further update from the PA wires: “Ten children shot”. I quickly relayed the information again as a voice from the newsdesk was shouting in my direction.
Tom and I politely suggested to each other that we leave the interview for another day. He rushed to his TV, I glanced once more at my monitor to see the horror of Dunblane unfolding before my eyes. We put down the phone.
The news editor ordered my friend Stephen and fellow colleagues, Jenny and Lynn, to get to Dunblane as quickly as they could. “And be safe,” he added, as they scurried out of the newsroom, notebooks in hand. He turned and asked me to stay at my desk and collate information as it came in and try to make some sense of it all.
But my mind was in panic.
Which children had been killed and exactly where in Dunblane? And, selfishly, where was my partner and my two gorgeous daughters?
This was 1996 and very few people had the luxury of mobile phones, least of all newspaper journalists and their families.
I tried our home phone vainly for an answer.
Had she gone to Dunblane already?
My heart was racing.
Then PA reported the shooting was confined to the town’s primary school, but there was no word as to whether the gunman had gone on a rampage elsewhere.
Within an hour the death toll had risen again before my partner telephoned me to ask if I had heard the news about Dunblane.
I think my reply was something akin to: “Of course I feckin’ have, where the hell have you been?”
She calmly told me she had heard the news on a radio in a shoe shop in Perth!
Back in the fray by mid-afternoon it was clear the gunman was also dead.
The day had become a blur of adrenalin
By early evening, a couple of my colleagues had returned from Dunblane and I had pieced together information about the shootings from many different sources:
After gaining entry to Dunblane Primary School, 43-year-old former shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton made his way to the gymnasium and opened fire on a Primary One class of five and six-year-olds, killing or wounding all but one.Fifteen children died together with their class teacher, Gwen Mayor, who was killed trying to protect them.
Hamilton then left the gym through the emergency exit. In the playground outside, he began shooting into a mobile classroom. A teacher in a mobile classroom realised that something was seriously wrong and told the children to hide under the tables. Most of the bullets became embedded in books and equipment.He also fired at a group of children walking in a corridor, injuring one teacher.
It later transpired that Hamilton had returned to the gym and with one of his two revolvers fired one shot pointing upwards into his mouth, killing himself instantly.
A further eleven children and three adults were rushed to hospital as soon as the emergency services arrived. One further child was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Along with my colleagues, I worked until 9pm that evening and turned in a 12 hour shift the following day, trying to keep a clear head and report calmly the events which had transpired on that fateful Wednesday.
Sleep on the Wednesday and Thursday nights was impossible as my mind ran overtime. It was like being on speed in something akin to the movie Jacob’s Ladder.
Friday morning dawned and I grabbed my toast, kissed my sleeping daughters goodbye and again drove the 33 miles to Edinburgh.
Ensconced at my desk, I managed to look and at marvel at the Thursday and Friday editions of our paper side-by-side. Those papers still fill me with pride at what my editor, news editor, page designers and reporting colleagues had achieved.
The front page sub-deck written by our columnist Ian Bell still rings true: “Call it madness or evil, sickness or sin: those are just the words we use to give a name to our incomprehension. Thomas Hamilton was one of us, part of the species. There is horror in the suffering he inflicted but a deeper horror, a terror, in the fact that we cannot explain how one of us became what Thomas Hamilton became.”
So while the families and friends of the bereaved were going through their own personal hell, the Friday at work was all about investigating what had gone on at Dunblane, how Hamilton had acquired such an arsenal of guns and, I suppose, who else was to blame.
We needed some clear lines of enquiry for our Saturday edition.
I had to keep my clear head fully engaged.
It worked and when the news editor said we could all go home at 5.30pm I felt I had at last finished the longest shift of my life shift.
I recall getting into my car and driving through the rush hour haze towards the Forth Road Bridge and the journey home.
The car radio was tuned to BBC Radio 4 and I was half listening to live feed from the House of Commons.
Suddenly the voice on air was instantly recognisable as the Ulster Unionist MP Ian Paisley. Politically, I detested the man, but his words at that moment rang clear and true: “And I say, suffer little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
Just as I drove my car up to the toll booth at the southern end of the bridge I broke down. Tears flowed uncontrollably as I choked for breath and fumbled my change into the hand of the booth attendant.
To this day I still don’t remember the rest of the drive home, just a blur of trying to focus on the road until I pulled up outside our house.
That evening I sat with my young children and partner and drank too much red wine while talking incoherently about the events of those three days.
Early the next morning, we agreed to make the short drive to Dunblane and lay flowers at what was becoming an international shrine to those killed in the carnage.
The scene that greeted us is also still with me now as I write these words… flowers and cards lining the road up to the school for more than 200 yards, with red-eyed police officers standing sentry duty barely able to meet the eyes of the scores of mourners and parents surrounding them. Tears and choking grief like I had never felt or witnessed before or since. Incomprehension.
We held our children close that day and forever afterwards.
Note: I never did finish the interview with Tom Conti. Craig MacKenzie was eventually released from prison in 2005 after winning a partial appeal. He was sadly found murdered in his Edinburgh flat earlier this year aged just 40.