THIS Sunday is the 20th anniversary of the most horrendous human atrocity I have ever been close to.
What follows forms Chapter 12 of my forthcoming book: Assume The Position – an autobiography.
It is simply a personal memory of that day:
WEDNESDAY, 13 March 1996 will stay etched in my memory for every day of my life.
It was a typically dreich spring day 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, with a daily circulation of about 90,000.
Back home in Perth – some 33 miles north of my office – I had left my partner to go shoe shopping for our two young daughters Rhia and Shannon. Over a rushed slice of toast 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 at The Scotsman I looked out over the grey North Bridge towards Princes Street, checked my diary and clocked a quick coffee before a long-awaited 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 newspaper campaign on behalf of a young man named Craig MacKenzie, who had – in my opinion and 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 the campaign.
The newsroom was quiet and I sipped my coffee. Outside the morning remained grey.
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. 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.
We began to discuss the case 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 to Tom as a familiar 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. As he rushed to his TV to watch the rolling news, I glanced once more at my monitor to see the horror of Dunblane unfolding before my eyes.
Ian Stewart, 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 to me 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 barked reply was something akin to: “Of-course I fucking 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 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 visibly shell-shocked 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, though one passed through a chair which seconds before had been used by a child. He also fired at a group of children walking in a corridor, injuring one teacher.
It later transpired that Hamilton 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 adieu and again drove the 33 miles to Edinburgh.
Ensconced at my desk I managed to look and 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.
One of the finest pieces ever written by our commentator, the late Ian Bell was published that Friday.
He concluded his heartfelt yet analytical piece with: “For what it’s worth, I can tell you that this one small nation, dressing its children for school, preparing for another hard day, and suddenly afraid for everything it cares about, directs all the hopeless love it has towards a small town in Perthshire. The defective species, eloquent beyond its own understanding, calls that humanity.” 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 engaged and soon stories of police complicity and masonic cover-up began to emerge. A story for another book maybe?
The singular focus worked, and when the news editor said we could all go home at 5.30pm I felt I had at last finished my shift.
I got into my car and drove through the rush hour blur 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.
The voice on air was instantly recognisable at 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 the carnage.
The scene that greeted us is also still with me…. flowers and cards lining the road up the school for more than 200 yards, with red-eyed police officers standing sentry duty barely able to meet the eyes of the mourners and parents surrounding them.
We held our children close that day and forever afterwards.
- 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 in 2013, aged just 40.