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The Dunblane Massacre

Crime Files
The Dunblane Massacre

Britain's worst mass murder

On the morning of 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, 43, left his house in Kent Road, Stirling, around five miles away from Dunblane, a sleepy rural town in central Scotland. He arrived at Dunblane Primary School at around 9:30 am, not long after school had begun for the day. He was armed with four handguns, more than 700 rounds of ammunition and a pair of pliers. The malcontent man had only one thing one his mind and that was murder.

Upon his arrival at the school, Hamilton first used his pliers to cut the telephone wires on a nearby pole. He then took out his weapons and began firing in the playground, before forcing his way past two staff members into the school building, entering via a side door. He walked down a passage, past the dining room, and burst into the gymnasium, where a class of five- and six-year-olds were having a gym lesson with teacher, Mrs Gwen Mayor, 45.

Hamilton first shot and seriously wounded the other two teachers present, Mrs Mary Blake and Mrs Eileen Harrild, before turning to the frightened children. He opened fire on them as they frantically tried to scramble under chairs and tables and into cupboards. All three teachers tried desperately to use their own bodies to shield as many children as possible. Gwen Mayor died trying. The hall resounded with screams and soon held many small bodies in pools of blood.

Hamilton then briefly stepped outside the gymnasium, into a hallway of classrooms, and opened fire. More people were struck down before Hamilton returned to the gym and started shooting once more. The crazed man then drew out a .357 revolver, put the weapon into his mouth and fired once, killing himself instantly.

Hamilton’s brief but horrific frenzy resulted in the murder of 17 people; teacher, Gwen Mayor and 16 young children. Within minutes, ambulance crews and police arrived at the school. Doctors and paramedics treated many people at the scene, whilst others were rushed to Stirling Royal Infirmary for immediate treatment. Twelve children from the class were hospitalised, in Stirling, Falkirk and Glasgow, with three on the critical list. These children all survived but will carry the scars and the memory of their nightmare experience for the rest of their lives.


10 May 1952 - Thomas Hamilton born13th March 1996, 9.30am - Dunblane Massacre: Hamilton arrived at school, cut the phone wires and entered the school13 March 1996 - The Victims: Gwen Mayor, 45, teacher at Dunblane Primary School 29 pupils at Dunblane Primary School13 March 1996 - Thomas Hamilton died

The Key Figures

Thomas Hamilton - killer29 five and six-year-olds at Dunblane Primary SchoolGwen Mayor - teacher and victimRonald Taylor - Dunblane Primary School Head TeacherAnthony Busuttil - PathologistDetective Sergeant Paul Hughes - former head of Central Scotland’s Police child protection unitLord William Cullen - senior member of the Scottish Judiciary, led the public inquiryMr John Miller - Central Scotland Police

The Investigation


Police described Dunblane Primary’s Head Teacher, Ronald Taylor, as a hero in the aftermath of the shooting, for the calm handling of the shocked and distraught pupils and staff in his 700-strong school. The two teachers, Mary Blake and Eileen Harrild, who had shielded children whilst being seriously wounded themselves, were also commended for their heroic actions.Five days later, on 18th March 1996, the United Kingdom observed a minute’s silence in commemoration of the victims of the Dunblane massacre. It marked the beginning of a week of funerals, with many of the deceased being buried in a dedicated area of the Dunblane cemetery, which has a memorial statue for the 17 victims. There is also a cenotaph in the Dunblane cathedral. Queen Elizabeth travelled with Princess Anne to Dunblane to meet with the families of the victims and survivors, weeping openly as she expressed her sympathy.

The carnage seemed so senseless and with the killer dead, police had only two options. Firstly they could investigate, via post mortem examination, if any physical reasons existed for Hamilton’s behaviour. Secondly, they could delve into his past, in an effort to gain some insight into his character and possible motives.Anthony Busuttil, pathologist in charge of examining the dead victims, reported that they had each suffered between one and seven gunshot wounds, which were some of the most horrific he had ever seen. He also conducted a post mortem on Hamilton, specifically searching for physical hints as to why the man had committed such an atrocity. Busuttil looked for evidence of drugs, alcohol, a brain tumour, viral infection and lead poisoning, without result. He concluded that there was no physical cause for Hamilton’s behaviour, thus it could only have been due to psychological factors.A public inquiry, led by Lord William Cullen, a senior member of the Scottish Judiciary, was held in response to the public’s plea to further investigate the shootings. Hoping they could help prevent future incidents of the same nature, police resorted to investigating Hamilton’s past. Central Scotland Police, under the direction of Mr John Miller, undertook the painstaking and detailed examination of Hamilton’s life over many years.

With the help of people who had known him, they drew up a profile. Thomas Hamilton was born in Glasgow, Scotland on 10 May 1952. His mother, Agnes Hamilton, a hotel chambermaid, was already divorced from his father, Thomas Watt, by the time he was born. He never knew his father and grew up in Glasgow’s East End with his mother’s adoptive parents, thinking they were his biological parents. They legally adopted him at age two. He also thought his biological mother was his sister until he was told the truth when he was 22-years-old, in 1974.The family moved to Stirling when Hamilton was 12. He attended local schools and achieved well academically. His fascination with guns and boys began in his teens when he joined a rifle club and the Boys Brigade. They were youthful hobbies that were to become adult obsessions.At the age of 20, in 1973, Hamilton became an Assistant Scout Leader. Before long, he was investigated by two councils for alleged misconduct towards boys at the scout camps, after some of them and their parents complained. No official reports were filed, as there was no hard evidence of Hamilton having acted in a paedophilic way.Following further complaints from the boys on summer camp, of Hamilton teaching them to use rifles and handguns, and forcing them to engage in perverted activities and then paying them to keep quiet, he was asked to leave the Scouts in 1974."He sort of crept, he was very head-down."Infuriated, Hamilton tried many times to gain acceptance back into the Scouts, but each time was rejected. He protested by writing letters of complaint to the authorities saying he had been victimised; to the families and teachers of the boys who had spoken out, discouraging them from attending his clubs; and even to the Queen, maintaining he had been unfairly treated. He ultimately claimed there was a conspiracy against him.Having obtained a firearm certificate in his mid-20s, Hamilton began collecting guns. In 1974 he bought and sold five firearms, buying progressively more as the years went by. He joined several gun clubs to improve his firearm skills and practiced diligently. Detective Sergeant Paul Hughes, former head of Central Scotland’s Police child protection unit, had even written a report recommending Hamilton’s firearm licence be revoked due to his “unsavoury character” and “unstable personality”. Unfortunately no action was taken in response to this, due to the lack of any concrete evidence of wrongdoing.Hamilton applied as a voluntary worker for Dunblane Primary School but was turned down. Between the 1970s and mid-1990s, he ran approximately 16 boys clubs, one of which was held in the very school gymnasium where he eventually wreaked so much havoc and ended his own life. The clubs were for boys aged 7 to 11 years and the activities included target practice, swimming, gymnastics and football. The clubs proved popular and membership grew, with some having as many as 70 boys. Over time however, numbers declined due to Hamilton’s increasingly strange behaviour. It later transpired that not only was Hamilton unqualified to instruct the boys in many of the activities he had offered at the clubs but that all the activities had gone unsupervised.

During the investigation, Central Scotland Police found numerous photographs of young boys, many in bathing suits, all over Hamilton’s house, but they could not technically be considered pornographic as the boys were not naked. However, many of the pictures focussed on the groin area and Hamilton had insisted upon the boys wearing particularly scanty swimsuits.Not only had Hamilton regularly bought firearms for over 20 years, he was legally licensed to own the weapons and ammunition he had used in the Dunblane massacre. When this was revealed in the press, there were immediate calls from the public for greater security at schools, along with a campaign to tighten existing gun laws and ban the private ownership of firearms. In April 1996, a group of concerned citizens went to Downing Street to discuss the issue with then-Prime Minister, John Major, and to hand him a petition, signed by 428,279 people.“People who had known him described him as deceitful, intolerant and suffering from delusions of grandeur.”A few months later, the government passed legislation banning ownership of all handguns over .22 calibre in the United Kingdom. The law was amended in 1998 to include smaller calibre handguns, with the offer of full monetary compensation if owners handed their firearms in to the government. The new gun laws also required anyone applying for a firearm, to nominate two referees to testify in support of their having a licence. As a direct result of the Dunblane massacre, the United Kingdom had some of the strictest gun laws in the world.A loner, Hamilton never formed any close relationships with adults of either sex and seemed particularly uncomfortable around women. People who had known him described him as deceitful, intolerant and suffering from delusions of grandeur. He was abusive, domineering and often used attack as a form of defence. He was anti-establishment and had a persecution complex.A neighbour described him as strange in the way he walked and talked. “He sort of crept, he was very head-down” and he spoke very softly, slowly and precisely but with no expression in his voice. Unusual and effeminate, he was too polite and never laughed or joked. Others spoke of him as “a very shy, lonely person… a very quiet, kind individual”; generous and “quite an intelligent man… interesting enough to talk to”. The general view of Hamilton however was that he was weird.It emerged during the inquiry that Hamilton must have been planning the Primary School massacre for quite some time. In the six months prior to 13 March 1996, he had stepped up his rate of purchase of firearms and ammunition, as well as his attendance at gun clubs, working particularly on his shooting accuracy.According to the written testimony of an anonymous nine-year-old boy from Dunblane Primary, Hamilton had been questioning him weekly for two years about the school routine and the layout of the gymnasium. The questions had continued until a week before the massacre. Police also believed that he had planned to shoot as many as four classes of children.According to the people with whom Hamilton had spoken in the days prior to the shooting, he had not acted out of character. His mother, whom he had visited the night before the massacre, claimed her son had seemed all right and had given no indication of his intentions for the following day.Funds raised in the massacre’s aftermath were used to build a new community centre for the town. In commemoration, Australian band The Living End’s lead singer, Chris Cheney, wrote a song about the massacre, entitled ‘Monday’ (1998).