Snowdrops of Sadness

Episode Summary

TRIGGER WARNING – This episode may be upsetting and does contain crimes targeting children so listener discretion is advised.

As snowdrops grew signalling the start of Spring, a terrible and shocking crime would be forever synonymous with a small town in Scotland and impact not only those there but throughout the whole country.

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Please Be Advised – This episode may contain content that some may find distressing. As always, we advise listener discretion. This episode it not suitable for anyone under the age of 13.

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Trigger warning Wee Ones. This story may be upsetting, and does contain crimes targeting children and of suicide, so listener discretion is advised.

As snowdrops grew signalling the start of Spring, a terrible and shocking crime would be forever synonymous with a small town in Scotland, and impact not only those there but throughout the whole country.

Hi Wee Ones it’s just me Dawn today, So let’s get started.


On the 13th of March 1996 it was just the start of Spring, which was signalled by snowdrops starting to appear near Stirling in the small town of Dunblane, which is about 32 miles or 52 kilometres north east of Glasgow. Thomas Hamilton was outside of his home in Kent Road in Stirling at 8:15am scraping the ice of his van, despite the signs of Spring. Once done he got into his van and drove the five miles or eight kilometres north to Dunblane.  At around 9:30am Hamilton arrived at the grounds of Dunblane Primary School and parked his van in the car park there near a telegraph pole or telephone pole. He then proceeded to cut the cables at the bottom of the pole with a set of pliers, cutting off telephones of nearby homes. Hamilton then walked across the car park, entered a door on the north west side of the school and headed towards the gymnasium, carrying four legally owned handguns including two nine millimetre Browning pistols and two Smith and Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolvers, along with 743 cartridges of ammunition. At the same time a class of 28 primary one pupils, aged around five or six, along with three staff members, were preparing for a physical education lesson in the gym. On the way towards the gym Hamilton fired a couple of shots into the stage of the assembly hall and then the girls toilets, before finally entering the gym. Hamilton was immediately confronted by a teacher, Eileen Harold, but he proceeded to rapidly shoot randomly around the gym, before striking Eileen in the arm and chest as she attempted to protect herself. Eileen managed to stumble into a nearby store cupboard, along with several other children who were also struck and injured. Gwen Mayor, who was the teacher of the primary one class, was shot and killed instantly. However, the third member of staff, Mary Blake, was able to make her way to the store cupboard, along with several children who were in front of her. In just the first few steps into the gym, Hamilton had fired 29 shots with one of the pistols, along with killing one pupil and injuring several others. Hamilton then fired six more shots as he moved along the east side of the gym, and fired another eight shots towards the opposite end of the gym. He then headed towards the centre of the gym and then shockingly fired 16 shots at point blank range at a group of children who’d been incapacitated by his previous shots. It was just then that a primary seven pupil aged around 11 or 12 was walking outside along the west side of the gym and heard loud bangs and shots and decided to look inside. He was immediately spotted by Hamilton who proceeded to shoot in his direction, but thankfully he was only injured by flying glass from the window and was able to run away to safety. It was from there that Hamilton fired 24 shots in various directions, before firing towards a window next to the fire exit at the south east end of the gym, seemingly towards an adult who may have been walking along the playground at the time. Hamilton then opened the fire exit door and fired four more shots in the same direction outside. He then exited the gym briefly where he fired towards the cloakroom of the library, where he struck and injured Grace Tweddle who was another member of staff at the school. Catherine Gordon, who was teaching a primary seven class in a mobile classroom near the fire exit where Hamilton was standing, saw him fire his shots so she immediately instructed her class to get down onto the floor, just before Hamilton fired nine bullets into the classroom striking books and equipment, with one bullet passing through a chair where only seconds earlier one of the pupils in her class had been sitting. Hamilton then headed back inside the gym, dropped the pistol he was using and took out one of the two revolvers he also had on him. He then placed the barrel of the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. This put an end to his reign of terror where he had shot 32 people in just a few minutes, 16 of which were killed in the gym including Gwen Mayor, another died on the way to hospital and 15 pupils, along with Eileen Harold, sustained gunshot wounds.

Amongst those pupils at Dunblane Primary School who managed to escape the tragedy that day were Andy Murray and his brother Jamie, who you may know today as professional tennis players. Andy Murray later said that he was too young at the time to understand what was happening at his school that day, but that it did have an impact on him, especially as he knew Hamilton from having attended his youth groups, and his mother had given Hamilton lifts in her car. Andy Murray has said that he focused on playing tennis which allowed him to deal with what had happened that terrible day in Dunblane.

Hamilton’s brutal and horrific actions were just the final act of someone whose entire life had been a complex web of hatred and lies.

Hamilton’s mother, Agnes, was born in 1931, but as the illegitimate daughter of a widow, Rachel Hamilton, which at the time would have been seen as a scandal, she was given away to relatives, James and Catherine Hamilton, who had no children of their own. In 1950, when Agnes was 19, she met and fell in love with Thomas Watt, who was a bus driver, and they were soon married. Two years later their son also called Thomas was born. Unfortunately 18 months later Agnes’s husband and the father of her child left her for another woman, so she returned to live with her adoptive parents, who unusually adopted her son Thomas as their own, making his mother his older sister instead.

In 1974 when Thomas Hamilton was 19, he was asked to quietly resign from the scouts after leading two incompetent camping trips to Aviemore in the Highlands. For one trip Hamilton had failed to book a hostel, even though he told the parents of the boys otherwise, forcing the boys to spend a cold night in the back of a van. And for the other trip Hamilton instructed the boys to dig snow holes making them cold and tired. The boy’s parents complained to the then scout organiser in Stirling, Comrie Deuchers, and Hamilton was dismissed. There was no hint of anything inappropriate or untoward but merely that he was not competent as a leader. However, for Hamilton he felt this was not the case and he became angry and was convinced people, including Deuchers, were spreading rumours he was a pervert, and this grievance would dominate the rest of his life.

Hamilton decided to form his own independent boys athletic clubs in school gyms, even mentioning his leadership and organisational role in the scouts, albeit without stating that in fact his leadership and organisational skills had been lacking and he’d been asked to resign due to his thoughtlessness. In the early 1980s there were series and sustained attempts by the Central Regional Council to stop Hamilton from holding his boys club meetings at schools in Dunblane, however, these were overturned by parents and the local government Ombudsman for Scotland, Eric Gillett. Gillett felt contempt for the decision to close the youth club solely on the strength of rumours saying that they were “vague” and should “have been heavily discounted” and that Hamilton was being treated unfairly and unjustly. Hamilton also received help from a retired counsellor for Stirling, Francis Saunders, who later said “I never got the impression that he was concealing misconduct” but added “He did have an ingratiating almost oily manner but I put that down to the buffetings he received.” Saunders and many others believed Hamilton was innocent until proven guilty, which was further aided by his enthusiasm for getting boys into athletics and his convincing denials of any guilt. Hamilton was able to mostly see off the police and the bureaucrats, this included four Scottish police forces who investigated him after receiving numerous complaints and accusations, but each time detectives failed to find any case that would stand up in court.  Hamilton managed to gain the support of others many of whom believed that the accusations were just unsubstantiated gossip.

Hamilton moved to a flat in Kent Road in 1983 with his adopted father James, who was in fact his adoptive grandfather of course. In a strange turn of events Hamilton’s flat was directly beneath the flat belonging to Comrie Deuchers, the same person who dismissed Hamilton from the scouts almost a decade earlier. However, according to Deuchers, he could not believe it when he saw Hamilton get out of the removal van when he first arrived, but he was surprised to find Hamilton was quite civil towards him. In 1984 David Vass, who was the Assistant Scout Commissioner for Stirling, was being asked on numerous social occasions about why Hamilton had left the scouts, but David Vass was unable to give a full answer due to the fact he had not been involved with the scouts at the time. However, this drew the attention of Hamilton who decided to confront David Vass and arrived at his house carrying a brown paper bag. Hamilton then accused him of spreading rumours, but after ten minutes he was told to leave, at which point Hamilton reached into the brown bag to turn off a tape recorder he had with him, before leaving.

Hamilton’s strange behaviour was known to parents and members of the boys clubs, but many thought he was just trying to give boys experiences he would have liked as a child. Although Hamilton had convinced himself that he was behaving properly, this was far from the truth. Hamilton was said to have favourites and they would go off on camps together to Loch Lomond, only for the boy to be sworn to secrecy when they returned. According to parents, Hamilton had made the boys hand over their clothes and dress in baggy swimming trunks, with one later claiming that he made the boys rub suntan lotion on him. Hamilton had photographs of many bare-chested boys on the walls of his home and even had collections of videos of boys running around his camp in Loch Lomond. In 1988 one of the parents handed in a dossier to the police who followed this up with a raid of the Loch Lomond camp, but there were no prosecutions. A few years later photography shops in nearby Stirling refused to develop pictures of the boys at the Loch Lomond camps saying they were obscene, but they were deemed not obscene enough by the police for Hamilton to be prosecuted.

Hamilton continued to live with his grandfather, or father, James, until 1992 when James walked out seemingly due to claims of being humiliated and pushed around by Hamilton. That same year Hamilton was banned from Fife Council schools after concerns about films he was making of boys. Around this time Hamilton also started to write letters to people he seemingly had grievances with or saw as enemies. In these letters he stated they were jealous of his successful boys clubs and were spreading rumours about him being a pervert. These letters continued until just before the killings in Dunblane. One of the recipients of the letters, David Vass, who was the Assistant Scout Commissioner for Stirling, described these letters as being utterly bewildering. In 1993 the Central Regional Council warned its teachers to inform their legal department before dealing with Hamilton. Also that year a couple of police inquiries were made. A year later in 1994 Hamilton would be cautioned by the police after he was caught behaving indecently in Edinburgh with a young man. Just a few months before Hamilton would carry out his terrible atrocity at Dunblane Primary School, he was denied membership of a local gun club after a couple of members who knew him mentioned that the club should have nothing to do with him. And only days before the killings he posted copies of letters he had written throughout the years addressed to parents in Dunblane, to council officials, to the Secretary of State for Scotland and even to the Queen. The letters claimed that rumours regarding his behaviour had caused his business to fail and his attempts to further organise boys clubs were being subject to persecution by police and the scout movement.

The days following the tragedy at Dunblane Primary School were full of grief and sadness at the loss of so many lives. After it was discovered that the killings were carried out using handguns that were owned legally, a campaign began named for the flowers that were in bloom at the time of the shootings. The Snowdrop Campaign urged people to sign a petition calling for a ban on the private ownership of handguns, as well as releasing a poster featuring a school blackboard with “Ban all handguns” written in chalk. The petition received over 750,000 signatures. Also, after the tragedy in Dunblane, Lord William Cullen chaired a public inquiry which recommended tighter controls on handgun ownership, and added its weight in considering whether banning ownership of handguns outside of gun clubs would be in the public interest. The inquiry also recommended changes in school security and how those who work with people under 18 are vetted. In 1997 the Snowdrop Campaign, along with public debate and recommendations from the inquiry, were successful in forcing the then conservative government to pass the Firearm Amendment Act. This banned all handguns, except .22 calibre single shot weapons, in England, Scotland and Wales, although it did not cover Northern Ireland. That same year the law was further extended to ban .22 calibre handguns after a general election that year. Once the law was passed around 160,000 handguns were surrendered to the police, and after one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the UK, the Snowdrop Campaign was disbanded.

In April 1996, a month after the tragedy, the gymnasium at Dunblane Primary School was demolished and replaced with a memorial garden. A few months later a memorial service was held for the victims and was broadcast live on television. The following year flowers such as two roses “Gwen Mayor” and “Innocence” were developed in memory of the victims, and a Snowdrop was named “Sophie North” in memory of one of the children killed. There is a story behind why the Snowdrop was named after Sophie North. It came about after a resident of Dunblane found a Snowdrop growing in her garden, and after hearing about what happened to Sophie, who was not only one of the victims of the Dunblane killings but had also lost her mother to cancer just a couple of years prior, she decided to name the Snowdrop after her. To mark the second anniversary of the massacre at Dunblane, a memorial garden was opened at Dunblane Cemetery where Gwen Mayer and 12 of the children lie buried. It features a fountain with the names of those killed, and three stained glass windows in memory of the victims were placed in local churches. In 2001 a standing stone on a Caithness flagstone base was dedicated in Dunblane’s cathedral, which featured quotations from poets and writers. People of Dunblane or Scotland or the whole of the United Kingdom will never forget the events that occurred that day, when the lives of so many at Dunblane Primary School were taken.

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So that’s it for this week, come back next time for another episode of Scottish Murders.

Dawn and Cole:

Join us there. Bye.

Granny Robertson:

Scottish Murders is a production of Cluarantonn.

Scottish Murders is a production of Cluarantonn

Hosted by Dawn and Cole

Researched and Written by Peter Bull

Produced and Edited by Dawn Young and Peter Bull

Production Company Name by Granny Robertson


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