Skip to main content

This is a recent but undated photo of the class of Dunblane Primary School, and their teacher, Gwen Mayor, 44, from which sixteen children and Mayor were killed when gunman Thomas Hamilton, 43, opened fire with four handguns in Dunblane, Scotland, Wednesday Mar. 13, 1996.The Associated Press

Alan Booth paused to gather his thoughts. He'd been asked for his reaction to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Friday and his words came slowly. "Dismay, sorrow," was all he could get out before stopping, the memories just too difficult.

"It's terribly personal," Mr. Booth finally said over the phone from his home in Dunblane, where he is secretary of the town council. He apologized. He just couldn't comment any further on the U.S. shooting.

If there is one community that can understand the pain the people of Newtown are going through, it is here in this medieval town roughly 100 kilometres from Edinburgh. In 1996, Thomas Hamilton shot and killed 16 children and one teacher at the Dunblane Primary School before killing himself. Like the killing in Newtown, the children were all terribly young, five- and six-year-olds. And like Newtown, the massacre shattered a prosperous, quiet community where no one thought anything like that could ever happen.

Dunblane, a town of roughly 8,000, is nestled alongside a fast-moving river and dominated by an 800-year-old cathedral. Many of those affected by the killing 16 years ago still live in the area and reminders of that tragic day can be found in memorials all across town.

After the shooting, people here tried to move on. They tore down the school and built a community centre with money donated in the aftermath of the shooting. They pushed for changes to Britain's gun laws, which led to a ban on all handguns and tighter restrictions on rifles. And they found joy in hometown boy Andy Murray, who was among the students at Dunblane Primary that tragic day and has gone on to become one of the best tennis players in the world.

But at times like this, when news of another mass killing at a school rips across the airwaves, nearly all of the community's residents relive the horror. "What happened here is part of our story," said Rev. Colin McIntosh, a long-time minister at Dunblane Cathedral who conducted several funeral services in 1996. "There is no understanding of it. We felt we had a comfortable, safe community and my impression is that Newtown is the same."

On Friday, the Church of Scotland congregation sent messages of condolence and support to churches in Newtown. "We hope they have been received," Mr. McIntosh said over the phone, adding that the church also offered prayers for the people of Newtown during Sunday services. "We have shared something with them and at least maybe we can understand."

Some found the pain too much. Dr. Mick North, whose five-year-old daughter Sophie was among the victims, has led the gun-control campaign and written a book about the shooting. But he wasn't ready to speak about the Newtown shooting. Not yet anyway, according to colleague Gill Marshall-Andrews. "I think he wants to gather himself," she said Saturday.

Others did not hold back: "Seeing images on television of the school in America where 20 children have lost their lives is almost more than I can bear, as it has been each time there has been a similar tragedy since my daughter died in March 1996 at Dunblane Primary School," Charles Clydesdale, who lost his five-year-old daughter Victoria, wrote in Sunday's Daily Mail. "The traumatic scenes take me right back to the moment I learned my own child was dead. Nothing can ever prepare you for the news. Disbelief, numbness, grief and the guilt that you should have been able to protect your child when they needed you most, all come long before the anger sets in." Mr. Clydesdale added that despite a lengthy public inquiry into the shooting, there are still no real answers as to why Mr. Hamilton shot so many children. "I sat through the inquiry into the Dunblane killings, looking for answers. With Hamilton killing himself, as has Adam Lanza in Connecticut, I'm not sure anyone will ever get to the bottom of their sick reasons for doing what they did."

Perhaps some of the most heartfelt condolences came from the Dunblane Centre, the community building built after the 1996 killings. On Friday, the centre posted a candle on its Facebook page and added: "Words cannot adequately express how all of us at the Dunblane Centre feel about the horrors of today's terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. We are part of a community which unfortunately understands what the people of Newtown are likely to be feeling right now, and we offer our heartfelt sympathies and love to them all. Like those lost in Dunblane in 1996, they will be forever remembered."