(a series of events taking place mainly in Scotland)
13th August, 1974
Falkirk Royal Infirmary — Falkirk, Scotland
A surgeon was pacing back and forth in his office, troubled about his next meeting. It wasn’t going to be with a patient; in fact, it wasn’t even official hospital business. In his free time, he was an Area Commissioner for the Scottish Boy Scouts, and today, the organization was calling on him to address a serious matter within its ranks. It seemed there were several parents of scouts out in the village of Dunblane, who no longer trusted one of the local scoutmaster around their boys.
It had all started with an overnight hiking trip: the parents had paid for the scouts, ages 7 to 10, to stay at a youth hostel near the trail head, a few towns over, and for the scoutmaster to rent a van for the trip. Pretty normal stuff. But as soon as the boys got back to Dunblane, the complaints started coming in: the scouts revealed to their parents that they had not stayed at the youth hostel after all. Instead, the scoutmaster had made them all sleep in the van. With him.
The scoutmaster hadn’t touched them, they all said. But it was still an inappropriate situation, and a far cry from the accommodations the parents had paid for: while the scoutmaster had slept comfortably in the cushioned front seat, their boys had to sleep on the van’s bare floor, with frigid winds raging outside. It got so cold, the van froze up, and they had to get it towed back into town the next morning.
The local troop in Dunblane investigated the matter first. They knew the young scoutmaster well; he was 22, and it was only his second year in Scouts leadership — but before that, he had been a scout himself, growing up through the ranks until he was finally ready for a troop of his own. And, as was routine, before granting him his leadership badge (the symbol that he was worthy of protecting a troop of scouts) the Dunblane officials had gone about vetting the aspiring scoutmaster’s personal life: they found that he was a bachelor, aged 22, with no kids of his own; he lived at home, with his parents. He owned a woodcraft shop in Dunblane, and he was a bit of an odd one, perhaps — “nervous” was a common descriptor — but many people in the village were quite fond of him. He had no criminal record, and as far as anyone could tell, had never been in trouble in his whole life.
After the complaints came in, the Dunblane scouts asked the young man: what happened with the van?
He had apologized, very embarrassed, and explained that the whole ordeal was nothing more than a simple mix-up with the reservations: when they got to the hostel that night, all the rooms were taken, and it was getting too late to head all the way back to Dunblane. He never planned for them to sleep in the van, but it was all he could think of.
The scouts decided to let him off with a warning. And that should have been the end of it.
Instead, three weeks later, the exact same thing happened: another hiking trip, another group of boys spending another cold night in the scoutmaster’s van, and another batch of angry parents. This time, the local commissioner called the youth hostel, to check out the story; the proprietor there sounded confused, and could only answer that they had never spoken to the scoutmaster from Dunblane. Never even heard of the man.
That was when the case crossed the surgeon’s desk. Along with it in the folder, the troop from Dunblane had attached their recommendation: withdraw the scoutmaster’s leadership badge, and kick him out of the scouts. The surgeon had decided to hold off, and meet the young man face-to-face before he made any final ruling.
There was a knock at the office door, and in walked the scoutmaster. He was a balding, chubby, white man, with an aura of discomfort about him. Almost before the surgeon could even introduce himself, the young man began feverishly trying to explain away what had happened, “rambling on in different directions” as the surgeon would recall. “It actually gave me more and more cause for concern, because I didn’t think he was a particularly stable person, and I was very glad that we were taking the step to have him removed from the scout movement.”
The surgeon told the scoutmaster to make a choice: either resign, and turn over your leadership badge, or be kicked out. Crestfallen, the young man agreed to step down.
But then a week went by. And then another, and another, and the scouts were still waiting to get their badge back. Headquarters sent the young man several stern letters, demanding he return their badge, but they went ignored. Finally, the surgeon filed paperwork to have the young man blacklisted from the scouts, secretly communicating to every troop in the land that his name was never to be trusted again. The doctor explained why in his letter to headquarters:
While unable to give concrete evidence against this man I feel that too many “incidents” relate to him such that I am far from happy about his having any association with Scouts. […] His personality displays evidence of a persecution complex, coupled with rather grandiose delusions of his own abilities. As a doctor, and with my clinical acumen only, I am suspicious of his moral intentions towards boys.
The surgeon emphasized that he was not a psychiatrist, but had simply developed a certain acumen after practicing medicine for decades; in his office that day of the visit, he had spoken with the scoutmaster “like I would assess a patient [to] come to a diagnosis,” and of their conversation that day, he would later say (though the term was not yet known to him in the 1970s) that he believed the scoutmaster was “a paedophile.”
The blacklisting worked. Word went out about the fallen scoutmaster, and soon, scout troops in neighboring towns reported that a man who fit the scoutmaster’s description was already trying to set up a scout troop there, wearing the badge they now knew was no-good. They duly turned him away.
Finally, months after it was due, a parcel arrived at Scottish Scouts headquarters, containing the missing leadership badge — along with a complaint about the surgeon. “He is almost unapproachable and completely unreasonable,” the scoutmaster wrote. “I will now discontinue the thought of holding [the badge] as I do not want my good name to be part of this so-called organization…”
14th February, 1977
Central Scotland Police Department — Dunblane Station
The Deputy Chief Constable received a new application for a Firearms Certificate: there was a young man from Stirling, near Dunblane, who wanted to own a handgun.
In the United Kingdom, licensed firearms owners were required to supply a “good reason” for owning a handgun — typically, their membership with a local gun club. The man from Stirling (who apparently was, or had been, a scoutmaster) listed just such a club. He had no criminal record, and had paid the application fee. The Deputy Constable stamped the application “APPROVED.”
* * *
The man had shown a keen interest in firearms since he was at least sixteen. He had even set up a makeshift firing range in the back of his wood shop, where he shot air rifles. But now, he could get the real thing: his certificate allowed him to purchase a .22 revolver pistol, and up to 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
Two years later, he was approved for an upgraded certificate. He went out and bought a .357 Smith & Wesson — another revolver, but a significant step-up in firepower. He sold the .22 soon after, deciding it was “for sissies.”
15th November, 1984
Scottish Public Services Ombudsman’s Office — Edinburgh
A lengthy complaint arrived at Central Scotland’s government offices. It was submitted by a 32-year-old man in Stirling, who said that his civil rights were being violated: for years, he had been organizing “boys’ clubs” — the same concept as the official scouts, but with no affiliation — for the youths in the Dunblane area, until suddenly, the local council had informed him that he was not permitted to rent the gyms at their high schools anymore. And without access to the gyms, he couldn’t run his boys’ clubs; it was like losing his leadership badge, all over again.
He went on in his letter, writing that the local council wouldn’t even give him a reason for cutting him off, though he believed they were acting on “malicious gossip and unfounded allegations without investigation.” He begged the government to investigate. He attached 70 letters of support, signed by parents in the community.
As the scouts had done, the Ombudsman’s office opened a formal investigation.
The village of Dunblane confirmed that they had banned the man from renting the gyms, and that they had kept him in the dark as to why they had done so: out of concern that too many townspeople were getting the false impression that the man running the clubs was somehow affiliated with the mainstream Scottish Boy Scouts. The man even seemed to be encouraging such confusion, giving his boys’ clubs names that were nearly identical to names that the mainstream scouts had just retired, and obscuring the independence of his operation wherever possible.
When the Ombudsman’s office contacted Scouts headquarters to clear up the matter, they were then put in touch with a senior official with the scouts: a surgeon, from Falkirk. This man confirmed that no, the scouts absolutely did not sanction anything the man in Stirling was doing. He was blacklisted seven years ago, and now he was going around setting up his own knockoff boys’ clubs around Dunblane, trying to regain the aura of his old leadership badge. It was was if, somewhere in his mind, he still saw himself as a scoutmaster.
To this, the Dunblane officials added their own concern about the scoutmaster: that despite all the letters of support, even more parents had registered complaints.
One father in Dunblane had an experience that was typical: he had enrolled his son in a boys’ club — one that sounded official, but turned out to be one of the scoutmaster’s renegade operations — and then, a few weeks in, his son skipped a meeting. The next thing the father knew, there was a letter in his mailbox from the scoutmaster, addressed to his ten-year-old son. The letter stressed “how important regular attendance was,” and demanded an explanation for the boy’s absence. It almost seemed like some kind of “reprimand,” the father thought. And, oddly, the envelope had no postage; a neighbor told them he had seen a man in a raincoat deliver it by hand, in the middle of the night.
The boy’s mother was furious. She got the scoutmaster on the phone. “How dare you write to my son? He is in the Cubs, he goes to school, he goes to a swimming club. If he is absent from there, they don’t write to him, they write to me as the parent!”
On the other end of the line, the scoutmaster remained calm. He pronounced his words very clearly. He said he wanted to come over and talk to their son face-to-face, and hear his explanation for himself. Startled, the boy’s mother hung up.
The parents waited until the next week’s meeting. They dropped off their son at a friend’s house, and then went to Dunblane High School, to see what the scoutmaster’s clubs were really like.
As the adults stepped into the high school gymnasium, already something seemed off: “There were a large number of small boys in shorts stripped to the waist being bossed around by two or three middle-aged men, swaggering around in a very military-type way.” And the scoutmaster was visibly aggressive about the gymnastics routines, with the boys hurrying through the stations “looking like the Hitler Youth.”
Meanwhile, the scoutmaster was plainly aware of the parents’ presence on the sidelines. But the strange thing was, he never broke from shouting his instructions at the boys. He never acknowledged the parents at all. There was a palpably “sinister” aura that the mother from Dunblane could feel, and before she could say so, her husband was asking if she could feel it, too. “We decided on the spot that our son was not going to stay in the club.”
* * *
The following night, during a heavy rain, there was a knock at their front door. The father answered — and found the scoutmaster standing on his doorstep, in his raincoat. The expressionless figure stepped over the threshold, and asked to speak to the boy.
“Absolutely not,” the father said.
The scoutmaster said he deserved an explanation.
The father got angry. “I don’t have to give you reasons why a ten year old boy is not coming back!” It was his decision as the boy’s father, he explained, and that was all that mattered.
“What are you implying about my club?” the scoutmaster demanded, his nerves beginning to show.
The father said he was not implying anything, he just did not feel the club was right for his son, and that there would be nothing further to discuss about it.
The scoutmaster turned on his heel, flipped up the hood of his raincoat, and left. “There was a fairly restrained hostility about him,” the father would recall of the scoutmaster. “He was more confident with children than with adults.”
The two parents decided to spread the word around Dunblane, that the rogue scoutmaster was not to be trusted. Soon, attendance at his clubs dwindled — and then the scoutmaster was showing up on more doorsteps, demanding explanations from more families. Some told him they were uncomfortable with how he always insisted that the boys do their exercises while wearing black trunks, with no shirt. And that he always videotaped them. The scoutmaster protested that he was only bringing the videos back to his flat so that he could study the boys’ gymnastics mobility, for coaching purposes. If anyone was concerned about a video’s content, he would gladly screen it for them.
17th August, 1986
Private Residence — Falkirk
The Ombudsman’s Office finally issued its decision, and the surgeon obtained a copy. Scotland had determined that the local council in Dunblane had been “unjust” in withdrawing the scoutmaster’s gym access, and that the town’s treatment of him was “an injustice.” Further, the Ombudsman found that, “The evidence that [his club] was well-run and was supported by parents was ignored, in favour of complaints which proved to be little better than gossip.”
The surgeon from Falkirk was taken aback. It was as if they had completely ignored his warnings: the man was blacklisted by the Scouts. What more evidence did you need that the was unfit to run a boys’ club?
And then he saw: there was a surprising document in the report — a letter addressed to him, written by the scoutmaster, and dated from 1974. It was a “letter of resignation,” accusing the surgeon of purchasing wine and beer for his scouts, and claiming that the scoutmaster was returning his leadership badge in protest.
The letter was a fraud, and it had worked.
There was a knock at the surgeon’s front door. It was the scoutmaster, in his raincoat.
Staring into the middle distance with glazed eyes, the nervous man told the surgeon that, years ago, thanks to the blacklisting, “His life had been ruined by malicious rumors about his behaviors and his views.” The rumors were indeed all over Dunblane, but it appeared that the scoutmaster’s recent public vindication had now emboldened him. He was more determined than ever: he said he wanted back into the Scouts.
Again, the surgeon turned him down flat.
The scoutmaster demanded to see the blacklist. He had to know, once and for all, if his name was on it. The uncertainty was consuming him.
The surgeon denied that any such list even existed — standard procedure — and throughout their ensuing back-and-forth, he mostly just felt sad for the fallen scoutmaster; the man had only gotten worse in the years since their meeting at the infirmary. The scoutmaster was “even more obsessional” now, and from the look in his eyes, the doctor “wouldn’t have been surprised if he was currently on psychiatric drugs.”
19th August, 1987
Across the kingdom from Dunblane, on a clear afternoon, a 25-year-old man who lived with his mother stepped out the front door of his home wearing military fatigues, and carrying an arsenal. He proceeded to stroll back and forth around his neighborhood, shooting at everyone he saw; when a policeman happened to drive by, he shot at him. And when his mother came home from work, desperate to try to talk some sense into her rampaging son, he shot her too. With law enforcement closing in, he fell back to a nearby college where he had once been a student, barricaded himself in one of the classrooms, and eventually took his own life.
Once the dust settled, Hungerford was one of the worst peacetime massacres in UK history. The police determined that the primary weapon the shooter had used in the attack was what looked like an AK-47, but was actually a semi-automatic knock-off imported from China: the Norinco 56S. The shooter had purchased it legally, as he had all his other guns. His firearms license was perfectly valid, and he held membership in several of the requisite gun clubs.
The system had worked as designed. And the UK was outraged.
Britain’s gun lobbies tried to get ahead of the shockwave, with the British Shooting Sports Council announcing a $160,000 publicity campaign to “fight any change in gun laws” that came about as a result of attacks from “nut cases” — but it was to no avail. The Firearms Amendment Act of 1988 mandated that every citizen of the Crown turn over their rifles — all but the “small bore” .22’s.
Gun owners said it was an injustice. But it wasn’t a total ban, just a ban on rifles: everyone could keep their handguns.
Central Scotland Police Department — Dunblane Station
The scoutmaster already knew many of the local police, both through his visits to their gun ranges and through his long feud with the local council. And they knew him back; after the station announced that everyone would have to come in and surrender their large-bore rifles, they recognized him standing in line: the pudgy, nervous, bald man, holding a bag. He had been steadily upgrading his gun license over the years, and only recently unlocked permission to obtain his .223 Browning rifle — a centerfire rifle using the same .223 Remington round as weapons like the Colt Sporter — and already here he was, having to surrender it. They didn’t even pay him its full value (as he was careful to note in a written complaint).
The scoutmaster comforted himself with the purchase of a new, still-legal firearm: a Browning handgun, this one a 9mm semi-automatic, with a 13-shot magazine. He purchased over a thousand rounds for it.
20th July, 1988
Island of Inchmoan — Loch Lomond
This time, the complaints came straight to the police switchboard: there was a summer camp for boys, held on an island out on the lake, and something was wrong out there. The camp was just a one-man operation — and had actually been quite popular when it first opened — but gradually, more and more boys were taking rowboats back to the mainland, and calling their parents for a ride home.
Many of the reports mentioned that the man on the island was videotaping the boys, and insisting that they all wear the same ill-fitting black trunks. “Nothing sexual took place,” the reports all agreed, but the man “ran a very authoritarian regime and assaulted the boys by punching and slapping them for misdemeanors. He seemed to enjoy pushing the boys about.”
The Police Constable — the same who regularly renewed the scoutmaster’s firearms license — decided to send out a few officers from the Child Protection Unit to check out the camp.
The officers reported back that the place was “in dirty and untidy condition,” and that it appeared that the scoutmaster had been sharing a tent with his scouts — but neither was unusual, nor illegal. They interviewed the scoutmaster, and asked if he had struck any of the boys; he explained that he had only hit one child, and he was a boy who was bullying the others, and misbehaving. It was disciplinary.
The officers interviewed every boy on the island. Mostly, their stories backed up the scoutmaster’s: the child he had hit was indeed acting out, and the boys all confirmed that they felt safe there. Presented with an offer of a ride home, the boys each said no.
But one boy told a story that was different from all the rest: the ten-year-old claimed that the scoutmaster had taken him aside, alone, and given him a pair red trunks to put on. The scoutmaster had the boy pose wearing the red shorts, while he snapped photos. When he was done, the scoutmaster made him change back into black trunks, and then they both went back to the group’s activities, not saying a word to anyone.
The officers immediately asked the scoutmaster about the red trunks. He denied the story. The police didn’t have any evidence to the contrary, but they made a note: subpoena all of the man’s photos from that summer camp. Look for a boy in red shorts.
* * *
Later in the investigation, several boys reported another disturbing incident: the scoutmaster had taken them to a smaller island on the lake, bringing along his video camera. When they got there, he made them act in a sort of homemade film, during which one of the boys was “forced to lie in cold water against his wishes.” When the boys asked if they could put on warmer clothes, the scoutmaster angrily refused.
The investigators found the video camera, and seized the tape. They brought it back to the station to see what it contained: it turned out that the scoutmaster’s amateur movie was similar to Lord of the Flies, with a group of boys shipwrecked alone on a deserted island. The scouts — supposed-actors in the video — were all cold, shivering in the rain, and visibly afraid. Each of them were wearing a pair of black trunks.
The police then turned to the boxes of photos the scoutmaster had taken on the island. There were 279 undeveloped slides and 72 photographs, and they all showed the boys in groups, doing their exercises in the familiar black trunks. One boy was clearly a favorite; the camera lingered on him. It was the same boy who had reported the red trunks incident — but in all of the photos, he was wearing black trunks, the same as all of his friends.
Then, at the bottom of the last box, the police found an invoice from the photo processor; it showed that the scoutmaster had paid for two more boxes, containing 36 photos that he had apparently not turned over. The police asked him where the missing photos were; the scoutmaster said there were none. It was just an error in the count. He had given them everything.
* * *
The police couldn’t get a search warrant unless a crime was alleged to have taken place; so, they got to work on a list of proposed charges for the prosecutor. They came up with ten: from breach of the peace (for yelling at the kids), to endangering children (by lack of supervision), all the way to obstruction (for not turning over all the photos). They faxed the list to the prosecutor’s office, and crossed their fingers.
It all came to nothing. There just wasn’t any evidence of a clear crime. And it wasn’t in the public’s interest for the prosecutor’s office to bring a case they couldn’t win. Their office stamped the document “no pro” — not prosecuting — and the charges were dropped. The scoutmaster had won again.
16th May, 1989
Linlithgow Academy Secondary School
It was evening. A mother from Dunblane was waiting in the shadows in the school’s parking lot, ready for the scoutmaster to appear. She believed all the rumors about him; her son had been one of the boys on the island last summer, and when he returned home, he told her about one day on the beach there: how the scoutmaster made the boys apply suntan oil to him, all over his chest and stomach. So, waiting in the shadows, she had ready in her hands a whole bucket of suntan oil — plus some other substances mixed in: “oil, liquid manure, vinegar, flour and fish manure… any rubbish stinking stuff I could put my hands on.”
When she saw the scoutmaster exiting the gymnasium, locking up after one of his weekly club meetings, she pounced from the shadows, and poured the bucket over the man’s head.
She knew how fiercely the scoutmaster protected his reputation, and she had arranged for a photographer from the local newspaper to be there, to capture the pudgy man’s reaction. Her goal was to provoke the scoutmaster into suing her — so that as part of the lawsuit, there might finally be a thorough investigation into his activities. But, to her surprise, the scoutmaster just stood there, calmly dripping with filth as the cameraman’s shutter clicked away. The scoutmaster didn’t even raise his voice; whatever he was feeling during this moment of humiliation, he kept it all inside. And he did not sue.
* * *
The police never did find the missing 36 photos that the scoutmaster took. Meanwhile, his neighbors didn’t even know about the investigation; but around the same time as it was going on, they were complaining to each other about the odd man’s late-night backyard fires — the smoke wafting up through their cracked windows that summer was black and acrid, like burning plastic.
11th November, 1991
Central Scotland Police Department — Dunblane Station
An officer from the Child Protection Unit came to his chief’s office, with a memo in his hand. He had seen the scoutmaster’s camp, and he had interviewed the boys there. Maybe there wasn’t enough to arrest the scoutmaster, but he wanted their institution to do what they could:
I firmly believe that he has an extremely unhealthy interest in young boys which to a degree appears to have been controlled to date… I would contend that [he] will be a risk to children whenever he has access to them… I respectfully request that serious consideration is given to withdrawing this man’s firearms certificate as a precautionary measure as it is my opinion that he is a scheming, devious and deceitful individual who is not to be trusted.”
This officer had felt suspicions about the scoutmaster from the beginning. When he had submitted his report of what he saw out on the island, he even included his own offhanded observation: that, “If a child of my own had been at this camp, I would have no hesitation in taking him away.”
As such reports were public documents, the scoutmaster, looking through his own case file, eventually read the officer’s comment. And it enraged him like nothing else before. Thereafter, his unending stream of complaint letters took a noticeable turn, and started to incorporate paranoia over a supposed “Brotherhood Conspiracy,” in which the police and the scouts were collaborating to deny him access to the town’s boys.
But the local chief didn’t find the officer’s warnings then, or his memo now, quite so compelling. He passed the memo along to the Deputy Constable, and noted that while he “appreciated the concern” expressed in it, he “could not recommend” revoking the scoutmaster’s certificate, because the local prosecutor had already said there was no case — how, after all, could they penalize the scoutmaster for a crime he was never even charged with?
The DCC stamped the policeman’s memo “no action,” and once again, signed a renewal of the scoutmaster’s firearms license.
29th June, 1992
Intersection at Old Doune Road — Dunblane
The scoutmaster changed strategies. He called off his summer camps, and started hosting “residential sports training courses” instead — shorter, weekend events — back at the school buildings.
Late one night, a policeman was on patrol in Dunblane, when in his headlights he saw three young boys in their pajamas, walking unattended along the side of the road. He slowed, and rolled down his window; the boys told him they had been “at a boys’ camp at Dunblane High School” when they had grown homesick, but the man in charge of the club would not allow them to telephone their parents. So, they had snuck out.
The scoutmaster explained the incident away, like he always did. But one representative from the Child Protection Office wasn’t buying it. She submitted a memorandum to the Regional Council, urging them to once again terminate the man’s access to the schools:
I feel that the events of 29 June 1992 in Dunblane in a sense serve as a warning. If the kind of circumstances as described are allowed to continue without some kind of intervention, I consider that other children may be placed at risk. In like situations arising unchecked, I fear that a tragedy to a child or children is almost waiting to happen.
The council agreed, and again revoked scoutmaster’s gym privileges.
This time, as much as the man protested, there was no reprieve. The Ombudsman’s office was not listening. And there was no groundswell of support from trusting parents; the years of rumors, coupled with the scoutmaster’s disturbing behavior, had taken their toll.
* * *
A copy of the Child Protection memo found its way to the prosecutor’s office in Dunblane. Again, the prosecutor marked it “no pro: not a crime.”
13th February, 1995
Private Residence — Kent Road, Stirling
Four years had passed since the concerned officer’s memo to the DCC, and the scoutmaster’s firearms license was again up for renewal. But the requirements had changed in that time; a Constable would have to come out to the scoutmaster’s home, interview him face-to-face, and inspect his guns.
The scoutmaster’s mother had passed away back in 1987, around the time of all the trouble out on the island, and his father, now elderly, had since moved into assisted living. The flat in Stirling was now his undisputed domain.
Meanwhile, the Constable that the police sent there was new in town.
The scoutmaster seemed nervous when he answered the door, like he was hiding something inside, just out of her view. But even if he was, she had no authority to search; she was only there to verify that he was in compliance with the certificate.
As the Constable was copying down the membership info from the scoutmaster’s gun club card, the man took out a large .357 revolver; she saw a peculiar look in his eye, “sort of like he was gloating,” and she got the distinct impression he was trying to intimidate her — stroking the gun as if to convey, “Look what I’ve got.”
She quickly finished filling out the inspection form, and left, glad to be away from there. Something about the man just made her uncomfortable.
She signed the renewal, one that was actually an expansion of the certificate. It authorized him to purchase a second 9mm pistol.
9th September, 1995
York Guns — North Yorkshire, England
The shop’s owner was on duty, when the phone rang. It was a man from Dunblane, asking what handguns they sold. The gunsmith described his stock, and suggested a 9mm semi-automatic — a Browning, similar to the one that this customer already owned. But fancier. The scoutmaster said it sounded like a deal, and he sent his cheque for £304 by post, along with a copy of his firearms license. A few days later, he got his newest handgun.
He bought some expanded magazines for it, so he could fire 20 rounds of 9mm before having to reload, rather than the standard 13. And, after five years without any ammunition purchases on record, by the end of that fall, the scoutmaster’s certificate would show he purchased nearly 2,500 rounds.
26th January, 1996
Dunblane Primary School
The school’s head teacher was getting ready for the day, when the mail clerk dropped a letter on his desk. It was another dispatch from the strange man who sometimes ran boys’ clubs in the area; he was sending copies to every school in town. As always, he complained about rumors being spread about him:
At Dunblane Primary School, where teachers have contaminated all of the older boys with this poison, even former cleaners and dinner ladies have been told by teachers at school that I am a pervert. There have been reports at many schools of our boys being rounded up by staff and even warnings given to entire schools by head teachers during Assembly…. All of this has been extremely damaging over the years, not only to my clubs but to my public standing, and has resulted in a complete loss of my ability to earn a living.
The head teacher had gotten used to ignoring inane missives such as these. After all, even if he took them seriously, what was he supposed to do?
4th February, 1996
Private Residence — Kent Rd, Stirling
A longtime friend of the scoutmaster’s, a young man who had assisted with some of his boys’ clubs in the early years, stopped by his flat one day to check on him.
The man who greeted him seemed depressed, but invited him in. The scoutmaster was cleaning his guns as they talked, and had his new 9mm in his hand when he suddenly asked his old friend a surprising question: “If you had any sons, would you let them go to my clubs?”
His friend didn’t even have to think it over. “No.”
The scoutmaster suddenly pointed the gun at him, and pulled the trigger.
It wasn’t loaded, and produced only a click, but it gave the scoutmaster’s guest — who was in the middle of sipping his coffee — an awful fright. The friend cursed the scoutmaster, threw the coffee in his face, called him a “stupid bastard,” and stormed out. He resolved never to contact the awful man ever again — but he didn’t report the incident to police, certain that, “He would just have denied it.”
2nd March, 1996
Inverclyde Shooting Range
The scoutmaster was becoming a distraction to the other members of the gun club. They were trying to run through careful, timed drills, shooting at a series of silhouette-shaped targets — but the moment the range officer blew the whistle, the scoutmaster would just blast away with his 9mm handgun, “as fast as he could pull the trigger, basically.” It really irritated the range officer… but following the practice drills wasn’t mandatory, and the scoutmaster wasn’t breaking any rules. So he let him continue.
11th March, 1996
Buckingham Palace — London
The Queen’s private secretaries received a letter from a man in Dunblane; it was the scoutmaster, begging for Her Majesty’s help as a patron of the Scottish Scouts.
It was much the same complaint he had been writing for the last 20 years, but this time, with an air of finality. “The rumours circulated by officials of the Scout Association have now reached epidemic proportions across Central Region,” he wrote. “As well as my personal distress and loss of public standing, this situation has also resulted in loss of my business and ability to earn a living. Indeed, I cannot even walk the streets for fear of embarrassing ridicule…I turn to you as a last resort, and am appealing for some kind of intervention in the hope that I may be able to regain my self-esteem in society.”
12th March, 1996
Findlay Guy Van Hire — Stirling
Shortly before 3pm, a pudgy, balding fellow from Dunblane came in to the rental shop. He said he wanted to rent a van, just for a day. The clerk had never met the man before, but, “He unnerved me quite a bit,” she would recall; a vague uneasiness settled over her from the moment they started talking, and lingered well after. It was “the way he spoke, mainly,” because, “He spoke very slowly, very clearly, precisely, but with no emotion or expression. [There] was just nothing, nothing in there. You couldn’t have held a conversation with him.”
* * *
When the scoutmaster got back to his flat, he returned a call that was on his message machine: an old client, from his wood shop days. They chatted about kitchen fixtures for a while, but then the other party noticed the scoutmaster had grown quiet; suddenly, and unrelated to anything they were talking about, the scoutmaster said “that he was quite a lonely person, and that it wasn’t good to be alone for all your life.”
13th March, 1996
Dunblane Primary School
The white van was seen at 9:30am, creeping slowly into the parking lot of the primary school. The driver parked near a telephone pole, and stepped out: a pudgy man wearing black trousers, a black knit cap, and a dark jacket.
He spread out a tool wrap on the pavement, took out a pair of wire snippers, and cut the phone line at the base of the pole.
At approximately 9:38am, he was seen again, standing just inside the open doorway of the school’s gymnasium. A group of teachers were about to begin instruction of a Primary 1 gymnastics class, when they looked up and saw a “dark figure,” with a gun in his hand. He had put black ear protectors on over his knit cap, and there was a black camera bag strapped over one of his shoulders — but there was no camera in it. The compartments held 25 extended magazines for a Browning pistol. He had three handguns holstered around his waist: two .357 magnum revolvers, and one of his Browning 9mm semi-automatics. The other Browning, the fancier one, was in his hand.
The scoutmaster shot the teachers, and then he shot the students.
* * *
Viewed from the sky above Dunblane, the primary school was laid out in a giant, capital “H” shape, with the school’s gymnasium part of the middle span; at the south end of east pillar was one of the art rooms. From across the gap, the art teacher there heard the gunfire, and looked across the playground to the gym, the two windows by chance aligning; the teacher saw the shooter, from the waist up: a man dressed in black, and pointing what looked like a handgun, calmly pacing around and firing it at something down low, below the teacher’s cropped frame of view.
Just as suddenly as the teacher could comprehend what he was seeing, the gunman in the gym abruptly stopped in tracks, and drew a revolver from his hip. He raised the gun to his own head, jolted for a moment — and then he fell, backward, out of view.
* * *
29th May, 1996
The Albert Halls, Stirling, UK
Two and a half months after the attack, the town’s great concert hall took on the atmosphere of a courtroom, with members of the national press crowding in alongside the townspeople, to see the Honorable Lord William Cullen conduct the proceedings.
At the far end of the hall, a forum of advocates looked on: one of them would speak on behalf of the teachers’ association, another for the victims’ families, another for the town, another for the school, and finally, the police. Lord Cullen’s charge would be simple: “To inquire into the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the events at Dunblane Primary School on Wednesday 13 March 1996, to consider the issues arising therefrom; and to make such interim and final recommendations as may seem appropriate.”
To begin, the police gave a summary of the evidence they’d found so far: the first responders had identified the scoutmaster immediately that morning — right where they found him, twitching on the floor of the gymnasium — based on their many run-ins with him over the years. A unit was thus dispatched to search the scoutmaster’s flat (something they were never quite able to do while he was alive), and there they found what looked like a life abandoned, just as it was collapsing in on itself: on a counter top, bundles of the shooter’s unsent letters, desperately defending his reputation; along the wall, hundreds of rounds of ammunition in stacked boxes; on the kitchen table, a phone book, opened to the page with the address for Dunblane Primary School.
Police eventually found the videos he’d taken. Scanning through them, the officers found that there were no obscene sequences — just an obscene amount of them. Always of boys, always in the same black trunks.
Then, in a box, they found 63 pairs of boys’ swim trunks. Nearly all of them were black; but two pairs were red.
A detective then took the stand at Albert Hall, and summarized what the Scottish Police had learned from canvassing Dunblane and Stirling: practically everyone in the area knew of him, the nervous guy in the raincoat, but he had no close friends, and common opinion was that he was boring, and “overly well-mannered” — he never swore, and he never smoked, or drank. Some acquaintances said he “wouldn’t engage in social conversation with anybody,” but others complained of his long, one-sided diatribes — always about one of two subjects, the only dimensions to his life: guns, and boys. He was, in a word, “empty.”
* * *
The Cullen Inquiry tried to find an explanation for the shooter’s actions in his medical records, but they found that the only time the man had been to a doctor in his adult life was for a sprained ankle. And he had never once crossed paths with any mental health professional.
Thwarted, Lord Cullen drafted a team of forensic psychiatrists to study the shooter’s life. They would struggle to find a consensus on the exact profile, but they all agreed on one thing: “There really can be no doubt that he was a paedophile, [and] though the nature of his sexual fantasies can only be a matter of speculation, his boys’ club activities were not innocent, had sinister undercurrents, and were unhealthy.” Still, there were no credible reports that the scoutmaster had done anything to act on his urges, beyond what was already publicly known. And these were the same facts that had already failed to meet the level of criminal charges against the man, before it was too late.
Besides, Lord Cullen was not satisfied that pedophilia alone could explain the Dunblane tragedy. He illustrated the problem through a question to the psychiatric team: if the police had somehow been certain the scoutmaster was a pedophile, could this have been enough to revoke his firearms certificate? “I think it would be difficult,” one doctor answered: “It is difficult to see the link between paedophiliac interest and violence. In fact, paedophiles as a whole tend to be non-violent. The fact that he had these other interests would not necessarily be any indication of a propensity to be violent with firearms.”
Another doctor put it more simply: “the fact that he owned guns and was a paedophile were coincidence.”
Lord Cullen agreed. There had to be other factors at work: “It does not appear to me to follow from the evidence that [he] would have sought in any event to perpetrate a mass shooting. It seems to me to be at least as likely that the availability of his own firearms and ammunition influenced him in the way in which he proceeded.”
This was a sentiment shared by many in Scotland: that there just had to be more to it. A mutation as rare as the scoutmaster had to have been birthed by something more profound than a simple medical diagnosis, no matter how exotic; pedophiles were rare, but not unprecedented. And Dunblane felt like something new.
That month’s issue of The Spectator argued that the very culture from which the phenomenon appeared was the explanation: “Murder and mayhem are ineradicably part of what some rather grandiosely call ‘the human condition’,” the editorial read. “But that surely does not mean that Dunblane was in any sense inevitable, or can tell us nothing about the present. […] Our belief in a constantly expanding number of rights, and that everyone except for a tiny gilded minority is a victim of circumstance, favours a frame of mind in which revenge upon the world is justified.”
* * *
The expert testimony at Albert Hall dragged on for days, and eventually, the consensus that Lord Cullen gleaned was that the shooter was “suffering from some form of personality disorder characterized by lack of empathy.” Cullen saw confirmation of this in testimony about the scoutmaster’s summer camps — as much for what the scoutmaster did there, as what he did not do: despite the fact that most of the labor of his life had been spent setting up boys’ clubs, the man had displayed “no normal kindness or affection towards the boys,” as Cullen put it, “even if they were homesick or upset, whereas you or I might comfort a child in a perfectly normal way.”
The Cullen Inquiry ultimately determined that there was not enough information to know precisely what was broken in the shooter’s mind. “Someone who has got low self-esteem, is a loner, lacks empathy, is probably someone who is not easy about disclosing his innermost thoughts of violence,” said the inquiry’s lead psychiatrist. “The data which is most interesting is missing really, which would be data about his thoughts and fantasies.”
* * *
The shooter was never a student in Dunblane, growing up. Nobody could explain why he chose that school, or that day. But late in the inquiry, a major piece of the puzzle fell into place: it was in the form of a written statement from a man whose 9-year-old son attended Dunblane Primary School, and who had also had been a member of one of the scoutmaster’s boys’ clubs — the very last club, as it turned out.
The boy had been extremely quiet in the weeks after the attack on his school, not believing that the scoutmaster could have done it. But finally, he told his father about a strange series of conversations the man had initiated with him at his weekly club meetings, including as recently as six days before his attack. It was always the same routine: the scoutmaster would take him aside, and ask him to confirm where the entrances were located at his school, and where and when the morning assemblies were conducted. Each time, the boy told him the same thing: that the assemblies at Dunblane Primary were held on Wednesday mornings. They started around 9:30am, and lasted for a half-hour. Everyone met in the assembly hall, directly across from the gymnasium.
Just as the investigators were following up on this lead, the forensic team was at the scene of the crime, trying to determine the sequence of gunshots. Their search led them into the hallway, where they found the shooter had fired once into the wall for some reason, on his way into the gym. They found another bullet hole in the assembly hall — the first shot fired. A timeline of the morning’s events began to take shape.
* * *
First, the shooter got out of his van in the parking lot, and snipped the wires at the base of the telephone pole. These wires provided phone service to the neighboring homes in the area, but the shooter apparently believed they serviced the school; obviously, an attempt to prevent outgoing emergency calls. Then, at 9:30am, the morning assembly adjourned, and 250 students briskly filed out of the assembly hall, flanked by 10 teachers — the boy the shooter had talked to said that the assembly would start at 9:30am, but he was confused; that was when it ended.
Sometime between 9:31 and 9:37, the shooter entered the school via a side door, and made his way to the assembly hall. As he swung open the double doors, he apparently expected to see a packed assembly, with benches full of students along each wall, and the staff on stage “contaminating” their minds: the scene as rendered in his letter to the school, two months before. (Among the students in attendance would have been the child of a police officer — the same officer who had so infuriated the shooter by writing his personal comment years before: that he would have “no hesitation” in taking his child away from the scoutmaster’s reach.)
When the shooter instead made his grand entrance into an empty auditorium, his vivid fantasy must have dissipated rather abruptly; he fired the first shot (either by accident or out of frustration) into the floor of the empty stage, and then left the auditorium. He fired another shot into the hallway wall in the brief second as he crossed the corridor, and then he stepped into the gymnasium. His Plan B.
The shooter did not know that the school’s phone lines were still operational, and that an emergency call had thus placed from the principal’s office within one minute of the first shots. But it didn’t seem to make a difference; the timeline revealed that the police were still on their way to the scene when the shooting stopped. The shooter had plenty of time left, and 18 more magazines, fully-loaded, in his bag. It could have been even worse.
* * *
Finally, Lord Cullen turned toward the most controversial aspect of the case: the licensing of firearms to the public. He would focus on a specific provision in the existing UK law, one which entrusted the local Deputy Constables to determine who was “unfitted” to possess guns.
When the DCC for Dunblane came to the stand, it was the advocate for the victims and their families that pursued this institutional failure most aggressively: Why on earth did you keep renewing the shooter’s gun license?
The DCC explained that they had wanted to disarm the scoutmaster years ago — but at the same time, they were certain that he would appeal their decision, and that their evidence would amount to just more “gut feeling” and rumor, as the Ombudsman’s office had already put it once. The man in question had never been charged with a crime. So how could they disarm him? On what grounds?
Lord Cullen finally asked each of the doctors, directly: if they had, for arguments sake, the opportunity to examine the scoutmaster in person when he was alive, would they have been able to definitively state that he was “unfitted” to own a gun, as the law required?
They all said no. No one could have seen Dunblane coming.
The Snowdrop Campaign
High above, in the balcony overlooking Albert Hall, a father from Dunblane was listening to the proceedings. He would never forget 13 March, 1996; he had dropped off his daughter at school that morning. He never got to pick her back up.
As he absorbed the testimony, with the doctors going back and forth about the shooter’s unknowable, “innermost” feelings, the father from Dunblane found that he agreed more and more with what an editorial from Scotland on Sunday said about the shooter:
He did not live in a void. He lived among us all. To write him off as an exception misses the point: exceptions are not born. They are made, by circumstance and experience, by the slow drip of alienation, isolation, and paranoia… We must see beyond the convenient labels that describe [him] as a sick pervert, and an evil psychopath.
The way this father saw it, if the doctors couldn’t say who was safe and who wasn’t, what did any of it really matter when it came to gun ownership? And even if society could somehow identify every “nutcase” before they got their firearms license, that still wouldn’t be enough, as the father soon wrote in his own editorial for the Sunday Times:
Given the incidence of mental illness and behavioural disorders among the general public we have to assume that a significant number of handgun users will at some stage have problems which would make them unfit for gun ownership and thus put the general public at risk. If we can’t guarantee the behavior of handgun users there is only one course of action and that is to ban their weapons, and to ban them completely.
The father from Dunblane knew this would be a tough sell. There were plenty of firearms enthusiasts in the UK, even after the post-Hungerford restrictions were put in place. These people were not the problem, so much as another symptom; he saw it in the testimony from the gun club members, who had shot right alongside the scoutmaster for years. Their views seemed unreal, like they didn’t even comprehend the incident that brought them to the stand; they would get excited talking about their guns, and did not seem conflicted as they recounted watching the nervous man who fired off hundreds of rounds in a sitting. They evinced the same disapproval of “sissy” .22’s, and the same awe for heavier firepower. Please, the father from Dunblane was thinking from the balcony, no more guns, and certainly no more worship of guns.
Meanwhile, at Dunblane Primary School, classes were back in session, just a week and half after the shooting. And when the students returned, they saw that the gymnasium had been sealed off, with brown-painted boards fixed over its windows; a month later, the gym was torn down entirely. In its place, the school installed a simple garden.
Soon after this last photo opportunity, the press all packed up their vans and went back to the big city, something many of the village folk welcomed. They were ready to move on.
Watching this, as the Cullen Inquiry approaching its conclusion, the father from Dunblane felt a growing fear: that this great tragedy might simply pass, without anything meaningful being done about the guns in his country. His fear only grew when a government report leaked, in which an MP argued to his colleagues, “What would be the point of a total ban on the lawful holding of handguns, if there remained easy access to unlawful handguns, and easy access — both lawful and unlawful — to powerful rifles, or to shotguns which, given time to reload, would have the same result?” They should ban everything, or nothing, the argument went; and on this point, the father from Dunblane was in agreement.
* * *
There was a cafe in Dunblane that was a popular meeting spot. One local group of women had coffee there every week. They knew many of the families struck by the tragedy, and one day, they found themselves talking about that morning of 13 March — remembering how, across the whole village, there had been only one species of flower in bloom: white snowdrops.
These friends were setting out on a quest to pass new gun reforms, and chose this flower as their symbol; they announced the Snowdrop Campaign in a letter to the Sunday Times, in which they challenged the United Kingdom to take action within the year: “Next March when the snowdrops appear, let us remember Dunblane,” the mothers wrote, “but let us also be able to say, ‘We made our feelings clearly known to those who govern us and seek to shape laws to protect us.”
3rd July, 1996
Highland Council Chambers— Inverness
The father from Dunblane waited near the chamber’s entrance, alert for the Scottish MPs who would be adjourning from their session at any moment. As each lawmaker emerged from the chamber doors, the man presented them with a petition from the Snowdrop Campaign. It read:
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House introduce or amend the law relating to the ownership and usage of firearms such that:
1. All firearms held for recreational purposes for use in authorized sporting clubs to be held securely at such clubs with firing mechanisms removed.
2. The private ownership of handguns be made illegal.
3. Certification of all firearms be subject to stricter control.
Attached to the petition were the signatures of over 700,000 voters.
The UK’s gun lobbies sensed the changes coming. Gun rights advocates began to mobilize, but as one MP told The Independent, off-the-record: “The [UK] gun lobby is influential in the sense that its supporters are rich and high-profile. But this is not America where there is a large number of supporters.”
Even so, the British gun advocates voiced arguments that were reminiscent of their counterparts in the former colonies; the SRA — Shooters’ Rights Association — proclaimed, “The spectre of the most pernicious and evil legislation to stalk Europe since the reign of the Third Reich is about to be forced upon the British nation.”
MPs sympathetic to the gun lobbies tried to divert attention away from the scoutmaster’s weaponry: “Nothing will stop determined fanatics, in particular one who is quite happy to sacrifice his own life. In the absence of guns he will use arson, or a stolen lorry, both of which are easily capable of killing 20 or more people at a time.” Another leader, a man who had overseen the ineffectual legislative response to the Hungerford shooting, wondered if the scoutmaster could have employed the use of a cricket bat just as easily as a handgun. Would they then be discussing the outlaw of all cricket bats?
The father from Dunblane struggled to remain patient in the face of such arguments. There was a reason, he was quite convinced, that men like the scoutmaster did not use fire, or cricket bats, or hijacked lorries to summon their maniacal fantasies into reality: each of these would-be improvised weapons served a primary purpose that did not involve killing. Guns kill, so killers like guns. Simple.
Other gun advocates strove to be compassionate, even while opposing the Snowdrop Campaign. They argued that the movement was an emotional reaction, and that such an approach made for poor legislation. “No matter how awful and obvious the devastation caused by guns,” the father from Dunblane interpreted these leaders as saying, “there should never be any emotional response.” He believed differently: “To be objective and detached is to deny the reality of what happened. This is an issue which calls for an emotionally informed response.”
16th October, 1996
House of Commons — Palace of Westminster
A statement from the Home Secretary was read on the House floor as the final recommendations of the Cullen Inquiry were being distributed to the MPs. “Among all the words which have been written since Dunblane, there is one irrefutable fact,” it said. “The dreadful crimes committed on 13th March were committed with a gun which was legally bought and legally possessed. Those facts place an onerous duty on the Government to consider what controls there should be on the ownership and possession of guns.” Lord Cullen’s recommendations were, accordingly, simple and sweeping: all high-calibre handguns — anything over a .22 — would be banned. The .22’s would in turn be heavily restricted; a vital part of the gun would have to be removed (the slide for semi-automatics, and the cylinder for revolvers) and kept under lock and key at a licensed gun range. In the home, only single-shot pistols would be permitted intact.
Lord Cullen knew that a particularly vocal minority of his countrymen would see these measures as burdensome, even tyrannical. He painstakingly explained how his staff had explored every lesser avenue first, but found that each led to nowhere; they had even considered banning high-capacity magazines, and leaving the guns alone — but as one firearms expert explained, that was not as simple as it seemed: “Most modern magazines are unnumbered, and no one knows how many have been sold. No one knows how many people have them in their possession, and they are readily available in other parts of the world. You could introduce a restriction now, but its effects are very uncertain.” So they would have to go further, if they wanted their actions to have any real consequence.
The gun lobbyists were already scrambling to sound the alarm over Cullen’s recommendations. But then, the Home Secretary attached his own position on the matter:
I propose to go considerably further than Lord Cullen has suggested. […] We will ban all handguns from people’s homes. I do not agree with Lord Cullen that it would be safe to allow single shot handguns to remain in the home. I believe that they should be subject to the same controls which we impose on multi-shot handguns.
To the father from Dunblane, and the other members of the Snowdrop Campaign, even this was not going far enough. They “saw no reason to distinguish between the dangerousness of handguns on the basis of calibre,” and wanted the .22’s banned outright along with everything else. They produced an ad that ran in movie theaters during previews that fall, which showed a close-up of a .22 handgun being fired at a gun range. The actor Sean Connery provided narration: “It is said that a total ban on handguns, including .22s, would take away innocent pleasure from thousands of people. Is that more — or less — pleasure than watching your child grow up?” And then the screen went dark, followed by the father from Dunblane’s simple message: REMEMBER DUNBLANE, BAN ALL HANDGUNS.
The father from Dunblane was to be disappointed. When it was all over, the ban as-written was the most that his country was willing to do. The .22’s would stay legal. Still, the sort of handguns used at Dunblane, at least, would be no more.
* * *
As the one-year anniversary of the tragedy approached, and the snowdrops once again bloomed across Dunblane, the House of Lords were signing their approval. On the 27th February, the bill was granted Royal Assent, and the gun ban became the law of the land.
On 5th March, 1997, the Dunblane police confirmed that they had destroyed the guns the scoutmaster had brought to the school; these would be the first of many. That summer, thousands of citizens across the kingdom turned over their guns for destruction. The owners were compensated — to varying degrees of satisfaction — and the hordes of .22 pistols followed their larger-bore counterparts soon after: destroyed, or simply locked up, safe and secure, from their owners or anyone else.
Their work done, the Snowdrop Campaign disbanded. The families from Dunblane released a statement ahead of the first anniversary of the tragedy, announcing that there was to be no public ceremony on 13 March 1997, as they still longed to grieve in privacy:
We do wish, however, to invite our fellow residents to mark the anniversary with one simple gesture. At 7 o’clock in the evening on 13 March we would ask you to place, with due care, a lighted candle in your front window. In this way you can show how much the memories of our children and their teacher shine on in Dunblane.