DUNBLANE, Scotland (Reuters) - Of all the messages of sympathy for the stricken U.S. community of Newtown, few carry the emotional weight of those from Dunblane, the small Scottish town that still bears the scars of Britain’s worst school massacre.
On March 13, 1996, a gunman walked into the gymnasium of a primary school in the close-knit cathedral town and shot dead 16 children and their teacher before turning the gun on himself.
Few residents want to talk about the terrible events that for years made Dunblane synonymous with tragedy, but reminders abound, made all the more poignant by the onset of Christmas.
At the far end of the cemetery on the edge of town, toys, fairies and portraits of smiling children decorate the graves of many of the victims, while small windmills spin in the winter breeze under grey skies.
A miniature Christmas tree stands next to one grave and a bunch of pink roses covered in dew drops rests on the spot where their teacher, Gwen Mayor, 45, is buried.
“The memories are flooding back. It must be hell for the parents. We said prayers for them in my church,” said Harry McEwan, 71, who has lived in the town for 30 years. “Dunblane has so much in common with what has happened in Newtown.”
The Dunblane massacre shocked the world and started a public campaign that led to Britain adopting some of the strictest gun controls in the world.
The Newtown shooting has already prompted calls for new U.S. gun restrictions, including a ban on assault weapons. President Barack Obama said things must change to prevent more killings.
In Britain, the scale of revulsion over Dunblane’s three-minute rampage led within two years to new laws that effectively banned civilians from owning handguns. Ministers also promised to improve school security.
The Dunblane shootings were particularly shocking for a country where the police are not routinely armed and gun crime is relatively unusual. Of the 636 murders in England and Wales in 2010/11, 60 were shootings. Last year, firearms were used in 0.3 percent of all recorded crimes.
The Dunblane gunman, Thomas Hamilton, was a 43-year-old known locally as a misfit and a loner. He had been sacked as a Scout leader after complaints about his behavior around young boys.
A government inquiry after the rampage recommended tougher vetting of voluntary workers as well as closer scrutiny of those applying to own a gun. Hamilton’s four weapons were all legal.
Dunblane has tried to move on. The sports hall where the shooting took place has been demolished and the school has been refurbished. However, the U.S. shooting has brought back painful memories.
“A dark cloud came over us,” said lifelong Dunblane resident Nancy, who declined to give her surname. “The heaviness, the sorrow. Just disbelief and shock. Our hearts go out to the people of Newtown. It’s still very painful and when something happens elsewhere it sort of bubbles up to the surface.”
Dunblane has grown in the last decade and is a popular choice for families who want to live in a quiet community within reach of jobs in the nearby city of Stirling or Scotland’s biggest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Arriving at school on a damp winter’s morning, a group of girls laughed and played hopscotch in the playground before a bell summoned them and their fellow pupils to class.
They waved goodbye to their parents through the school windows as they walked upstairs.
“It’s a fantastic place to bring up a family. It’s just a pity that (the shooting) is the first thing people think of,” said Ann Johnston, 39, a mother of three.
At the memorial garden which replaced the demolished gymnasium, a note attached to yellow roses remembers “All the lost angels of Dunblane”.
In the years ahead, Newtown may find it hard to tread a path between remembering the dead and trying to move on from the tragedy, according to one church leader in Dunblane.
“How do you strike the balance? The answer, I suspect, will be different for every community but there will be problems for a long time to come,” the Reverend Colin McIntosh, minister of Dunblane Cathedral, told the BBC.
For some Dunblane families, strength came from within their community, their church or from their other children. Others said campaigning to change gun control laws was a useful way to channel their energies.
“It didn’t bring Victoria and the other children back, but it gave us a meaningful reason to just get through today, tomorrow and the next day,” Charles Clydesdale, whose 5-year-old was among the victims, wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.
In the main shopping street, the Christmas lights point to happier times. A golden post box commemorates the success at this summer’s London Olympics of the town’s most famous son, tennis player Andy Murray.
He was at the school when the shooting happened and had to take shelter. Dunblane’s link with one of Britain’s top sportsmen has helped change its image.
“I don’t want to say they’ll get over it but they’ll emerge from it. They’ll find strength in each other, as a community,” said local councilor Graham Houston. “Dunblane has moved on but it won’t forget.” (Writing by Peter Griffiths; additional reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Philippa Fletcher)