Dunblane, March 13, 1996

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Eileen Harrild was running late that morning. She was due to take Mrs Mayor's Primary One class after assembly. On arriving, she began to set out the gym equipment for their lesson. She could hear the children singing their hymns in the assembly hall as she walked to the top end of the gym and put out two sets of beams, which the children would use for balancing work, and two sets of ropes for swinging and climbing.

"In the bottom part of the gym I'd put out some benches, and there were hockey sticks which I used to make a shape on the floor which the children would have to tiptoe through. There were also mats laid out for them to practise their rolling."

By 9.30am, when assembly was due to finish, Eileen had all the equipment ready and was making final preparations as she waited for Mrs Mayor's class.

"I was quite surprised to see Mary [Blake, a classroom assistant], because she was normally with the Primary Seven class, but she said she had been helping Mrs Mayor," Eileen says.

"I knew the class had arrived when the first three children ran into the gym ahead of their classmates. They were eager to begin their lesson, having spent the last half-hour sitting on their bottoms at assembly.

"The rest of the class came in. They already had their gym kit on, so I told them to start their warm-up. They began their stretching exercises, then they did some running. I told them to move around in spaces.

"I'd just told them to stop what they were doing, before I went on to the second part of the warm-up, when I was aware of the door being pushed open suddenly. It wasn't unusual for somebody to come into the gym to ask directions after parking in the car park close by.

"I was about two or three metres from the door. I immediately turned round because the door had been pushed open in such a sudden manner. I saw him very clearly. He was very close to me. He had a woolly hat, ear-muffs, glasses, a canvas khaki sleeveless tunic, and a jumper.

"And he had his gun outstretched in his hand."

For a few seconds Eileen Harrild looked straight into the eyes of the gunman. She will never forget his stare.

"He had an expression of pure evil. Not madness. He had intent in his eyes. He knew exactly what he was doing. There was just badness in those eyes."

Eileen didn't have a chance to say anything. The gunman pointed his pistol at her chest and fired.

"It was literally step, step, shoot. He only took two steps into the gym before he started. He shot me straight away, and instinctively I put my arms up in front of me to try and protect myself.

"It happened so quickly. I know it sounds incredible, but my initial reaction after the first bullet was fired was that this was a joke, an April Fool. A game. Then I realised there was blood pouring from me.

"The speed of the firing was so rapid and targeted that I felt that this man could only be going for me, but when I responded and instinctively raised my arms, I saw him turn his attention elsewhere, spraying everyone in his sight with bullets.

The gunman shot Eileen four times: twice through the arms, once in the hand and once in the chest.

"By this time the children were screaming and running around in panic. As I turned, I saw him aim at Gwen [Mayor, the class teacher] and Mary. He went for the adults first because they were the threat to him. Gwen had been sitting on the bench quite near me . . . She'd put her diary on the bench and I had taken off a little boy's glasses and put them on top of the diary. Then he turned on the children.

"I turned away and staggered towards the storeroom. My glasses fell off as I stumbled, and I remember the thoughts going through my head: 'This is unbelievable. What's happening? Why is this happening? Why is he doing this to us?

"I reached the storeroom and slumped to the floor on my back. Somehow, Mary ended up lying beside me to my right. She'd been shot in both legs and the head. Three children who had also been shot were lying at our feet, screaming. There were several other injured children lying on the floor at the entrance to the storeroom, close to us.

"The noise was deafening. The children beside us were screaming and crying, and the sound seemed to echo around the gym. I sensed within my heart that Gwen and some of the children were dead very quickly, because the shooting was so continuous and rapid.

"I realised we would have to stop the children screaming or he would know where we were, so Mary and I put our fingers to our lips and said 'shush' to them.

"They immediately knew to be very quiet; very quickly they realised, they knew they had to stop screaming. As soon as we said 'shush', 'quiet', they lay down in silence. Not a sound. It was very still.

"As they lay there a little boy whispered, 'What a bad man, what a bad man.' "

Eileen Harrild finds it difficult to describe the next few fear-filled minutes as she lay helpless in the storeroom, waiting for the gunman to reappear. Tears fill her eyes as she describes how she and Mary Blake tried desperately to think of ways of protecting themselves and the children.

"There was a pile of mats on my left-hand side, stacked quite high. I put my hand up to see if I could pull one down from the top. I thought that if we could get the mats we could pull them over us, and perhaps he wouldn't see us if he came into the storeroom. I thought they would give us some form of protection. But because I was lying on my back I couldn't get the top mat to budge. It was a very heavy mat. There was also a huge rolled-up mattress which I thought we could use to hide one of the children; but it was at the far end of the storeroom, and I didn't want the children to get up and move and maybe attract his attention.

"So for the next two or three minutes we could do nothing but lie there on the floor, just listening and waiting. I was aware of him moving about in the gym. I knew where he was because of the noise, the terrible noise of gunshots. I could hear him walking around. The shooting was non-stop, continuous. Then I heard him opening the emergency exit at the top end of the gym. I knew the noise because it's a metal door and very noisy. I remember thinking, 'Thank God. He's going away.' The shooting was less rapid then. And then I heard him coming back into the gym. The next few moments, I don't know how long, seemed to last an absolute eternity. It seemed to last forever. We just lay there on the floor helpless, just waiting for him to come round the corner and finish us off. I find it difficult to explain the helpless and terrifying feeling of lying there waiting to be shot again.

"I wasn't feeling any pain. It was as if I was anaesthetised. All sorts of things were going through my mind. I remember thinking: 'What can we do to save ourselves here? What can I do to save the children?' Abject terror.That's the only way I can describe it. The emotion of just lying there knowing you couldn't do anything. The feeling of disbelief that this was happening in our gym, to our children. It was just so unreal. We were so scared.

"We were all losing a lot of blood, but we were scared to move in case the movement attracted him and he came around the corner.'

As the pair lay with bleeding children beside them, waiting, fearing these were their final moments, Eileen started praying. "It was just like the panic button had been pressed, and I tuned in immediately to all these prayers, prayers I had learned as a child. I was saying them to myself.

"Then suddenly there was silence, total silence. It was uncanny. There was no more screaming. No moaning. Nobody was moving. Just an incredible silence.

"I just remember thinking, 'Please God, it must be over now.' "

Unknown to Eileen, the gunman had turned the gun on himself. "All of a sudden, help started to arrive in the main gym, and almost at the same time everyone started to react to their injuries. The children started to scream and cry.

"Mary and I started speaking. She told me she'd been shot in the back of the head, and I said I'd been hit in the chest. I remember being really concerned that I had been shot there, more so than being hit in the arm and my hand. I remember there was an awful lot of blood; it seemed to be everywhere.

"I don't remember who was the first person round to the storeroom, because there were a lot of people running around. But I remember Linda Stewart, a nursery nurse, helping us and telling us help would soon be with us. I remember asking her to get paper towels for the children, so they could press them on their wounds to try and stop the bleeding and, rather oddly, also asking her to check that the ambulances would have easy access to the gym. "

As Eileen lay there, not knowing whether she would live or die, she thought of her family: her husband Tony and children Anthony, Andrew, Jennifer and Jack.

"When Linda came over to me, I said to her, 'I've been shot in the chest.I don't know if I'm going to make it.' I remember giving her a farewell message for my family to tell them I loved them. But she was wonderful. She just looked at me and said, 'Don't worry. Tell them yourself.'

"It was a strange phenomenon, lying there. At times I seemed to be quite coherent, talking to Mary and the children who were beside us. At other times I can remember just calling out for help. By this time there was a lot of staff around. They were all trying to assist those who could be helped in any way they could."

Eileen says she will always remember the vision of headmaster Ron Taylor and assistant head Stuart McCombit coming into the storeroom.

"The expression on their faces summed up the horror of what they were looking at, and as Mary and I were obviously unaware of what they could see, it made us feel very frightened.

"Someone had forced open the storeroom doors to let the ambulances get at us, and I remember feeling very, very cold all of a sudden. I just started to shake uncontrollably, all over. Someone covered us with football strips,but they were only made of nylon, which didn't seem to help much.

"I kept shutting my eyes, trying to retain inner strength and energy because I didn't want to pass out. Mary and I were asking each other if we were all right. We were both bleeding a lot.

"The pain was beginning to hit me, and I was obviously in shock as my whole body was shaking out of control.

"Paramedics started to arrive. One came round to me and ripped off my T-shirt and began examining my chest wound. I was still freezing. I was just shaking and begging for help.

"Then doctors arrived. Two of them started to attend to Mary, and two to me. In all the chaos it was reassuring to recognise the familiar faces of two local doctors trying to put a drip into me. I have clear memories of Dr Herbert holding the saline bag as Dr Wright tried to put a line into my arm, with me tugging at his tie asking for help. My breathing was very shallow and I kept shutting my eyes to try to keep calm, but was conscious that someone was trying to nip me to tell me to keep them open. I was only shutting my eyes to try to retain some inner energy, to try to be aware of my heartbeat, to concentrate on keeping it going. All the time I was trying desperately hard to control the shaking of my body. I felt very close to death.

"I had put my left hand over my right arm. There was a horrible, horrible big hole there. I tried to stop the blood, but when I took my hand off it poured out like a fountain. I then remember looking at my hand. All I could see was a hole right through the knuckle of my ring finger. That was scary.

"The paramedics very carefully put Mary on to a stretcher, because she'd been shot in the back of the neck. They put a neck support on her to keep her head still, and it took some time for them to manoeuvre that on. They began moving the children from beside our feet, to get access for the stretchers, which was tricky because it was a very narrow area with lots of equipment lying around. They eventually got a stretcher underneath Mary,and they covered her and put her into the ambulance. After she was inside they got me into an ambulance."

Amid the mayhem. Eileen remembers her trip to hospital with amazing clarity. "Some of my senses seemed to have been heightened during the shooting, and my sense of smell and hearing seemed incredibly strong. I remember hearing really clearly all the chaos that was going on, the talking and the shouting, the voices of the paramedics. It was all so incredibly noisy.

"I remember the ambulance man on the way to the hospital taking my mask off my face and slapping me. He kept slapping me. I could smell his fingers. They smelled strong. I could smell cigarettes from his fingers. The nicotine smell seemed overpowering. He kept slapping my face, and I kept on smelling his hand every time he did it. I thought I was going to be sick. I felt too nauseous, but I couldn't get the words out to tell him.I remember thinking, 'Don't hit me. I've just been shot.'

"I began to feel a bit warmer. I was shaking less. I'd been cold, so, so cold. I could hear the ambulance's sirens, and I remember thinking, 'It's not me. The sirens are not for me. It can't be me.' When I see ambulances in the street I've always thought, 'Oh, that poor person. Oh God, I hope they're all right.' But this time it was me lying there.

"When we got to the hospital, everything was amazingly efficient. They rushed us out of the ambulance into a room, and we were immediately surrounded by doctors. I lost Mary at that point. She seemed to be taken to another room. They started to take off my shoes, and they cut all my clothes off, and they examined me very quickly. Then a doctor came to my side and whispered, 'Your injuries are not life-threatening. You are going to live.'

"I had an amazing surging of relief. I can't explain the relief. The pendulum swung from not being sure if I was going to live to being told I was going to be all right, and I was so thankful to be alive.

"I said to the doctor, 'What about my chest wound?' and he explained that the bullet hadn't damaged any vital organs and that everything was going to be okay. I asked if I would lose my arm and he said they would do everything they could to save it. I just said, 'So be it.' The possibility of losing an arm didn't seem like a big sacrifice. I was just so thankful.

"Then I was taken upstairs to another room. There were lots of nurses and doctors with me all the time. They were all marvellous. They started asking me questions about the type of gun which he used, which I thought was strange at first, but they were asking me to help them so that they could treat the wounds of the injured children. I began describing the gun, telling them about the magazine underneath, anything I could remember. I really wanted to help.

"But I felt I needed some answers too before they put me under the anaestheti c. I asked them how many were dead, and they gave me a rough idea how many children had been killed. I asked if Gwen was dead, and they told me she was. It may sound callous and cold to some people, but I really needed to know before they anaesthetised me. I needed to know.

"I was aware there were children in the medical bays near me. We were all waiting for the surgeons getting ready to operate. A doctor sat at my head the entire time. He asked me for phone numbers, so Tony could be contacted."

When Eileen came out of surgery, her husband was waiting for her. "I don't remember this, but Tony told me later, that as soon as I opened my eyes I shouted, 'Did they get the bastard?' He just replied 'Yes', and I said 'Good' and then drifted back to sleep.

"I remember coming round to find both my arms were up in slings. My arms were covered in wire work and what looked like steel poles Because all this equipment was on my arms, they had to put my drips in my feet. I remember feeling like a dressed chicken.

"Tony came back to the hospital, and I can remember being annoyed that he brought all of the children with him as I felt that the two youngest wouldn't like seeing me so soon after the shooting. Tony, however, felt that it was important for the whole family, although Jennifer and Jack did get upset and had to sit with the policeman outside the room for most of the visit.

"I'll never forget that first night, because I was so wide awake. The nurse sat with me, and I just broke my heart the whole night. I couldn't sleep. I was just so upset and I couldn't stop crying.'

Eileen underwent a number of major operations on her right arm over the next week, and initially only close family were allowed to visit her.

"I had no concept of the enormity of the whole thing. For some reason I just thought of this as something which had happened in Dunblane. I hadn't grasped the fact that this was having an impact worldwide.

"I was in this little room, and I didn't even know the man sitting outside was a policeman. I hadn't seen the newspapers, I hadn't listened to the radio, and I had no idea for that entire week of what was happening in the outside world. I was aware there was a memorial service on the

Sunday morning and that it was on Mother's Day. I knew the funerals were going to start the next week and on which day each child's funeral was, because Tony was making arrangements to go to some of them.

"I was aware of what an impact the whole tragedy had on Dunblane and the local community because I was overwhelmed with cards and flowers. Then I began to get flowers and cards from abroad, and I think it was then that I began to realise the full impact. I got flowers from people all over the world, from places like India and Australia. From people I didn't even know. It was a real comfort."

Dunblane: Our Year of Tears by Peter Samson and Alan Crow is published by Mainstream Publishing, #163;12.99, on March 13, 1997. It is available through W H Smith, John Menzies, Waterstones, Dillons and all good bookshops. All royalties and profits will go to Save the Children.

Dunblane: Our Year of Tears was written in remembrance of

Victoria Clydesdale, aged 5

Emma Crozier, aged 5

Melissa Currie, aged 5

Charlotte Dunn, aged 5

Kevin Hasell, aged 5

Ross Irvine, aged 5

David Kerr, aged 5

Mhairi McBeath, aged 5

Brett McKinnon, aged 6

Abigail McLennan, aged 5

Emily Morton, aged 5

Sophie North, aged 5

John Petrie, aged 5

Joanna Ross, aged 5

Hannah Scott, aged 5

Megan Turner, aged 5

Gwen Mayor, aged 45

AND in honour of those children and staff who were injured

Annie Adam, aged 5

Coll Austin, aged 6

Matthew Birnie, aged 5

Robert Hirst, aged 5

Amy Hutchison, aged 5

Ryan Liddell, aged 5

Mark Mullan, aged 5

Andrew O'Donnell, aged 5

Victoria Porteous, aged 5

Robert Purves, aged 5

Benjamin Vallance, aged 5

Stewart Weir, aged 6

Mary Blake

Eileen Harrild

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today