Commentary

Murray helping lift pall over hometown

Updated: June 28, 2009, 4:34 PM ET
By Kory Kozak | Special to ESPN.com

Clouds.

Thickly layered and high above the rolling Scottish hillsides, moving ever so quickly. They allow occasional rays of sunlight to sneak through. More often than not, they leak drops of rain onto the fields of green.

For 13 years, clouds have covered the city of Dunblane.

Andy Murray knows why, but he won't speak if it. He just knows what he has to do to make the clouds go away.

Win.

Win and Dunblane becomes the hometown of tennis champion Andy Murray -- not the place of sadness that it is known to be.

At first glance, Dunblane is a living, breathing postcard of what Americans seem to think Europe is all about: a quaint village that hasn't changed in hundreds of years. It has a picturesque cathedral that seems almost out of place in this small town. By definition, the cathedral makes Dunblane a city despite its size.

The shops and pubs that rest on High Street give the impression that all is well. That is, until you mention March 13, 1996.

Things grow quiet quickly. Smiles change to frowns. Hospitality turns to near-hostility. As Reverend Alex Mitchell of St. Blane's Church succinctly puts it, "Evil visited Dunblane that day."

"It's a general thing around the town. We don't speak a lot about the day," said Irene Flaws, the town florist and Sunday school teacher. "We've lived with it."

And they never will forget it.

It was a typical March day, cold and dark. The Scots use the word "dreich" to describe these sorts of conditions. White flowers, called snowdrops, provided some hope that spring was on its way.

It was 9:30 a.m. and class was about to begin at Dunblane Primary School. It seemed a typical day. Physical education teacher Eileen Harrild was just starting activities with her youngest students. Her class of 32 5- and 6-year-old children were excited to start their day by playing. Gym class had begun.

And then a man named Thomas Hamilton changed everything forever.

"Literally, within a couple minutes of the warm-up," Harrild said, "he had to come in, and I was the first one that he focused his shooting on."

Hamilton, a disgruntled former Scout leader, opened fire.

"It actually is a feeling of huge disbelief, because although you can see what's happened and what is happening, your mind can't take it in," Harrild said.

Hamilton kept firing. The children tried to run, but there was nowhere to hide. Hamilton shot Harrild four times. She was still alive. He kept firing.

"I felt I had to remain conscious long enough to know what had happened and how many were alive and how many were dead," Harrild said.

The last of Hamilton's shots, the 109th bullet fired, was into his own mouth. But he didn't take his own life until he had taken those of 16 kindergarten-aged children and one teacher.

And the clouds haven't lifted since.

Andy Murray was on his way to the gym with the rest of his class of 8-year-olds when they were taken to a safer location. He and his classmates had no idea of the "evil" that had visited Dunblane that day. But they soon would.

Murray's mother, Judy, heard there was trouble at the school. Like every other mother and father in Dunblane, she raced to the school to make sure her child was safe.

Like all the other parents, she had to wait.

"Absolutely horrendous. The worst. The worst thing you could ever imagine having to go through in your life," said Judy, a lifelong resident of Dunblane. "Sitting, waiting and not knowing if your child is alive or dead -- you can't imagine what that was like. It was quite horrific."

She waited four, maybe five hours. Andy was OK. Dunblane was not.

Nobody had ever heard of Dunblane -- hardly anyone outside of Scotland anyway. 'Tis known as the place where young children die.

-- Father Basil O'Sullivan of the Holy Family Church in Dunblane

"Dunblane lived in black for about 10 days, completely," said Flaws, who supplied the floral arrangements for all the funerals. "Everybody you saw was either going to a funeral or coming from a funeral."

In the days that followed, 13 of the children and teacher Gwen Mayor were laid to rest on a hill, one next to the other. The setting resembles a classroom, with the teacher at the head of the class. The graves of the children are adorned with fresh flowers and stuffed animals. There are cartoons and figures of superheroes on some of the tombstones. The sounds of windmills and a fountain can be heard at the site. Some say it's the children playing.

The people of Dunblane will not forget them. They tell the story of the children on stained-glass windows at the Holy Family Church. They tell it using doves and flowers and light. But they don't speak of that day.

"Andy hardly mentioned it," said Shirley Erskine, Murray's grandmother. "He really didn't speak about it."

Sadly for Dunblane, it was all the world knew about the town to speak of.

"Nobody had ever heard of Dunblane -- hardly anyone outside of Scotland anyway," said Father Basil O'Sullivan of the Holy Family Church in Dunblane. "'Tis known as the place where young children die."

While on holiday, residents stopped saying they were from Dunblane for fear of the ensuing conversation. They needed to escape the clouds. Many simply said they were from "central Scotland" or "just outside Stirling." The clouds were too heavy.

But after the tragedy, the children needed to play. Andy Murray needed to play. His mother said the family "just tried to keep everything as normal" as they could. So Andy played tennis. She asked Andy's uncle, Niael Erskine, to hit with Andy.

"After about 10 minutes, he said, 'Enbo' -- which is what he calls me -- 'you're rubbish,'" Erskine said. "I said, 'Yeah, you make me feel rubbish,' because he was hitting the ball with much more consistency than I was able to."

Uncle Niael didn't play with Andy anymore after that. Andy was getting better.

He won the under-14 national championship in 1999 and then the U.S. Open juniors in 2004. Andy's tennis provided his hometown with a bit of unexpected civic pride. For Dunblane, some light was beginning to peek through the clouds.

"I think, deep within him, that he did want to do something to put Dunblane on the map for the right reasons, rather than the wrong reasons," said Shirley, Andy's grandmother.

With each tournament, Andy was getting closer to his goal. The United Kingdom might have had someone to rally around in Murray, but he belonged to Dunblane.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
AP Photo/Anja NiedringhausAndy Murray's success hasn't healed all of Dunblane's wounds, but it has given townspeople something positive to rally around.

Last year at Wimbledon, he made the quarterfinals. It's not enough that a Brit hasn't won the home-turf tournament since 1936 and that Murray might be its best hope yet to change those fortunes. Andy carries the hopes of a small city that needs him far more than his country does.

"He plays his heart out for Great Britain, for Scotland, for Dunblane," said Katharine Brown, the current Miss Scotland and a classmate of Murray's at Dunblane Primary.

The pubs were packed as Murray made his dramatic run at the All England Club a year ago, charging to his first Grand Slam quarterfinals. But more fittingly, the place that was erected in memory of the children of the 1996 massacre, the Dunblane Centre, hosted a party to watch Murray play. Young and old came out to watch, to cheer and to hope.

Murray lost to Rafael Nadal in straight sets that day. But again it was his tennis that helped Dunblane to see more light. And there is even greater hope for Murray at this year's Wimbledon.

"Ohh! The day he wins Wimbledon, this place will go mad," said Nancy McLaren, whose granddaughter was one of the victims of the 1996 tragedy. "Wimbledon is special. So Andy and Wimbledon go together. And he's got to win it. He's got to win it. And he will."

Murray went on to make the final at the U.S. Open last year, losing to Roger Federer in straight sets. A win would have been glorious, but finally there was something in Dunblane to talk about other than 1996; someone to believe in.

The clouds remain thick, but there's something else that, if you look closely, can be detected: the faintest of silver linings.

"Fairly early on after the tragedy, they didn't want to talk about Dunblane, but it is quite different now," said Roy Erskine, Murray's grandfather. "It is quite different. Dunblane is Andy Murray. Simple as that."

Kory Kozak is a producer for ESPN. Tom Rinaldi also contributed to this story.

Kory Kozak is a producer for ESPN.