Lockerbie wears its scars lightly. Traces of tragedy are to be found only on discreet plaques, stained glass, and the crack in the voice of the local priest as he tells his tale for the umpteenth time. Its history is not hidden, you just need to know where to look.

Today Lockerbie remembers the 20th anniversary of the night when Pan Am flight 103 from London Heathrow to New York's JFK airport blew up and crashed onto the town. It does so as it has handled everything in the years since: low-key.

Even after two decades, however, the maths of the event still brutalise: all 259 passengers and crew died; 11 killed on the ground in Lockerbie, wiping out two local families; the victims hailed from 21 different countries; the explosion at 33,000 feet blew the Boeing 747 into more than 10,000 pieces scattered across 100 square miles; the impact of the wing section hitting Sherwood Crescent registered 1.6 on the Richter scale. It still remains the largest mass murder in UK history.

Yet passing through the town last Friday there are scant signs that the town is preparing itself for the world to take interest once more. A small stage has been erected by the official memorial in Dryfesdale cemetery. Several men wheel a generator through the gravestones of Dryfesdale parish church in preparation for today's memorial service. And that is it. The biggest buzz around town comes from children in uniform - it is last day of school before Christmas. The other big news is that two local curlers have just become European champions.

"The town of Lockerbie came to terms with the disaster very quickly," said Marjory McQueen, a former town councillor. She was watching Sooty creator Harry Corbett being presented with a big red book on This Is Your Life when "the sky turned orange" over nearby Sherwood Crescent.

While the world struggles to see Lockerbie in any other light, the locals have consigned it to history - McQueen admits she has let subsequent events, including the trial of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan who was eventually convicted of the bombing, deliberately go over her head.

"The fact is we have no-one left to fight for," she said. "Of the people who died here, there is only one close relative left in Lockerbie and she just wants to be left alone. I think that's why when the media come they can't understand why there is an apathy in the town. We just don't see it as our fight. I see us as collateral damage."

Father Patrick Keegans lived on Sherwood Crescent in 1988. His house was the solitary structure left standing after the explosion that atomised neighbouring buildings. Five and a half years later, after sharing "an intense sadness" with the victim's relatives, he left Lockerbie (he now lives in Ayr). He didn't want to be defined by the tragedy.

"Lockerbie is a very content community now," he said. "Once it was emotionally and physically back on stable ground it went on from there. The town wasn't interested in the politics of it all. All it was interested in was returning to some sort of normality."

Much has changed in the past 20 years. The traditional industries of forestry and agriculture have waned and a wood-burning electricity plant is now a major employer. A large Tesco sits incongruously behind the narrow, main street lined with Edwardian red sandstone buildings.

Several miles to the east, the area's first wind farm was erected last year on a hillside that was once littered with debris from flight 103.

"It's a very forward-looking place," said Margaret Connell, on whose land 16 turbines now stand. "There are two more wind farms going up soon. There is such demand for them at the moment."

Despite her farm's restless modernity, memories of 1988 are not far below the surface - on that night, two bodies landed close to her back door. "With the weather as it has been recently, memories come flooding back," she said. "Especially at this time of year, and when it is wet, windy, just like that night. It's very much in our minds."

Her family befriended the widow of one of the victims and they remain in contact. Several years ago Connell planted a tree on the spot where the bodies landed. The widow would regularly visit and leave flowers.

If there is one living echo of 20 years ago to be found in Lockerbie, it is in the ties formed between locals and the victims' families. After the disaster, hundreds of relatives descended upon the village, mainly from America - there were 180 US citizens on board the flight. The town opened their homes to the bereaved. Friendships, like Connell's, were formed. And they still continue to come.

IN the hills three miles east of Lockerbie lies the hamlet of Tundergarth. This is where the nose cone of the Boeing 747 came down. Today the only lingering sense of tragedy is a small, neat remembrance room in the local churchyard. In the pages of a visitors book within, the 20 years flatten. The ink is still wet on messages from relatives of the victims. All are written in the present tense. This is not history.

One from a week ago reads: "Alexia, you fell here sheltered by the people of Lockerbie. Our hearts are heavy with loss and we think of you always. Mom and Dad. God made the Scots a wee bit better." The outline of a small hand is on another page. It is from the 16-month-old niece who will never meet her aunt.

Other messages are part of an ongoing, heartbreaking conversation: "I am back again Jo I have seen Jacqui. She came over in August for my party. You would have loved it. Jacqui's boys are growing up now, six and eight. They know who you are and talk about Aunty Jo. God bless. Miss your smiling face so much. Love, mum."

Retired police inspector George Stobbs was one of the first on the scene that night. He was also, for many relatives, the one who took them to the spot where their loved one was discovered. Some would stand for a minute, some for hours. Some would want silence, others wanted Stobbs to talk through the events. Some just hugged him.

"The first year was difficult," he said. "It was ongoing all the time. Some were easy to talk to. Some were angry. There would be days when there would be no-one, and the next you would have three families."

Today he calmly remembers that night, how the ruptured gas pipes under the pavement on Sherwood Crescent ignited "as if they were dancing in the inferno".

He doesn't think of it so much now: "Half an hour ago I was in my shed working and it was nowhere near my mind." But throughout the intervening years relatives keep returning and seeking him out.

"There was one lady who until two years ago would come to the house and have dinner with us. Her daughter was found near the golf course. She returned every year for 18 years. Every year she came I would get a phone call, I'd pick her up, take her to the spot. See you next year George,' she would say as she left."

Two years ago, however, he sent a Christmas card but received no reply. A few months later her daughter got in touch to say she had died.

"Then in July this year I was working outside when a car arrived in the yard. It was someone from Lockerbie with a woman and a boy I didn't recognise. It turned out it was this woman's daughter. Her sister was the one who was killed. That was the first time she had been to Lockerbie."

This is part of what McQueen calls "the second generation of relatives", seeking out where their parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent died and keeping the bond alive.

Another new generation can be found at Lockerbie Academy. The building was used during the weeks after the event as the investigation's headquarters. In 1990, the school set up a scholarship programme with Syracuse University in upstate New York. The university lost 35 students in the disaster. Each year Lockerbie sends two students to study at the $30,000-a-year university free of charge. Nineteen senior pupils left school on Friday clutching application forms for this year's award.

The scholarship took on added significance two years ago, according to the school's rector, Graham Herbert: in 2006, no pupil at school was born when Flight 103 crashed. The village had its first full post-disaster generation. This year Herbert took two remembrance assemblies for the first time.

"It would be irresponsible if we didn't talk about it in school," he said. "Some people in town would rather not talk about it, but we need to educate them the children about what happened in their town, in the same way we need to educate them about world war one and remembrance".

The widening eyes of the 13- and 14-year-olds during the assembly told Herbert this was the first time many had heard of the disaster.

"If they see Lockerbie in the newspaper talking about the disaster they won't associate it with the Lockerbie they buy their chips from," he said. "I struggle with that sometimes too. Ten years ago the community naively thought the tenth anniversary would bring closure and the media wouldn't turn up ever again. But they will be here for the 50th anniversary. It is as synonymous as Aberfan, Dunblane. Lockerbie will just have to wear that mantle with the realisation that it will never go away. It will always be remembered."

There is no doubt that in ten years' time the world will peer in once again to remind itself of what happened here. It is as sure to be part of the town's cycle as pupils from the academy dreaming of going to Syracuse over the Christmas holidays, as sure as the whirr of a Chinook blade giving locals flashbacks to the days after the crash when the sky was full of them, and as sure as a stranger turning up in George Stobbs's yard and his wife making them a cup of tea. These are all part of Lockerbie's legacy. But between these rare moments, when residents unknot the town from its history, Lockerbie will continue to be what it always has been: a home.