GOVERNORS at Dunblane primary school expressed “great distress” to the UK Government over suggestions that it was about to renege on a promise to pay for the demolition and rebuilding of the school gymnasium, which was the scene of Britain’s worst mass shooting.

On March 13 1996 Thomas Hamilton, a former scout master, walked into the school gym and killed 16 young children and their teacher. He also injured 13 other children and three teachers. Hamilton, 43, then shot himself.

Confidential Government documents under a delayed release process from that year show just how deeply sensitive and emotional the aftermath of the tragedy was not only in the local community but also across the entire country, including in the corridors of power.

Two weeks after the terrible event, Gerry McDermott, spokesman for the Dunblane Primary School board, wrote a letter to John Major, the then Prime Minister, relating the “great distress” in the community at reports that his promise – that the Government would fund the demolition and rebuilding of the school gym – would not be honoured and, instead, it would be paid for from public donations.

“Such an apparent change of heart and broken promise is a cause of great distress in Dunblane,” declared Mr McDermott.

Seeking clarification, the parent-governor said if the reports were correct, then he would “like to put on record my extreme disappointment at the manner on which this bereaved community has been manipulated, maximising media opportunity yet failing to deliver a widely reported promise of assistance”.

But there was consternation in Whitehall as Government ministers sought to make clear they had no intention whatsoever of breaking their promise to demolish and rebuild the school gym.

Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary at the time, swiftly wrote a reply to Mr McDermott, stressing how the Government was standing by its commitment and saying he could not understand where the reports that it would not do so had come from.

In a letter to Graeme Young, the local Director of Education, the Secretary of State said he was most concerned to hear the suggestion that he had “in some way reneged” on the Government’s undertaking.

He explained: “While I can understand that emotions are still running high in Dunblane, I do find it rather odd the School Board should choose to write direct to the Prime Minister on this issue without referring it to you first.

“I should be very grateful if you could quickly take hold of this issue and ensure the School Board understands the Government position, which remains we are committed to funding the demolition of the gym and its replacement.”

The papers, marked confidential, run through how Government responded to the tragedy and how mindful ministers and their opposite numbers were to react to it sensitively.

Mr Major, returning from a trip to Egypt, visited Dunblane two days after the shooting. One note explained how a subsequent visit by the Queen and the Princess Royal had to be watched carefully because of the “danger” it might clash with funerals.

In the Commons, Mr Forsyth gave a statement on what he described was an “unspeakable deed” and “vile crime”. Expressing the deepest sympathy of the whole House, he said: “The cold-blooded slaughter of tiny children is beyond atrocity.”

The secret files showed how expressions of sympathy flooded in from world leaders, including Jacques Chirac, the President of France, Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa, and Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia.

A ministerial group co-ordinating the Government’s response was set up and met every day looking at issues from gun legislation, a firearm amnesty and school security to video nasties and the control of youth workers.

In a note to the PM, Mr Forsyth thanked him for his visit to Dunblane and the sympathy and support he had shown for the local community. “There are impossibly difficult days ahead for the bereaved and injured, their families and friends,” wrote the Scottish Secretary.

In the margin, he added: “Please pass on our thanks to Norma[the PM’s wife], who was marvellous. It cannot have been easy for her.”

In the wake of such a tragic loss of life, the issue of gun control dominated the national debate and the media.

Eight days after the shooting, Government ministers met with Opposition politicians and told them a firearms amnesty would be announced. It saw nearly 23,000 firearms and 700,000 rounds of ammunition surrendered.

More than a month after the tragedy Mr Major met the bereaved and families of the injured in No 10. They were due to hand in a 700,000-strong petition calling for a ban on handguns.

One suggested line for the PM to take read: “Nothing will blot out the horror of what happened at Dunblane and I am determined to ensure we get it right.”

Eminent judge, Lord Cullen, who, six years earlier had conducted the inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, was appointed to chair the official probe.

But a dispute developed within Government over its response to the judicial report and when to publish its recommendations.

On one side was Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who proposed not banning handguns but, rather, confining all privately-held ones to club premises.

On the other, Mr Forsyth favoured “going further and banning high-calibre handguns, although permitting .22 handguns to be kept on club premises”.

On the timing of publication, Mr Howard suggested a “quick and decisive response” from the Government, warning that any delay after Lord Cullen had reported could run a “significant risk of leaks”. One memo noted: “Delay would be presented by the media as indecision on our part.”

But Mr Forsyth felt strongly the Government should give a “considered response” to the Cullen recommendations. He was also concerned that early publication would be “seen as a device to spoil the Labour Party conference,” which had already been raised with him by his Labour opposite number George Robertson, who lived in Dunblane.

In the end, publication of the Cullen Report was delayed until MPs returned from their summer recess in October and it recommended a ban on all handguns except for .22-calibre target pistols, which the Government accepted and legislated for.