In the burning summer heat the ferry from Wemyss Bay, Inverclyde, to the island of Bute heaves with tourists. Older visitors in comfortable shoes and children with backpacks lean over the railings watching the water as the boat pulls out. Sitting on the deck are four young policemen, their faces impassive, holding their hats and looking solemnly out at the waves.
Locals travelling home speak in hushed tones about the events that are unfolding. “You put them to bed and you think they’re safe,” one woman says to her friend. “Imagine waking up one morning, coming down the stairs and she’s gone.”
Last Monday at 6.25am six-year-old Alesha MacPhail was reported missing from her grandparents’ home on Bute. Less than three hours later her body was found nearby in the overgrown woodland of a former hotel. On Tuesday the police launched a murder investigation. By Wednesday an arrest had been made. In that short time this peaceful island had changed for ever.
Bute lies in an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. It is not a remote island (Glasgow is barely 90 minutes away), but the waves washing the ferry across the Firth of Clyde seem to carry it to another world. To a world that is not wealthy but is rich in natural beauty and the warmth of a 6,500-strong community.
On the seafront in the town of Rothesay, where the ferry docks, stone cottages breathe the sweet-salty smell of the sea. Behind them dense woodland becomes majestic hills, which turn blue as the sun fades.
During the day seagulls, their bellies fat with chips, skim the water in the bay and perch on mossy rocks. In the evening the water glows silvery gold.
Bute was once a thriving destination. It still attracts tourists in the summer months. They head to the seaside at Rothesay, with its amusement arcade and bucket-and-spade shops. But it is also a place of tranquil pleasures: a moated castle, a putting lawn on the front, prettily planted flower gardens.
The town feels old-fashioned in a friendly, genteel way. Shops with hand-painted signs are named after locals: Jess May’s florist, Liz’s cupcake heaven, Elle’s hair and beauty salon. “Everybody knows each other,” one woman says. Doors are left unlocked.
“My mum wouldn’t even know where her keys are,” she grins.
Alesha lived with her mother, Georgina Lochrane, 23, in Airdrie, north Lanarkshire, but often came to the island on her school holidays. She stayed with her father, Robert MacPhail, 25, who is separated from Georgina and lives in his parents’ seafront house on Ardbeg Road, north of Rothesay.
Alesha was known by locals and often played with their children. “I saw her on the bus,” one woman told me. “I remember — she had such blonde hair.”
This summer Alesha had come for a three-week stay. One parent, whose daughter was to have a playdate with her on Thursday, described how her grandparents had recently created a bedroom for the little girl on the top floor.
It says something of the island’s close-knit community that when Angela King, 46, and Calum MacPhail, 49, discovered their granddaughter was not in her bed, they first turned to friends.
On Monday at 6.43am King posted on Facebook: “Alesha has gone missing from our house please help look for her.” Worried neighbours shared the post, offering support and help in looking for her, or suggesting where she might be.
That morning, in the Bonnie Clyde cafe in Rothesay, Raymond Yost heard helicopters whirring overhead. He assumed they were taking somebody to hospital on the mainland — their usual job.
At about 9am one of his customers received a text message to say “a wee lassie” was missing. Yost immediately logged on to Facebook to see if he knew who it was. “We’re all one big family here,” he said. “Most of us grew up together, we went to school together, then we came back.” That’s when he saw Angela’s post.
It was amid this social media activity that it seems Georgina learnt her daughter had disappeared — and later discovered that she had died. In a series of increasingly desperate posts, she wrote, “Someone tell me what’s happened that’s my daughter”, and, “Angela answer me now”.
Alesha MacPhail‘s body was found on the Isle of Bute last week
Alesha MacPhail‘s body was found on the Isle of Bute last week
By Tuesday bouquets were piling up outside the house from which Alesha had vanished. Flowers with cards reading “Sleep tight beautiful girl” and “You’re with the angels now” lined the whitewashed garden wall facing the sea, along with fluffy toys and purple balloons floating in the breeze.
Georgina travelled to the island, escorted by police, and visited the memorial. Bending down to read the messages, she sobbed. Beside her, police vans guarded the house.
As police launched a murder investigation, they warned the islanders to secure their homes, to “be vigilant and look after each other”.
One mother spoke about how she had moved her three children here from Glasgow nine months ago because it felt so safe. “We could let our children run free outside. Now we won’t let them out of our sight,” she said.
“My kids used to play in the woods where they found her [Alesha]. The thing that’s so wonderful about it here — the fact you can be all alone — now that’s what’s so terrifying.”
In the bookshop in Rothesay, Alesha’s death was being reported on the local radio news bulletins. In the post office her photograph was on the front page of all the newspapers. Many locals, unsure about speaking to the media, asked not to be named. But when they came together, the case was the only thing they were discussing.
In the pubs and cafes and on the seafront, groups gathered, sharing their grief. “The whole island is in shock,” said one local woman in the pub. “Nothing like this has ever happened before here. It doesn’t feel real.”
It is an island with little serious crime: it is rare for residents even to see police officers on Bute, one resident, Janet Vernal, told me. Now officers were drafted from the Argyll & Bute and West Dunbartonshire division, driving round roads in marked and unmarked vehicles, dotting the coast in their yellow jackets, conducting 24-hour high-visibility patrols.
At times the contrast between the tranquil island and the police activity was so jarring that it felt surreal. Blue-and-white police cordons fluttered across leafy lanes, running between stone walls and ivy hedges. Police vans rolled heavily along the seaside lanes while officers in black uniforms combed the beach near rocks where seals lazed, overturning sun-bleached rowing boats. At night the still, quiet bay was pierced by the shriek of sirens and flashing of blue lights.
Stranger than the police presence was the eerie silence. Last Wednesday night the streets were empty. Residents peered out from behind windows. Although the summer holidays had started, the beach and children’s park were empty.
“It’s a lot quieter than it usually is,” one resident told me. “A lot of the children are being kept in.”
One local claimed his children were so terrified that they would not sleep in their own beds.
“Everyone is so shocked. No one can believe something like this has happened here,” said another resident, Elizabeth Taylor.
“It will change it for a while,” Vernal agreed. “Especially for parents with children. They’ll feel it longer and be scared to let their children out.”
Last Thursday a 16-year-old boy was charged in connection with Alesha’s death. It is said that he is known to her family. Police have not released details of how Alesha died.
On Friday the teenager appeared in Greenock sheriff court on the mainland. He was charged with rape and murder. He entered no plea.
Everyone in this small community has their opinion about the tragedy. But nothing will be known until a trial is held.
For now, this once peaceful island and Alesha’s family are left only with questions — and their grief.