We can easily imagine the little girl’s mounting sense of excitement as the ferry chugged towards the Isle of Bute that beautiful summer’s afternoon.
Soon, this starkly beautiful place would become her adventure playground again. She would scour the rock pools for crabs, make sandcastles and paddle in the glistening Firth of Clyde.
Shortly after disembarking the boat with her grandmother, Alesha had changed into her highland dancing uniform – white blouse, waistcoat, kilt and matching tartan socks – and dashed off to take part in a class.
Stark beauty: The Isle of Bute - located in the lower Firth of Clyde - has changed little in decades
Alesha MacPhail was found naked lying face down in woodland near an abandoned hotel
During her frequent visits to the island, the girl from ‘across the water’ had come to love this traditional pastime and with her ‘petite, springy, wee frame’, as the parent of one of Alesha’s dance school pals put it, she was already showing great potential.
This isn’t to say that six-year-old Alesha was unhappy with the very different life she led on the mainland.
She adored her devoted mother, Genie Lochrane, of course, and though they lived in on a grim estate in Airdrie, 12 miles east of Glasgow, neighbours there remember a zestful child with an impish giggle.
Her horizons, however, were limited. Being too risky to play in the streets, outdoor games were confined to the fenced-off patch of scrubby grass that surrounding the high-rise block where she lived.
On Bute, a wildly scenic, 47sq mile idyll home to only 6,500 people, where she stayed on alternate weekends and during school holidays with her father Rab, she would be far removed from danger. Or at least, that is what her mother believed.
‘I thought that if Alesha was safe anywhere these days, it was on that island, miles from anywhere,’ Miss Lochrane, 23, told me plaintively.
‘But it seems to me now that nowhere in the world is safe any more.’ Choosing her words with commendable restraint, she added: ‘I didn’t know much about Bute, or the people who live there, but after all that I’ve heard [at the murder trial] I certainly wouldn’t want to live somewhere like that.’
So the sense of calm she felt, as she waved her daughter off for a three-week stay last summer was understandable.
Before Alesha was defiled and murdered, Bute was considered a benign place where the cliche about being able to leave one’s door unlocked at night was indeed true.
The main town of Rothesay looks little different from the twee resort that attracted boatloads of Glaswegian shipyard and factory workers before the arrival of cheap foreign package holidays.
Alesha's mother, Georgina Lochranem leaves Glasgow High Court following the guilty verdict delivered today
It still has its traditional guesthouses, cafes and ice-cream parlours, several of which bear the name Zavaroni, belonging to relatives of Seventies child star Lena Zavaroni, who was raised here.
Fraser Gillies, a retired magistrate who runs a men’s outfitters in Rothesay, tells me there was so little crime that the local court closed for lack of use.
And yet less than a year ago, a teenage boy from this same community committed ‘some of the most wicked and evil crimes this court has ever heard of in decades of dealing with depravity’, according to Judge Lord Matthews yesterday.
One mother whose son went to school with the murderer told me she was worryingly aware that Bute had lost its innocence, long before the shockingly lurid picture of island life that unfolded during trial.
Toni Louise McLachlan - the girlfriend of Alesha's father - with the six-year-old girl
She wasn’t surprised when it emerged during the trail that Alesha’s father was watching porn on the night she was abducted, and that he sold cannabis to her killer, whose circle of friends routinely used drugs and cheap booze and swapped sick jokes on Snapchat. ‘You won’t see weed being smoked in the town centre because the kids know where the CCTV cameras are. But they find somewhere to do it. It’s everywhere now,’ said the mother, adding sourly: ‘But at least they’re not drinking themselves stupid like their parents.’
Alesha’s murderer was born on the mainland but when he reached school age his mother, who has family connections on the island, brought him to live there because – ironically – she thought it would provide him with a secure upbringing.
‘I wanted him to grow up in a safe place, a peaceful environment, and get a good education,’ she told me at the family home, a solid Victorian house with panoramic views of the Firth and extensive gardens where the killer and his pals would drink and smoke cannabis.
Alesha (left) with Mr MacPhail (centre) and his girlfriend Toni Louise McLachlan (shown right)
‘They said in court that he was depressed but I never saw any signs of depression. He would get down now and again but he was doing well. He had passed some exams and he was doing an engineering course one day a week. He was good at maths, and planned to go to university.
‘He wasn’t a violent boy. He was very normal. Yes, he smoked cannabis, but it’s rife among kids on this island.
‘I knew he was buying it from Rab [Alesha’s father] and Toni [Rab’s girlfriend], but what could I do? If I went to the police my son would be in trouble.
‘I just hoped he’d grow out of it. Anyway, it wasn’t every weekend. It was only occasionally.’
Nothing about his demeanour during the trial marked him out as a sadistic killer.
He is handsome, in a modern, metrosexual way, with luxuriant, swept-over hair and a milky complexion. Dressed immaculately, in a tartan suit and collar and tie, he gave evidence with great self-assurance.
He appears to have been a popular, charismatic figure among his peer group and there was no shortage of girlfriends.
Indeed, for a year he dated one of the most eye-catching girls at his school.
However, there was another side to this plausible young man that first emerged when he was a boy of six or seven, I was told.
While swimming with another a little girl at the leisure centre, he held her head under the water so long that she feared she would drown. According to a neighbour, he developed into a local nuisance and had been caught trying to set fire to buildings.
More recently he is said to have sexually abused a teenage girl and shown compromising mobile phone pictures of her to his friends. None of these stories can be corroborated, but they are doing the rounds on Bute.
Alesha's grandparents Angela King and Calum MacPhail arrive at Glasgow High Court today
If they are true, there are shades of the young Ian Brady here, we might think.
What we do know is that Alesha’s 16-year-old killer spent much of his time drinking heavily, getting stoned, body-building (despite his slender frame he could bench-press 50lb) and using social media in a pathetic attempt to impress his friends.
He was also an adrenaline junkie who got his kicks by jumping into the sea from great heights.
It was a narcissistic and nihilistic existence, and it can’t have been helped by his mother’s alleged drinking problem, which was revealed in court, nor by the absence of his father, an oil rig supervisor who works overseas.
We will never know what impelled him to steal little Alesha from her bed on that hot summer’s night, and carry her into the woods.
Doubtless Alesha’s father will torment himself with the possibility that it was a twisted act of vengeance against him, because he had earlier refused to sell the teenager cannabis.
Yet no one I spoke to holds him in any way responsible. This was an act of unmitigated evil that has left a community in torment.
Today, on the main coast road near the spot where Alesha’s body was found, fairy lights twinkle around a colourful display of windmills, flowers and cuddly toys – a shrine for an innocent little girl whose savage murder proves, as her mother says, that nowhere is safe any more.