By Russell Findlay
Primary school friends of murdered Margaret Fleming have paid emotional tributes and launched a campaign to create a memorial in her name.
Ms Fleming was 19 when she was murdered by her ‘carers’ Eddie Cairney and Avril Jones but 17 years passed before the authorities realised she was missing and her body has not been found.
Cairney and Jones will be sentenced next month after being found guilty of murder – but Ms Fleming’s old friends want people to learn about their happy, kind and loving friend.
A group of former classmates at now demolished Slaemuir Primary School are behind an online fundraising campaign with plans to build a memorial garden.
They remember how children and teachers at the school in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, were protective of Ms Fleming, who had additional support needs.
Ex-classmate Lynn Foreman said: “She was just a lovely, kind, generous person – with a really soft nature, really caring.
“We always knew she had different support needs than ourselves and we all looked out for her.
“She didn’t have a bad bone. She wouldn’t do anybody any harm.
“When it was in the press and we discovered the tragedy that had happened to her, there was that much about that but we knew she had a lovely childhood and nice memories of school so we wanted to tell everybody about that and remember her the way we remember her from when she was younger.
“We thought if we fundraised and we get something nice that people could maybe think of her.
“She did have a happy childhood, she had great friends, she had a loving family. Teachers were always really thoughtful of her so we really want to reflect on that nice time in her life.”
Gillian McCulloch, who came up with the fundraising campaign, also has fond memories.
She said: “Everybody had a real soft spot for her and we all sort of looked out for her and tried to include her in things we were doing. She was just a lovely, lovely lassie.
“She was always a wee happy soul in school. She loved her music, she loved when it was music lesson time and when the piano started getting playing she always got all excited.”
When the friends left school and went their separate ways in life, in an era of no mobile phones or social media, Ms Fleming dropped off their radar.
Gillian added: “You looked for people you were in school with you searched their names online, you went through their friends and added people and it was most of our primary school were all on and high school as well and you could all contact each other.
“We were putting on school pictures and a couple of times when a picture had been posted people had said ‘oh, where’s Margaret?’ because she was the only one that a lot of us didn’t have any contact with.”
Following the death of her father in 1995, Ms Fleming went to live with Cairney and Jones at their Seacroft home in Inverclyde. But in October 2016 a query over Ms Fleming social security payments led to a police missing person enquiry which soon turned into a murder investigation.
Detectives found there had not been a single independent sighting of her since 1999 and that the couple had claimed £182,000 of Ms Fleming’s benefits.
Cairney and Jones spun a tissue of lies – claiming Ms Fleming was alive, a drug dealer and agricultural gangmaster – which were used to prosecute them at the High Court in Glasgow.
The news of the murder hit the friends hard, even causing some to feel they could have done more to keep in touch or ask what had become of her.
Gillian added: “We all feel a sense of guilt and I know it’s quite an irrational sense of guilt because we couldn’t have done anything but it’s, when you have over the years looked for her online, and then they’re thinking maybe if we had spoke to somebody or aired our concerns a bit sooner that she wasn’t anywhere then maybe they would’ve found DNA because less time would’ve passed if you know what I mean?
“Obviously what happened we couldn’t have stopped happening because nobody knew what was going on in her life but they might have been caught sooner and any DNA evidence might’ve still been there.
“She had this lovely start to her life and she had good friends around her, she had all of us. The way it was being made out in the media was that she had this horrible, dark life.
“Nobody noticed she was gone, nobody missed her and we all did and we all have and just thought it would be nice for there to be some sort of memorial somewhere that lets her name live even though they took away what she had.”
Jon Cox took Ms Fleming to the P7 school dance – and they were dropped off by her dad Derek Fleming in his old army Jeep.
He said: “Over the years I looked for her on websites such as Friends Reunited and Bebo – I searched them but obviously we now know that she was not on any of them.
“I was hopeful and thought that maybe she had got married and changed her name, you expect the best, not the worst. You certainly don’t imagine she would have come to harm.
“In 2016 when the police began their investigation, an aunt of mine sent me an STV News story saying she was missing.
“Margaret was an overly trusting person – she had low level additional support needs and was smiley, kind and polite. She was shy and timid until you engaged with her and she was really outgoing and lovely.
“Given her nature, it would have been very easy for her to be manipulated by those two – but we want to have and share positive memories about her rather than tragic nature of her death.”
One former teacher who has donated to the appeal has suggested using purple and white flowers, Slaemuir’s colours, in the memorial garden.