Gas blast blamed for fire at impresario's home

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A gas explosion may have caused the fire that razed the Highland holiday home of the impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Yesterday, experts from the Public Forensic Science Laboratory in Dundee and an insurance investigation specialist said all evidence pointed to a gas blast.

A gas explosion may have caused the fire that razed the Highland holiday home of the impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Yesterday, experts from the Public Forensic Science Laboratory in Dundee and an insurance investigation specialist said all evidence pointed to a gas blast.

But a spokesman for Northern Constabulary said: "It is likely to be weeks before a full analysis and report on the probable cause or causes is available. Inquiries will continue."

The cottage, in the inlet of Tarbet, was mysteriously engulfed by flames around midnight last Friday.

Tarbet, on the south shore of Loch Nevis, is remote. Visitors must drive 50 miles along the breathtaking but in parts single-track Road to the Isles from Fort William to Mallaig and the ferry, further west, to Skye. Unreachable by road, Tarbet - no more than three scattered houses - lies a further 15 miles in the opposite direction from the island tourist route, along Loch Nevis. The journey offers unparalleled beauty but can take an hour. On stormy days, Tarbet is cut off.

That isolation, and filthy weather, prevented firemen from saving the wooden cottage, which Sir Cameron, London's king of theatre and laird since 1995 of 13,000 acres, had called his own piece of heaven.

The firemen arrived by lifeboat, braving gales and driving sleet, two hours after the alarm was raised by the housekeeper. When they shone searchlights ashore, all that was left of the house, which Sir Cameron, 53, inherited from his Aunt Anthea, was two charred stone chimneys and ash.

Yesterday, 11 boiler-suited forensic and scene-of-crime officers from the Highland Constabulary, plus experts from the constabularies of Tayside and Grampian, continued sifting the debris. There is widespread suspicion of arson, and police are checking for human remains in case someone broke into the house before it blew up.

"There is certainly evidence of a gas explosion," said Chief Inspector John Gourlay of Fort William police, who is co-ordinating the investigation. "But how that fits into the chain of events we don't know. No presumptions are being made."

In Mallaig, the people are furious at suggestions that the "insular" little community knows who is behind a wider campaign of harassment against Sir Cameron but will not expose one of their own for the sake of an "outsider".

It is a dangerous allegation. All rural Highland communities face a struggle to survive and Mallaig has much for which to thank Sir Cameron.

The theatre impresario, worth an estimated £400m from producing hits including Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, has breathed life back into the community he has been visiting since he was six for holidays with his Aunt Anthea and Uncle James Jarvie, who was a councillor.

As you enter Mallaig, the new community hall, on the left, was partly financed by him, as was the swimming pool and a day-care centre for the elderly. The care centre and pool are separated by a high school that has a scholarship financed by Sir Cameron.

Over a decade, before he bought the huge tract of land around the home and installed a helipad and outdoor Jacuzzi, Sir Cameron ploughed at least £500,000 into Mallaig and has helped to build a new health centre. As Highland landowners go, Sir Cameron has been unusually generous.

"Look, Cameron is a good guy. He does a lot for this place and I can't think of anyone who has a grudge against him," said Michael Currie, the lifeboat's gruff coxswain.

But someone does. In July this year, posters appeared all over town accusing Sir Cameron of being "a cheat and a liar". Printed from a desktop computer, they were stuck to phone boxes, shop windows and bus stops in the Kyles-morar area, six miles east of Mallaig. Around the same time, fencing on Sir Cameron's estate was repeatedly vandalised.

A rowan tree was also reportedly hacked down at his cottage. Such a felling, says Highland folklore, brings bad luck. Later that month, an oil painting of the original house, named Torran Albannaich, (Gaelic for "a little piece of Scotland") was stolen.

Sir Cameron noticed it was missing, but no locks were forced and there was no sign of a break-in. People around said the raider left what they described as "a calling card", signalling a personal hatred.

This has led to speculation that Sir Cameron, who often visits his estate with his long-term partner Michael Le Poer Trench, is being persecuted by a local homophobe, or someone nursing a personal grudge.

"The homophobic theory is just rubbish," says Johnnie McMillan, Sir Cameron's estate manager. "People have known about Cameron's lifestyle for years." The stickers never mentioned his sexuality.

Sir Cameron, who was said to be "devastated", is due in town on 28 November to open the day centre, the first benefaction to bear his name.

"I really don't know what he will do," said Mr McMillan. "But I will totally understand if he does not come."

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