TWO months after Linda McCartney died of breast cancer in April 1998, her family held a memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.
As the doors swung shut behind the 700-strong congregation, a lone bagpiper began to play the song she had performed so often with her husband, Sir Paul: Mull of Kintyre.
It is one of Britain’s biggest-selling singles of all time, but it started as the couple’s personal “love song” to Kintyre, a rugged headland (“mull” in Gaelic) that juts out into the Irish Sea southwest of Glasgow, where they would retreat with their children each August, to their “little hideaway”, a remote 600-acre farm called High Park. Musicians from the pipe band in nearby Campbeltown were invited to play on the record, and Sir Paul had asked one piper to reprise his role for the memorial service. Other friends from Campbeltown were gathered in the pews. After the service, he took some of his wife’s ashes to scatter at High Park.
Four years later, a piper played at the unveiling of the Linda McCartney Memorial Garden in Campbeltown. Sir Paul paid for the focal point, a bronze statue of Linda cradling a lamb, but did not attend the ceremony. By then he was married to Heather Mills, and his visits to Kintyre had grown less frequent.
Today the memorial garden looks a little neglected. Tucked away behind a weather-beaten stone wall near the town’s sleepy harbour, cobwebs decorate Linda’s statue and deadheads have not been removed from the surrounding flowerbed. A rusting park bench leans against a wall alongside an empty tin of paint.
Locals, who looked upon the family as one of their own, believe Sir Paul has “fallen out of love” with Kintyre. At 71 he shows no sign of slowing down, and surprised shoppers in New York’s Time Square on Thursday with an impromptu concert. He also supports his daughter, the designer Stella McCartney, at fashion shows in Europe’s capitals, and holidays with his third wife, Nancy Shevell, and his young daughter (by Mills) Beatrice. There is, it seems, no time for the farm now. Neighbours say he has not been spotted for at least five years.
However, the former Beatle continued to look after the locals who tended his farm. Until now. As reported this week, two workers who have collectively served him for 55 years have been sacked. These are Bobby Cairns, his 52-year-old estate manager – whose father worked for Sir Paul – and Jimmy Paterson, his 50-year-old caretaker. Paterson and his fiancée, Marion Pope, have been asked to leave their house on the estate two weeks before Christmas.
A “friend of Sir Paul” was quoted in several newspapers defending the decision, arguing the estate had fallen into disrepair and needed to be “brought back up to scratch”.
The announcement was met with puzzlement in Kintyre, which this week suffered its usual wild weather: sleet storms were quickly replaced by rainbows, only to be followed by mist rolling off the sea. Both Cairns and Paterson are thought to have signed confidentiality agreements and would not speak this week, but others were less reticent.
David Young’s family has owned the farm next to High Park for more than a century. The 51-year-old, who keeps a herd of Angus cattle on his 400 acres, had always been on good terms with his neighbour.
“I think the community has been really proud to have him among us,” he says, as we walk the muddy drive he shares with Sir Paul. “But putting people out of houses and sacking people is going to sour things.”
Reaching the border of Young’s land, we can see ramshackle clusters of outbuildings on the McCartney estate. They look shabby: paint peels off the red corrugated roofs and weeds grow out of the stone walls. But Young says this is how they always looked. It was never a working farm, so sheep and deer were allowed to roam freely in bracken that grew 4ft tall.
“He liked to keep things as they were. He did not disturb it, so it became a real wildlife haven. Last year I got the RSPB to do a bird survey on the land bordering McCartney and they found 37 species. He took all the fences down, so there were also lots of deer – you could go up there and see 100. It was what he wanted, so the staff did it.” Sir Paul, reportedly worth £680 million, could have afforded a lick of paint if he had wanted it, Young says wryly.
He says the sackings are part of a rapid turnaround in the farm’s management over the past six weeks, thought to be inspired by external consultants. The long grass has been cut down and sold as silage, and the gates have gone back up. “This gate’s not been shut for 20 years,” says Young, gesturing at a sign warning of dogs. “Now it is padlocked.”
Sir Paul has also applied for two grants from the Forestry Commission. A commission spokesman says the funds, which could total nearly £10,000, may be used to help clear trees that have been blown down and to draw up a plan to manage trees on the estate.
McCartney bought High Park when dating Jane Asher in 1966, as a refuge from Beatlemania. His enthusiasm for the place grew when he married Linda Eastman in 1969, and over the next 30 years they visited regularly with their children, Heather, Stella, James and Mary. “Linda turned me on to it,” he has said. “I liked its isolation and I liked the privacy and the end-of-the-world remoteness.”
When John Lennon announced he was leaving the Beatles in September 1969, McCartney retired to the farm and spent three months brooding. “I didn’t shave for quite a while. I didn’t get up. Then if I did get up, I’d have a drink. At that time I felt I’d outlived my usefulness.”
But he recovered at High Park, joking that the single-track roads that twist around the peninsula, giving views of Antrim in Northern Ireland just 12 miles across the sea, inspired him to write The Long and Winding Road. It was on the farm, too, that he plotted his comeback, launching Wings in 1971 with Linda, Denny Laine and Denny Seiwell.
So it was not surprising that the band recorded an ode to Kintyre in 1977. “It was a love song, about how I enjoyed being there – imagining I was travelling away and wanting to get back there,” Sir Paul explained.
The Campbeltown pipers paraded on Kintyre’s Saddell beach for the accompanying video. “We ended up staying up at his farm for a good three or four hours,” band member Iain McKerrall told the National Piping Centre last year. “It was a great night. We went down to London to do Top of the Pops, the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show and record an album. It was a very exciting time.”
The family would fly into the peninsula’s tiny “airport” – a shed little more than 20ft square – and soon became familiar around town. “They were the worst-dressed people here,” says William Ross, who used to do odd jobs on the estate. “They’d walk to town through the farm so they’d have torn their clothes and be covered in muck. They never bothered with airs and graces.”
Alastair Cousin, the Campbeltown vet, would go up to the farm to tend to the sheep, and grew friendly with the McCartneys. He would often take his wife, Anne, and their son, Lorne, who would play with Stella.
Their highlight was the annual Campbeltown June Show, held in August. “Our son would go with our ponies,” explains Mrs Cousin, sitting in the front room of their grey-stone house overlooking the harbour. “But they would arrive with their beautiful horses with Californian side-saddles.’’
The family weren’t reclusive, she says, but out and about in the town and on the beach. ''One time a local girl was on the beach digging and this voice said: 'You’ve a long way to dig to get to Australia.’ She looked up and it was Paul. When they saw him, people would ask: 'How are you doing?’ but they wouldn’t invade his space. That’s what he liked, I think.”
The families remained close, and Mrs Cousin and Lorne went to the London memorial for Linda. Lorne later played the pipes at Stella’s wedding on the Isle of Bute. She shows me a photograph of her and her husband with Sir Paul at a concert at Hampden Park, Glasgow.
But she says that sadly they have not seen him recently. “We don’t hear so much from Sir Paul now because life has moved on for him,” adds Mr Cousin. “It was his place and Linda’s, when the family were growing up. Life has changed.”
Whatever plans Sir Paul has for High Park, however, many locals hope he will rediscover his passion for Kintyre, where, according to that song, “my memories remain”.
“Maybe he has got too many good memories of Linda here and now it is too painful for him to come,” says William Ross. “But he did a lot of good for the town. It is still a big draw for tourists to come here. He has got to be thanked for that.”
Tom Rowley, Telegraph.co.uk