You are on page 1of 6


7 August 2010

AheadofthefirstPapalvisittoScotland in almost 30 years, James MacMillan talks forgiveness,
the failings of the Catholic church, writing music for the open-air gatherings, and turning Tory

Words by Kathleen Morgan

Photographs by Simon Murphy
I ‘The
n a red-brick church, a quiet revolution is church. The couple only discovered MacMillan views as his work, MacMillan laughs a lot –
taking place. It’s Sunday morning and a was an internationally acclaimed composer mostly at himself. During lunch, he chuckles as
man in a crumpled linen suit is talking to and conductor when they saw him being he describes how Scottish people, particularly
his followers. They listen intently as he
cajoles them, occasionally bursting into
interviewed on television during a visit home
to Poland. “I was, ‘Look, that’s the guy from
men, are reluctant to sing and need prodded
into melody. He does it again as he admits
song and waiting for their response. He darts
back and forth, sometimes conducting them,
our church,’” explains Dyleicz later. “But he’s
not just a guy from the church. Afterwards I
turning 50 last year was a wake-up call for
someone with so much still to compose – and isgreatand
sometimes playing the organ and throwing
instructions to them. “Rubbish,” he shouts at
was a bit shy. I was, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I
can do this,’ but he is very kind and gentle.”
only “two or three decades” to do it in. “I’m still
reasonably alert,” he jokes. “The Alzheimer’s Ivalueit,
one point, and two female singers glance at
each other, smiling. “That’s too slow …” Then
finally, “Excellent.” After a faltering start, the
As the rest of the congregation file in, they
pick up MacMillan’s music sheets with their
hymn books. Congregations in chapels across
hasn’t settled in yet.”
He speaks warmly of his family – his wife
Lynne, a lawyer, and their three children,
choir’s voices soar towards the rafters of this
striking chapel, the haunting, simple melody
Britain have been asked by the church to
rehearse MacMillan’s work in preparation for
19-year-old Catherine and the twins, Clare
and Aidan, who are 17. Quietly and with great
reminiscent of plainsong.
St Columba’s is easy to miss, squeezed
the papal mass. MacMillan’s interpretation of
sacred texts will be sung by thousands during
affection, he explains he became a grandfather
three months ago when Catherine had a baby,
between two main streets in Maryhill, Glasgow.
But stumble upon it and you realise the Italian
open-air papal masses in Bellahouston Park,
Glasgow, and the Midlands. Infused with the
Sara. He mentions he and Lynne will be help-
ing look after Sara while Catherine studies ignorant
Romanesque style church – designed by the
renowned architect Jack Coia and completed
in 1941 – is special. The same could apply to
influence of traditional plainsong – think
pared-back, pure vocals – they are MacMillan’s
rebuke to what he calls “the kumbaya brigade”.
music at the University of Glasgow, then quickly
wraps a protective blanket around his daugh-
ter and granddaughter. He is, though, effusive
the choirmaster infusing his small band of Don’t bring your tambourine. about fatherhood. “I love it,” he says. “A lot of
singers with a slow-burning confidence. The A couple of hours later, over lunch in an men, especially traditionally, would have
man with the rumpled cream suit and thick, Italian restaurant, the composer explains he regarded it as a chore, but my children have
greying hair is James MacMillan, Scotland’s was commissioned at short notice to write a been a constant joy. Still are. I just love them
greatest living composer. Used to taking centre new order of the mass. “The visit was organised being around – same with my grandchild.”
stage in concert halls from New York to Shang- very late,” he says, between mouthfuls of pizza. With a grandchild turning home life upside
hai as he conducts pieces such as his acclaimed “The writing of the music had to be done down, MacMillan is planning to build a
St John Passion, he seems equally happy here, quickly. But people have been great in dissem- composition hut in the garden. He composes
in the church where he worships. inating the music through the dioceses. People his music in silence and, if possible, at home
The choir, all members of St Columba’s are getting in touch to say they’re working on in Jordanhill, Glasgow, rather than during his
congregation, clutch sheets of music composed it with their congregations. It’s being played many trips abroad. “I suppose this goes back
by MacMillan for the official visit to Scotland in the background as people come in to mass to Mahler and Wagner,” he says, smiling.
and England of Pope Benedict XVI next so it registers in their ears.” “They had their composition huts and this is
month. Among the singers is Agniezka Dyleicz, He laughs at the suggestion his work is my chance to copy them. An architect friend
32, whose husband Rafal is walking their being piped into chapels like muzak. In fact, for has drawn up plans. It’s not very big, it’s just
seven-month-old daughter up and down the a composer almost as famous for his outspoken a little study. There’ll be a couple of desks, a


piano.” The problem is getting time. Since coalition government? “I don’t,” he says,
The Confession Of Isobel Gowdie launched pointing out he didn’t vote for it.
his international profile at the BBC proms in With a deep suspicion of nationalism and a
1990, MacMillan has had a packed itinerary loyalty to the union – to Britishness – he
abroad – he was recently made principal guest argues the UK is crying out for an alternative.
conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber “In Europe they have this tradition of Chris-
Philharmonic. His output is impressive. Most tian democracy, which is flawed but it could
recently he has composed three concertos and have been a very different way of thinking
an oboe concerto. His third piano concerto about politics,” he says. Given his track record
will be premiered in Minnesota next May. of speaking out, could he be tempted to start
If the birth of Sara has brought its own the movement in Britain? “There is a move to
delightful complications, MacMillan has also do it, and I’ve been approached about it, but I
dealt with a great sense of loss following the don’t really want to be involved in that sense
death in 2008 of his mother, Ellen, who was a in politics.”
teacher and a social worker. “I’m still not quite So how did MacMillan, once a member of
over it,” he says. He finds it hard to return to the Young Communist Party, come to vote
Cumnock, where he grew up and still has Tory? The answer is that he has never done
family, because of its associations with dark what was expected. As an adolescent he was
periods of his mother’s life. “She had quite a drawn to both communism and Catholicism
difficult life. She suffered quite a lot with a and would raise eyebrows as he left political
mental illness that debilitated her for decades. meetings to attend mass. As he outgrew his
I remember her as a younger woman – much, political certainties he ditched communism,
much happier. In those crucial early memories but his religious faith has endured, even if it
she was a great matriarchal figure.” has at times wavered.
I ask whether his mother’s illness was ever MacMillan’s inclination to confound expec-
diagnosed. “It was a kind of mystery really tations manifested itself at an early age. He
because it was so debilitating, it just kind of describes how, at around 10 years old, he
consumed her,” he replies. “I actually don’t joined a brass band, encouraged by his
know what to call it other than a very strong beloved maternal grandfather, George. “The
mental illness. [The family supported her] as coal mines are saturated in brass band culture
much as we could. My father was saintly in and my grandfather had played euphonium in
the way he looked after her right to the end. a colliery band as a young man,” says MacMil-
My sister was great too.” MacMillan’s father, lan, lighting up as he speaks. “Brass was a big
Jim, who is 78, has moved to Wiltshire to be thing in Cumnock and I felt as though I was
with the composer’s sister. following in his footsteps. It’s quite a big thing
to march, play and read music at the same
The softer, gentler MacMillan chatting about time. I was excited by that prospect.”
his children, music and his other major passion, Only this marching was to the thud of an
religion, seems far removed from the public Orange walk. “This engagement came in for
image of a firebrand who relishes being up to [the band] to play for an Orange walk some-
his neck in controversy. It is 11 years since he where in Ayrshire. I was going to do it – I
delivered his speech Scotland’s Shame, which didn’t bother about it – but my parents thought
tackled the contentious issue of sectarianism, it would cause a scandal if I was seen, a little
from the football terraces to the nation’s highest Catholic boy.” He chuckles quietly.
institutions. He had chosen his platform care- If MacMillan once saw nothing strange
fully – the Edinburgh International Festival about a Catholic boy marching in an Orange
– intent on alerting the world’s media to his parade, he is adamant now there is nothing
views. Then he braced himself for the backlash. contradictory about having working class
It came, on the news pages, columns and letters roots and voting Conservative.
pages of newspapers including The Herald. “A lot of people on the traditional left like
Weeks after, a System Three survey for The my grandfather, who were NUM members
Herald found 34% of people interviewed felt and part of the General Strike and so on, were
there was “a deep-rooted anti-Catholic atti- nevertheless social conservatives,” he says.
tude throughout Scottish society”. “The Labour movement has been taken over by
These days, MacMillan is keen to move on a metropolitan elite foreign to my grandfather
from such debates. “They were all important,” and people like him …” He points to Labour’s
he says, stressing he has no regrets about defeat in the Glasgow East by-election in
airing his views. “I do feel as if I’ve moved on, 2008, partly, he says, because of the party’s
and there is a debate going on and it’s thriving stance on “issues like abortion and experi-
without me.” mentation with embryos”, alienating many
Perhaps it’s his age, or perhaps it’s being a evolution of MacMillan from angry young Opposite page: Catholic voters.
grandfather, but these days MacMillan is man to middle-aged traditionalist. Why did MacMillan leads the “The message has gone out from the Labour
keen to play down any issues that might get he vote Tory? “I wanted to see how it felt.” choir at his regular Party: ‘We have moved on, we are no longer
him into trouble. He recently began writing a How did it feel? “All right,” he mumbles, church, St Columba’s beholden to you,’” says MacMillan.

blog, enthusing today about blogging’s demo- sounding a little unconvincing as he reaches in Glasgow, through
cratic advantages. So far he has avoided making for his bottle of Peroni. music he has t is not just the Labour Party which felt
headlines, largely because he knows to take a It’s quite a concession for the grandson of composed for the the backlash of public opinion in the last
deep breath before approaching the keyboard. an Ayrshire coalminer whose union, the visit to Scotland next few months. The scandal of child abuse
“I’ve been warned within an inch of my life by NUM, fought and lost bitterly to Margaret month of Pope by Catholic priests in Ireland and across
my wife just to be careful, because I don’t Thatcher 25 years ago. For MacMillan, his Benedict XVI. Top: the globe, including Scotland, during past
want to get a reputation as a controversialist,” choice of vote was a logical one, though he MacMillan and wife decades has shaken the church to its founda-
he says. “If you go at it with a red mist you sees himself as politically homeless. “Obvi- Lynne with children tions. In March the Pope issued an apology to
might end up regretting it for ever.” ously in Scotland it’s a tricky thing because Catherine and twins the people of Ireland – and to the thousands
Even so, he feels brave enough to say which there’s a residue of disdain for Thatcher and Clare and Aidan of victims of sexual abuse by priests there – in
way he voted in the general election. “I can’t all that,” he says, perhaps understating the pictured in 1993 a pastoral letter. The word “crisis” is now
tell you [what I voted] because it would be issue, “but there is nothing wrong in being PHOTOGRAPH: IAN WALDIE
being used as the church grapples with the
utterly scandalous,” he begins, only half moderately to the right of centre. I don’t know scandal. During this morning’s sermon at
joking. Did he vote Conservative? “I’m afraid whether I’m there permanently but that’s the St Columba’s the priest spoke of Catholics
I did.” All the clues were there – the articles way I feel sometimes and there are not many abandoning the church, alienated by such
for the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, the places a moderately right-of-centre person issues as the child abuse scandal and the
criticism of the “liberal” press and the quiet can go in Scotland.” Does he support the new stance on women in the church. Does


MacMillan agree it is in crisis? “Oh yeah,”
he says emphatically. “It’s one of the worst
crises the church has faced for many genera-
tions. But the church has always faced crisis
… It’s almost part of the DNA of the Catholic
church to be in crisis.”
He speaks quietly and carefully, occasionally
referencing the Bible. “The church is made up
of sinners and saints, and sometimes in the
same body, the same person. So in many ways
it’s a natural state to be in, and a very unpleas-
ant aspect of life.
“There’s no way Catholics should ever
shrink from the fact they are all fallen. But
to have priests – and it has been a minority
of priests, still a significant minority – who
have so betrayed their calling, betrayed the
faith of ordinary people … That’s why it’s so
serious and why their actions have been so
evil and catastrophic.
“It’s good for the church to face up to our
faults and it’s time to crave forgiveness. If we
in the church have been responsible for that
kind of sin and that kind of abuse, we have to
crave forgiveness and be very, very humble.
The church took a long while to learn – and
may still be in the process of learning – what
that kind of humility and contrition means.”
MacMillan has described his mother and
maternal grandmother as anti-clerical and
anti-authoritarian. A little of this has rubbed
off him. “Yes, the priesthood is great and I
value it,” he says. “However, sometimes indi-
vidual priests are arrogant, ignorant little
sods and certainly my gran and my mother
had to deal with some of them – lots of Catho-
‘Oneof society as a whole has to make on these things
– but I would say today one of the safest places
a child could be is in the presence of a priest,
came to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow.
MacMillan travelled in a bus from Edinburgh
with Lynne – then his fiancee – and others
lics have to.
“In the modern world, what is the priesthood
thesafest precisely because of the purifying nature of
this scandal. It is clearing out a poison from
from their church, St Albert’s. MacMillan had
worshipped at the Dominican chapel as an
for, why are they important? They have a very,
very special obligation to the rest of us but
placesa the church and I just wish other organisations
could have the same experience.”
undergraduate studying music at the Univer-
sity of Edinburgh.
that means they’ve got to be special, and some
aren’t. Some are just ordinary people with childcould And what of that other crisis – falling
numbers being recruited to the priesthood? A
“It was weird,” he says of the last papal visit.
“It’s such a strange thing to have an open-air
ordinary flaws and they can act badly some-
times. No wonder there’s anti-clericalism.” beisinthe few days after our interview, the Vatican will
issue a revised decree making the “attempted
mass. Some of it was hilarious. Maybe I
shouldn’t say this, but there were people in

MacMillan agrees the Pope should be ordination” of women one of the most serious our pen with a carry-out. Some of these guys
accountable for the church’s mistakes, but crimes in ecclesiastical law. MacMillan argues had fallen asleep. Then the popemobile came
attacks what he calls the “liberal press” for for some lateral thinking to ease the pressure round and the mothers, girlfriends, wives
pointing the finger of blame at Benedict. “My
issue with the way this whole thing has gone,
ofapriest, on clergy and boost the role of lay people,
but stops short of advocating female or
were saying, ‘Here he’s, here he’s, come on.’
And I remember one of [the men] getting up,
the way Benedict has been turned into a kind
of hate figure, is that parts of the secular world because married priests.
“Is there a role for lay people to aid the
‘This is terrible, you cannae get a sleep in the
chapel.’ There was a strange cultural clash
have not realised Benedict and the new wave
that has come in with him is part of the solu- ofthe church’s mission? There surely has to be.
Perhaps less onus should be put on the clergy’s
about it. But it was exhilarating. Loved it.”
Next month, MacMillan will again be part

tion to this child abuse issue – certainly not shoulders and it could be taken wider. The of the throng jostling for a glimpse of the Pope.
the problem,” he says. celibacy issue is completely different and to “My work is done,” he says. “I’ve written the
“There are elements of the press that want be honest I don’t think the evidence stacks up music and I’m not going to be involved on the
Benedict to be the problem, want him to be
the miscreant of the story, when the exact
nature in favour of those who think a celibate priest-
hood will make [recruitment] any better,
day – that’s all being taken care of by others.
So I can just join the congregation …” he
opposite is the case. Ever since he was a
younger cardinal figure he’s realised there ofthis because the Protestant churches are having
problems with ministry as well.
laughs, “… and find whether they’re singing
or not.”
was something terrible going on and has been
proactive in trying to sort it out. That’s not a
narrative a lot of the liberal press want to hear
scandal’ “It would be a shame to allow an ideological
view of celibacy to trump a traditional view. I
value the celibacy of the church and most
Beyond the papal visit and the unveiling
of MacMillan’s work to the world, there is
much to be done. The composer has become
and I think that’s deeply unfair. Yes, of course priests do, but there might be other ways of acutely aware of his age since turning 50.
he has to be accountable and it’s very encour- doing priesthood which involve married men His to-do list includes a fourth symphony and
aging to hear him make apologies for the fail- and married women in different areas.” some chamber music, but primarily more
ures of the church. I just hope he gets a good It is here MacMillan draws the line. “There religious work – for starters he wants to
hearing when he comes here. I think people is something about the priesthood and complete the St John gospel and write some of
will be astounded how much affection there Catholicism which will always be very special, the other passions.
will be for him – and the papacy.” and celibacy has its crucial position there … MacMillan finishes his drink and prepares
MacMillan argues society at large, and not Though a serious and I’ve been through the whole liberation theol- to return home to work. This is Sunday, tradi-
just the Catholic church, must take responsi- committed Catholic, ogy thing and the left-wing politics, but when tionally the day of rest, and there is much to
bility for sexual abuse. “It is a historical MacMillan can laugh all is said and done, I value the traditions of be done. As he turns to the restaurant door, he
phenomenon as well,” he says. “We’re talking at memories of fellow the church.” glances at a copy of the Sunday Herald sitting
about something that was at its worst in the Catholics drinking on the counter. Its front-page headline is:
sixties and seventies and a realisation, not during the visit of If MacMillan can be deadly serious about his “Scots Tories: We’re so toxic we drive voters
just in the Catholic world, but everywhere, Pope John Paul II religious conviction, he is equally able to poke to Labour.” He smiles and leaves. ■
that there have to be better ways of dealing with to Bellahouston fun at it. He laughs as he recalls the last papal
it. We’re not there yet – there are improvements Park in 1982 visit to Scotland, in 1982, when John Paul II Visit