Scottish composer James MacMillan studied composition at the University of Edinburgh with Rita McAllister, and at Durham University with John Casken, where he gained a PhD degree in 1987. He was a lecturer in music at the Victoria University of Manchester from 1986-1988. After his studies, MacMillan returned to Scotland, composing prolifically, and becoming Associate Composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, often working on education projects.
He came to the attention of the classical establishment with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the Proms in 1990. Isobel Gowdie was one of many women executed for witchcraft in 17th century Scotland. According to the composer, "the work craves absolution and offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life".
The work's international acclaim spurred more high-profile commissions, including a percussion concerto for fellow Scot Evelyn Glennie, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. It was premiered in 1992 and has become MacMillan's most performed work. He was also asked by Mstislav Rostropovich to compose a cello concerto, which was premiered by Rostropovich himself in 1997.
Further successes have included his second opera The Sacrifice, commissioned by Welsh National Opera, Autumn 2007, which won a Royal Philharmonic Society Award, and the St John Passion jointly commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Sir Colin Davis at its world premiere in April 2008. He was awarded the British Composer Award for Liturgical Music, for his Strathclyde Motets, in December 2008.
MacMillan's music is infused with the spiritual and the political. His Roman Catholic faith has inspired many of his sacred works; for example, Magnificat (1999), and several Masses. This central strand of his life and compositions was marked by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in early 2005, with a survey of his music entitled From Darkness into Light. MacMillan and his wife are lay Dominicans, and he has collaborated with Michael Symmons Roberts, a Catholic poet, and also Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Scottish traditional music has also had a profound musical influence, and is frequently discernible in his works.
He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004.
In 2008, he became Honorary Patron of London Chamber Orchestra's LCO New: Explore project which explores links between music and other art forms and fosters emerging creative talent in composition. He also serves as the Honorary President of the Bearsden Choir.