Exclusive interview with James MacMillan

Ten years ago Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan gave a lecture at the Edinburgh festival entitled “Scotland’s Shame – Anti-Catholicism as a barrier to genuine pluralism.”

The reponse from the Scottish media was  immediate , hostile and, on one occasion, somewhat underhand.

In an interview with the guardian in 2006 he related a telephone inetrview with the Sunday herald.

MacMillan was sure that the call was being recorded or monitored in some way-perhaps set up as a conference call.

Perhaps the people on the other end of the line wanted him to trip himself up or say something damning.

He did hear someone in the background saying to his  interviewer “ ask him if he is Opus Dei!”

The classical musician couldn’t help but let out a guffaw.

MacMillan had clearly  touched a raw  nerve.

The time and place of his lecture would have added to the collective pain that Scotland establishment must have felt.

The entire artistic world spends a month in Edinburgh every summer.

MacMillan has been described as Scotland most successful musical  export.

In the age of celebrity this internationally feted composer and conductor was telling it to the world how it was to be a Catholic boy  growing up in Kilwinning.

Moreover he was saying that things were still difficult for Scotland’s Catholic minority.

Ten years on from his speech I was grateful that James MacMillan  took time out from a busy schedule  afforded me the time to answer my questions so fully and frankly.





Q: Where were you born?


JM: In Kilwinning, Ayrshire.




Q: You are from a Catholic background-were you aware of any social exclusion that your community endured during your childhood?



JM: I was aware of tensions, which manifested themselves in unpleasant ways. Prejudice was rife – seemingly part of the majoritarian attitude to Catholics in the area. And outright discrimination was very much in the living memory of relatives, who remembered jobs being advertised in the 30s and 40s with the proviso that ‘no Catholics need apply’. Elements within the Church of Scotland had campaigned for the repatriation of the Catholic Irish right up to the 1930s. The Kirk apologised for this a few years ago. Much of the debate here now revolves round whether actual discrimination is still current or not. Research by Williams and Walls of the MRS Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at Glasgow University have argued that there is indeed still a lingering problem, relating to social deprivation among the Catholic Irish descendents. This is vehemently challenged though by other academics like Steve Bruce and Michael Rosie. They and others like Graham Walker are also campaigners for a specific understanding of Scottish working class protestant culture. Not for nothing are they known as the Orange Order’s favourite sociologists. Others like Prof David McCrone is suspiciously keen to argue that there is no such thing as an Irish community in Scotland. There are good reasons to enquire as to what motivates these non-objective, self-proclaimed experts in this matter. (Joe Bradley would be worth speaking to about this).




Q: It has been said that anti-catholic sentiment in modern Scotland is merely a misunderstanding of another phenomena-that of anti-Irish racism. Would you agree with that?



JM: These two prejudices are complicatedly intertwined. I have a great deal of sympathy with those who want to stress the ethnic dimension, because they are clearly correct. However, it would be mistake to dismiss the purely religious aspect of this issue. Scotland has been historically vehement in its anti-popery since the Reformation, centuries before Irish immigration. The Scottish cultural protestant mind-set is programmed to be aggressive about Catholicism. Secular commentators might want to play this down nowadays, but this is the dark theological hinterland to the current debate. 



Q: since you “went public” on your views of Scotland’s anti catholic underbelly what has been the response to you personally?



JM: Catholics are generally well disposed towards me, as I articulated an argument many would make in private but shy away from expressing it in the Public Square, for obvious reasons. Anyone who does this is attacked. Many in the media etc tried to assassinate my character and motivations at the time of my speech in 1999. This has made me very wary and ‘choosy’ about dealing with the Scottish media and other aspects of public life here. I have just swung my wider focus on to the outside world where I can be a composer, pure and simple. I have created a little cocoon for myself in Glasgow, which is populated by family and friends.  

In retrospect, though, it seems that most have come round to my analysis, in that there has been a grudging acceptance that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed. That suits me just fine, as that was the intention of the speech in the first place. The embarrassment and surprise factors were crucial at the time! This was a good lesson to learn, and will well serve the new campaign to confront anti-Irish racism in Scottish football.





Q: What is your view of “The Famine Song?”


JM: It is utterly disgraceful – nakedly sectarian and racist – it has no redeeming factors whatsoever




Q: What has been your assessment of the official response to this controversy?


JM: I am not surprised that the condemnation of the fans that sing this has been less than robust. Scottish life is full of the nudge-and-wink acceptance of anti-Irish/Catholic bigotry. Sports journalists are the worst with a few honourable exceptions. However, Kieron Brady is on to winner with this campaign. There is no way official Scotland can wriggle out of this. I am looking forward to see it all develop….. 




Q: What needs to be done in the future if “the Famine song” continues to be heard in Scottish football stadia? 


JM: The response needs to be ultra-strict – expulsions, life-long bans etc. It is easy to pinpoint the perpetrators. Police cameras are trained on the crowds at every game. There is no excuse…


 Q: James we’re the same age-and I recall in the 1970s that my family in the West of Scotland were worried about the prospect of Scottish self government as an Edinburgh parliament could bring in the policies of old Stormont-further socially excluding the Catholic minority of Scotland. Can you recall a similar fear in your Ayrshire childhood?


 JM: Yes I remember this very well. Although the anxiety lingers a little bit in some quarters, it is clear that things have changed. Catholics just need to be politically astute in the new situation. For example, we all know that New Labour is riddled with ideological atheists who want to smash Catholic education. The SNP have been trying to make inroads into the west-of Scotland Catholic vote for years. They know one way to do that is to be seen publicly defending faith schools. Politically astute Catholics know this is just an opportunist ploy, but we can use that to our advantage. It is important that, instead of throwing our lot in with one party against the other, as was the case in the past, we learn to play one off against the other…


It makes life more interesting, if nothing else!




Q: It is ten years since you gave a lecture entitled: ‘Scotland’s shame: Anti-Catholicism as a barrier to genuine pluralism’. Do you still stand by that view-or has your view changed?


JM: I think my earlier answer might have covered this. Basically the disgraceful, nation-wide scenes around McGeady and McCarthy point to unfinished business. The shame clearly lingers on. I’m just amazed that ‘official Scotland’ isn’t willing to see it. Heads in the sand again….


Q: you mention the treatment of McCarthy & McGeady had they been, say, Scottish born of Italian heritage and had opted to play for Italy do you think that they would have endured the abuse they have as Republic of Ireland players?


JM: No. The Scottish nativist bigot has a special hatred for Irish Catholics, because of the political dimension, which colours the relationship that Scotland has had with Ireland from the 17th century to recent times.

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