Composer Sir James MacMillan has seen the fortunes of his home town improve. Luckily, it’s a perfect place for music

Driving into the west of Scotland from England for the first time is a surreal experience. Just north of Gretna Green there’s a point when everything suddenly and inexplicably doubles in size and scale, as though God, in an act of joyous whimsy, pressed the button marked “200%” while designing the place. It was at this point that the rain began.

We’d been driving for about six hours by then, during which the sun had done its best to melt our windscreen. Through county after county we’d passed, barely a cloud overhead and not a hint of anything but the same to come. Then an angry purple-grey sky appeared without warning. After suffering through weeks of Saharan heat in London, I said a silent prayer to St Medard. My fiancée, whose delight had more than equalled my discomfort, suppressed the frown threatening her forehead’s composure – then smiled with utter bliss as the hills spread wide their arms and that double-sized landscape revealed its grandeur.

Cumnock lies about an hour and a half north of Carlisle, not far from the coastal town of Ayr. I was curious about the area from which a singular musical talent had emerged, intrigued to see the towns, villages, hills and streams that formed the young James MacMillan’s hinterland. Their names on the map before me, progressively more Scots the further north we motored – Crawford, Abington, Douglas, Muirkirk – suggested Sir Walter Scott and high romance. The reality can be described in a word: deprivation.

The Scotland of the composer’s youth was a country of pit villages and brass bands; of strong Catholicism linked inextricably with republican socialism; of working-class pride, yes, but also of poverty and alcoholism. The pits are all closed now, their place in the local economy replaced by seasonal work serving tourists. Drug addiction has replaced alcoholism as the worst social ill, its ravages terrible and obvious on the faces of too many locals.

I mention this to Sir James as we drive out of the town in his silver Land Rover, a symbol, along with the well-cut tweed coat and good Swiss watch, of his great success. “Oh yes,” he sighs, “it’s a real problem. You can see the needles in the streets around your hotel.”

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