MacMillan was born at Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, Scotland. He studied music at the universities of Edinburgh and Durham. He writes a lot of his music for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and helps them to take music out to schools so that children can listen and join in with his music.
Three of his most important compositions are:
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) which is music about a woman who lived at the time when people believed that a lot of women were witches. In 1662 Isobel Gowdie was accused and tried for witchcraft. What is remarkable about her case is the fact that she confessed without torture, and there is no record of an execution; she walked away after confessing. What is even more remarkable about her case is the fact that she did not pander to distorted Christian ideas of witchcraft and the worship of Satan. She spoke about true Shamanism that is still in practice today.She spoke of what would be known today as astral travel, and other such beliefs and practices. Most famously, she spoke of her soul being transformed into that of a hare.
Veni, veni, Emmanuel (1992) is like a percussion concerto. It is a piece for one percussion player who plays lots of percussion instruments, and an orchestra. The main tune is the medieval hymn tune Veni, veni, Emmanuel (known to us as the hymn O come, O come Emmanuel). It was played by the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie at a BBC Prom in 1992.
Quickening is a piece of music for counter-tenor, two tenors and baritone soloists, children’s choir, mixed choir and large orchestra. It is about birth and new life. The children’s choir sing the words of the unborn babe. They stand on a balcony or somewhere far away from the other choir and the orchestra. Some of the words are “Glossalalia” (nonsense words). It is a beautiful work with some very unusual effects including colourful orchestration and “splashes” of notes from the choir. It was performed at a BBC Prom in 1999.