James MacMillan read music at Edinburgh University and took Doctoral studies in composition at Durham University with John Casken. After working as a lecturer at Manchester University, he returned to Scotland and settled in Glasgow. The successful premiere of Tryst at the 1990 St Magnus Festival led to his appointment as Affiliate Composer of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Between 1992 and 2002 he was Artistic Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today series of contemporary music concerts. MacMillan is internationally active as a conductor, working as Composer/Conductor with the BBC Philharmonic between 2000 and 2009, and appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic from 2010. He was awarded a CBE in January 2004.