WHEN Ewan McLennan meets me in Edinburgh's Royal Oak folk pub, to talk about loneliness, there are only a couple of men sitting there, propping up the bar pre-lunch. But the scenario – McLennan, the folk musician playing softly on the guitar, our photographer shifting around the room – sparks conversation. The two other men start telling tales of their week, email addresses are exchanged. The world seems a less lonely place. Perhaps it’s the music that does it. Or perhaps it’s because just even talking about loneliness blows off some of its cobwebs.

“People don’t like to admit they’re lonely," says McLennan, "because there’s loads of social stigma attached to it. If you’ve got a physical ailment, cancer, a broken leg, though it’s difficult, you talk about it. But mental health issues are much less talked about, and loneliness even less. Part of the problem is there’s that idea out there that if you’re lonely it’s because you’re a weird person, or because you’re not socialising, it’s an individual failure.”

The tragedy, he observes, is that the current "epidemic of loneliness" results from social, rather than individual failure: "It’s a breakdown in our society that’s caused it. But people are internalising it.”

Over the past year, McLennan has been working on a remarkable collaboration with the writer and environmental activist George Monbiot: an album and tour called Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness, which arrives in Scotland this week, with gigs in Inverness, Glasgow (for Celtic Connections), Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

The underlying aim is to start a movement for social change, bringing people together and reigniting community. When people gather to watch the two men on stage, they find themselves at a gig where they are encouraged to turn to each other and start a conversation, to sing, and even to buy each other a drink down the pub in a gathering afterwards.

That loneliness is a blight on today’s society is becoming increasingly clear. Research shows it is a more significant health factor than obesity, smoking, exercise or nutrition – social isolation increases your risk of death by an astounding 30-60 per cent. Britain, if Office of National Statistics figures are anything to go by, is the loneliness capital of Europe. In 2014, we were less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than residents of other EU countries. A fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely. Two-thirds of these feel uncomfortable admitting it.

A recent Age UK report revealed that one in 25 older shoppers rely on a visit to a shop or supermarket for company and conversation. But it’s not only the old that are afflicted. One in four disabled people feels lonely on a typical day. And according to Mental Health Foundation research, 18-to-34 year olds are more likely to feel lonely and depressed because of loneliness than the over-55s.

For McLennan, who lives in an “intensely social” shared house in Bristol with his girlfriend and other friends, loneliness is not something that particularly plagues him – except occasionally when he’s touring as a solo musician. His life is a busy stream of gigs within the often warm and welcoming folk community, home life in Bristol, and visits back to his family and friends in the Comiston area of Edinburgh where he grew up.

It was not, therefore, a subject that had thought much about until, a couple of years ago, he received an email from one George Monbiot. At first he thought it must be “a joke” by one of his friends. But sure enough, there before him, from the real George Monbiot, was a fan letter of sorts, saying how much he had enjoyed listening to McLennan on the Mary Ann Kennedy show and asking if they might meet.

Monbiot is not a musician – in fact he jokes that his singing is banned under international law – yet he was proposing they write an album together.

Monbiot came up with the idea after he wrote a Guardian column suggesting that what “distinguishes our age from those preceding it is an epidemic of loneliness”. He listed shocking research revealing the dramatic impact this is having on our health and wellbeing, and blamed its rise on a “culture that celebrates extreme individualism and competition”. This wasn't so much the information age, he observed, as the “age of loneliness”.

The column went viral. Publishers asked if he'd consider writing a book on the subject. But Monbiot could think of “nothing more depressing than spending three years sitting on my backside, documenting social isolation”.

Then, one day, in a hardware shop he found himself fuming as an elderly woman held people up by dithering at the counter, chatting with assistants. He also felt guilty about this response, recognising that she was probably one of the lonely people he had written about. Back home, he dashed out a rough poem about that lonely figure, then realised it seemed like a ballad – indeed perhaps what he really wanted to do was write an album.

It’s not hard to see why Monbiot was drawn to McLennan as a collaborator. The folk musician’s songs are frequently political, spellbinding ballads that tell stories and deliver social commentaries. “Traditional music has tended to touch on every facet of people’s lives," says McLennan. "That’s relationships, love, drink, politics: struggles around work and labour, war, and resistance to war and the tragedies of that." As well folk music's political nature, he was interesting in its ability "to tell a story".

The resulting album seems to be a meeting of minds. Many of the songs were based on rough lyrics and ideas which Monbiot sent to McLennan, which were reworked by the singer. But the most anthemic piece, Such A Thing As Society – which features on the Celtic Connections album given away with the Sunday Herald on January 15 – began as a bolt of bitter anger written by McLennan, hitting out at “the Thatcher idea that there’s no such thing as society”, but upturned by Monbiot to create something positive and rousing.

Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness includes songs about immigrant workers and the curtailment of children's outdoor play. There is also My Time And Yours, loosely based on the lives of McLennan’s grandparents. His grandfather – who as a teenager organised one of the first shipyard apprentice strikes – grew up in a two-room Govan tenement flat, and as a child roamed "wild and free” in the streets. The song isn't about nostalgia, says McLennan, who isn't suggesting life was better in the 1930s. “Patently it wasn’t," he says. "The 1930s were an incredibly rough time, then there was the war, but I do think that what we’ve experienced more latterly has been a breakdown in communities and civil society and the kind of things that [his grandparents] probably took for granted when they were young.”

Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness aims to bring people together, and Monbiot and McLennan view themselves as the hosts of a big party. Towards the end of each show, Monbiot says to the audience: “I’m going to ask you to do something very embarrassing and unBritish which is to turn to something you don’t know and say hello to them. And if you want to say any more than hello that’s fine. And afterwards maybe you’d like to buy that person a drink or something.”

On the first gig, Monbiot made the mistake of getting people to introduce themselves to each other before he had wrapped up the show, and such was the uproar of conversation, he couldn’t bring their attention back to the stage to say goodbye. “I think people are looking for permission for someone to say – it’s all right you can talk to people," he tells me.

“We’re hoping,” adds McMcLennan,“that it prompts people to get in touch with the next-door neighbour they haven’t spoken to in a while, or whatever it might be to try and rebuild these bonds that are too often cut.”

One song, Reclaim The Streets, encourages the holding of street parties, and McLennan cites research showing that people who live near busy roads are less likely to know their neighbours.

Monbiot draws connections between the "loneliness epidemic" and contemporary politics. He believes the "great rupture" of the Trump and Brexit votes represents a profound loss of faith in the existing political systems which haven't delivered for people either politically or "psychologically”.

“I don’t believe that there can be any social and political renewal without community renewal," says Monbiot. "We have to bring people back together again. Then we can start to devise projects that are in all our interests. We can’t do anything when we’re atomised. We’re helpless because the problems we face are much bigger than we are.”

Can gigs like these manage to reach out to those who are properly struggling with loneliness and isolation? “It’s really hard to reach out to people who are genuinely lonely," admits McLennan. "How to use this to reach out to people who are too socially isolated to get out, is a trickier thing.”

Breaking The Spell does hope to trigger ideas among its audience about how to reach out within their own communities. It also supports a growing recognition of loneliness as a problem that needs to be tackled. In the past couple of years, partly inspired by Monbiot's original article, there has been mounting concern over loneliness. Sue Bourne's documentary The Age Of Loneliness, brought the issue to television, and a major project by The Campaign To End Loneliness has received a £2.7 million Big Lottery Fund grant. Among the cities it will trial it in is Glasgow, where the public will be encouraged to carry out 250,000 "acts of kindness" to help lonely people.

This surge in interest is one that the two men have observed as they have toured. In fact, says McLennan, one of the feelings that they have come away with, “is that there’s this massive epidemic, but there are loads of people doing really inspiring things about it – albeit massively under-resourced”.

Before the tour began, McLennan confesses he'd worried a little that events around the theme of loneliness would leave people feeling depressed and sad, but the opposite has been true.

“People seem to be uplifted,” he says. It seems when we talk about loneliness it begins to lift. Just saying the word helps break the spell. It’s a start, from which bigger things can grow.

George Monbiot & Ewan McLennan Breaking the Spell of Loneliness is at The Mackintosh Church as part of Celtic Connections this Friday (February 3) at 7.30pm www.celticconnections.com

It can also been seen at Eden Court, Inverness on Thursday (Feb 2), The Reid Concert Hall, Edinburgh on Saturday (Feb 4) and The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen next Sunday (Feb 5)