LEADING Scottish composer James MacMillan yesterday said he was embarrassed by his own country after delivering a damning condemnation of the bigotry which, he claimed, ran throughout Scottish society.

Mr MacMillan, 40, who composed a fanfare for the official opening of the Scottish Parliament last month, said Scotland was guilty of a ''sleep-walking bigotry''.

Speaking at the Edinburgh festival the internationally-acclaimed musician claimed anti-Catholicism was holding back progress in making Scotland a pluralist democracy, adding that the voice of the country's 800,000-strong Catholic community was sidelined and trivialised.

He also described the Scottish Reformation as a cultural revolution ''year zero'', comparing John Knox with former Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung.

He reserved some of his fiercest criticism for the Scottish media, including The Herald, whom he accused of having feature writers who regularly attack Catholic belief.

After the lecture, entitled Scotland's Shame, the composer said anti-Catholic discrimination would not force him to leave the country, but he added: ''I feel embarrassed about Scotland.''

He said that too often the nation's image abroad was tainted by stories of high profile people - including former Rangers FC vice-chairman Donald Findlay - singing sectarian songs.

Mr MacMillan said: ''These are the stories that people read about Scotland. Such people are not one-offs. To believe this is a self-delusion.''

Mr MacMillan mounted a strong defence of Catholic schools, branding any moves to abolish them as ''vandalism''.

He dismissed claims that religious bigotry came down to sectarian rivalry between Rangers and Celtic football clubs, insisting: ''Sectarianism is a big problem but to simply leave it at that does not advance the debate at all.

''Many in Scottish society and the media are quite happy to leave it at that without probing into the specific nature of our sectarian problems.''

He said he had deliberately avoided comparing Scotland with Northern Ireland, focusing instead on the contrast between Scotland and England.

''Can you imagine the editor of the Independent newspaper or the Sunday Times being involved in a campaign against Catholic education in England and what kind of reaction there might have been?'' he asked.

On the Scottish media, Mr MacMillan accused the Glasgow-based press of going into ''campaign mode'' over the issue of abolishing Catholic schools.

He went on: ''There is a widespread perception among Scottish Catholics that the media is prejudiced against them.''

He admitted The Herald was his paper of choice, but added that it published a number of contributors who '' regularly and vociferously attack Catholic belief and practice in unguardedly visceral ways''.

Mr MacMillan, who said he was spat at as a child because he wore a Catholic school blazer, insisted he was speaking in a personal capacity.

Last night, Paul Scott, of the Scottish cultural body the Saltire Society, said Mr MacMillan's claims of widespread anti-Catholic discrimination were without foundation. ''It was a moving and effective speech but I was also quite disturbed by it. It is a very minor facet of Scottish life,'' he observed.

The vast majority of Scots, he said, ''do not feel in any way sectarian or different or hostile to any religion''.

Professor Tom Devine of Aberdeen University, one of Scotland's leading historians and himself a Catholic, declared: ''James MacMillan has gone slightly over the top. What he fails to realise is the enormous change of status in Roman Catholics over the last 20 or 30 years.''

As an academic, he said he dealt in evidence, adding: ''All we have had is rhetoric. I await the evidence. If he has specific evidence to support these assertions then I would be interested in what he has to say.''

Professor Devine added he had no experience of bigotry in universities - ''I have not come across any of this discrimination that he talks about.''

Rennie McOwan, Scottish correspondent of the Roman Catholic weekly paper, The Tablet - and a former media advisor to the Scottish Bishops - said: ''It is perhaps wise to debate this subject in public but far too much of what James has to say is out of focus and lacks evidence.

''His attack on The Herald verges on the fatuous and it was my personal experience when in the Bishops' media office that The Herald was a responsible newspaper endeavouring and succeeding in being accurate and fair.''

However, Monsignor Tom Connelly, the Catholic Church's Scottish spokesman, backed Mr MacMillan's comments and called him ''a brave man to put his head above the parapet''.

He said: ''My experience is that Scottish people hate to be labelled as bigots. Anti-Catholicism has been part and parcel of Scotland for years, but I for one had hoped it had disappeared.''

Convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Nation Committee, Dr Alison Elliot, said Mr MacMillan had raised some valid concerns but had overstated the extent of sectarianism in Scotland.

She added: ''The fact that sectarianism is so often associated with football in Scotland is unfortunate because we are seeing the differences in a context which is inherently competitive. That obviously makes it more difficult for people to truly respect each others' perspectives.''

She went on: ''We should never be complacent about sectarianism in Scotland, but I don't share Mr MacMillan's belief that anti-Catholicism is endemic.

''I don't think it is helpful looking back four or five hundred years to the Reformation. It's more important to look clearly at the heritage we have now and find suitable ways of debating these issues. So much sectarianism is based simply on insecurity about one's own beliefs.''

Meantime, Mr MacMillan also made a light hearted admission that he had brought the music of sectarianism into his work. His Symphonietta, he revealed, contained an allusion to a ''loyalist ditty''.