‘We’re very fortunate that my forefathers came to Edinburgh’ - James Macsween on his family's haggis legacy
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Here James Macsween speaks to Rosalind Erskine about how the capital location has played its part in the family business, how the Macsween recipe took inspiration from Mars bars and supplying and creating haggis for high street giant M&S.
The Macsween family used to be crofters on Skye, but left due to a fall out with their landlord and moved to Ratho on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
James’s grandfather took an apprenticeship with a butcher in London Links, as he explained: “He got an apprenticeship in a butcher shop in London Links in Fife to be a bookkeeper of all things.
“Once he finished that, he moved back to Edinburgh got a job in a butcher shop and near the the Roxburghe Hotel on the west side of George Street.
“He started there as a bookkeeper and ended up being the shop manager by the time the shop shut, because Mr. Orr sadly died, his daughter didn’t want to keep the business on.
“My grandfather, Charlie, thought about going to get a manager’s job somewhere else but decided to he was going to set up his own. And that’s what he did in August 1953.”
Since that time, the Macsween haggis has become a global brand with their meat and veggie haggis gracing the tables of many on Burns night and beyond.
While the Macsween butchers has been a high street name in Edinburgh since the 50s, it took a focus and drive to bring their haggis to the world.
James explained: “We’ve become more national since we dedicated our our energies to haggis and vegetarian haggis production.
“We move to our Loanhead production site (the former colliery pit) in 1996 – having moved out of red meat – and built the world’s first purpose-built haggis factory.
“We were doing 235 tonnes, then (about three quarters of a million pounds), we’re now doing roughly 6 million pounds and about 1800 tonnes and supplying the likes of Marks and Spencers.”
James and his team were delighted to be approached by Marks and Spencer, as supplying them was something James had his eye on for. It was a deal that came to fruition quickly.
“I bit their hand off when they said they were interested in us supplying them,” James said.
“That was in the July – it was actually the fourth of July, which is my wife’s birthday – and then by the 18 of November, we started supplying them, haggis and vegetarian haggis and black pudding.
“It was a very quick transition from ‘would you supply us’ to getting products made and coming up with product specifications and product recipes to shipping product out the door, and satisfying M&S customers.”
For someone who’s name is synonymous with haggis – James does sometimes get asked about, including recently when paying for petrol – he is not sick of one of our country’s best known dishes.
“I’m very proud of everything we’ve done for M&S and we make we make a phenomenal haggis for them. We have regular taste panels and and I still love eating it.”
‘You’re only as good as your last haggis’
James’s advice for any great haggis is the recipe, and some strange sounding advice from his grandfather who likened the meat dish to a Mars bar.
James explained: “My grandfather always used to talk about Mars bar haggis and I couldn’t quite understand what he was meaning until I said, ‘well, that would taste horrible granddad’.
“He said ‘no, you know what a Mars bar is going to taste like before you put it into your mouth and that’s what we need to do with our haggis’.
“So the consistency of having a repeatable recipe that delivers on flavour and texture is critical to consumers coming back, because you’re only as good as your last haggis or your last black pudding.”
James continued: “I guess making haggis is a bit like making a cake. You buy in all the bits and pieces, mix the oats, the meat, the onions and the seasoning, and it’s just about how you blend it and at what stage you blend or mince or cook.”
Robert Burns and haggis are as intrinsically linked as Macsween and haggis, with the poet making the dish famous in his poem ‘Address to a Haggis’, written a few years before his death.
This would then go on to form the basis of many a Burns night, but James is keen to point out that haggis would have been eaten 52 weeks of the year then, and should be still given its ease of cooking and budget-friendly price tag.
He also revealed a lesser known fact, that haggis isn’t Scottish, saying: “It’s just that the Scots have done a great job of looking after it.
“Food author Clarissa Dickson thinks it came to Scotland via the Vikings but there’s talk that it came to Scotland via the Romans.
“The origins of haggis are it is a very old dish. Still to this day people are eating haggis-like dishes around the world. You don’t need to look too far to find something like haggis in different continents.”
‘We’re very fortunate that my forefathers came to Edinburgh’
When it comes to haggis at home, James and his family enjoy it more for breakfast these days, but on Burns night will be sitting down to the traditional dish of haggis, neeps and tatties washed down with beer.
With famous fans and a household name, how important is the Edinburgh location of the brand?
James said: “I think we’re very fortunate that my forefathers decided to come to Edinburgh, and we’re very fortunate to have Edinburgh on our doorstep.
“What a cosmopolitan city it is. We’ve also got the Fringe Festival and it draws in tens of thousands of people every year.
“People come to Scotland to eat haggis and drink whisky and see Edinburgh.
“When you look at analytics for what visitors Google prior to coming on trips to Scotland, eating haggis is in the top 10 – it’s certainly I think on their bucket list.
“I think that location helps any food iconic food business, whether it’s haggis or whisky or shortbread or smoked salmon.
“We’re very fortunate that we’ve got these iconic foods that people around the world recognise come from Scotland, and they come to Scotland to see how we do what we do in such a beautiful country.”
Hear more from James on our Scran Live event and in our 2020 Burns night episode here.