How Macsweens turned haggis-making into an art

Jo and James Macsween. Picture: PHIL WILKINSON
Jo and James Macsween. Picture: PHIL WILKINSON
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HAGGIS, that spicy dish of minced lamb, oatmeal, onions wrapped up in a casing made from a sheep’s stomach. Nothing particularly mysterious about that, surely?

Not a four-legged winged mysterious creature with bagpipes and wearing a tartan trimmed bunnet to be seen. Nor a waddling duck, grouse, pheasant, or indeed, a Mars Bar, in sight.

John  Macsween in the shop. Picture: contributed

John Macsween in the shop. Picture: contributed

James Macsween – whose family surname has been emblazoned on many a haggis destined for tables from the frozen north to the scorched heat of Dubai – can afford a wry smile at all the myths and mystique that surrounds the nation’s favourite meaty pud.

For he’s the man who’s busy in the Macsween kitchens in Loanhead, tinkering and tweaking, turning out new breeds of haggis with unusual ingredients and strange additions which, 60 years ago when his grandfather Charles launched the first ever Macsween haggis on a grateful ­Edinburgh public, could never have been imagined.

The business has just quietly marked its diamond jubilee by doing what it always does at this time of year: sending tens of thousands of haggis across Scotland and beyond, bound for dinner tables in time for St Andrews Night.

But while diners tucked into the familiar flavours, James and sister Jo – who share the business helm – were at work unveiling their latest offerings, haggis made with venison and an unusual three bird variety, rich and gamey of smoked duck, venison and pheasant, spiced with cumin, ­cinnamon and even lavender.

John MacSween outside Charles MacSween & Son's butchers shop in Bruntsfield Place. Picture: contributed

John MacSween outside Charles MacSween & Son's butchers shop in Bruntsfield Place. Picture: contributed

They are unusual flavours which old Charles Macsween – the pair’s grandfather – is unlikely to have had in mind as he set about establishing his butchers shop in Bruntsfield Place. But then his thoughts, James admits, were on something much sweeter and inspired by, of all things, a Mars bar.

“He used to model his haggis on the idea behind a Mars bar,” laughs James, 40. “He used to say that every time you saw a Mars bar, you knew exactly what you were going to get. It would be chocolate, caramel and marshmallow. You knew what it would taste like and the sensation of eating it before you bit into it. And, he said, you have to do that with ­haggis.”

The story is woven into Macsween family history – Jo tells ­exactly the same tale, pointing out that until that stage, haggis buying in Edinburgh was a bit like culinary Russian roulette.

“Butchers were using haggis as a means of getting rid of stuff,” explains Jo, “so from one week to the next the recipe would vary and consumers couldn’t trust it. Grandad said it had to be constant and predictable, just like a Mars bar. The ­business was faithful and true to that and it worked.”

Today Macsween sell 5.5 million portions of traditional haggis, a vegetarian variety and black pudding every year, exporting to Europe, South ­Africa, Dubai and to its biggest customer, England, where 60 per cent of its products end up.

It’s a super-scale ­production line and a giant leap from back when Charles worked behind the counter of William Orr & Sons meat emporium where it may well have been a German – not a Scot – who inspired him to create one of the nation’s best-loved products.

“My grandfather learned good practice in Orr’s, a wonderful butchers in George Street,” recalls Jo. “It was an amazing place, state of the art for its time with complete traceability for all its products although they’d never have called it that back then. It even had its own slaughterhouse, the ­animals were herded up Rose Street to be slaughtered, and Charlie was the ­manager.

“There was a good sausage maker there, a ­German. He had a hand in making sure grandad was good too.”

Faced with redundancy when the owner died, Charlie’s widowed boss offered him equipment, a £5000 loan and urged him to set up his own shop rather than work for anyone else.

It was 1953, rationing was still in place when a wary Charlie – who had met wife Jean while both worked at Orr’s – set up business in Bruntsfield. Although not a natural entrepreneur, his business thrived and expanded thanks to devoted and loyal customers. When the couple’s son John – Jo and James’ father – joined the firm he brought a unique flair for marketing and media that put the Macsween name into the spotlight.

“Dad loved to talk about the product,” laughs Jo. “He was a natural marketeer. He’d get in a taxi and say ‘Take me to the best haggis maker in town!’ and the taxi driver would say ‘That would be Macsween’s in Bruntsfield’. When he got there, dad would ask how big a family he had and get him a haggis.

“He knew the value of ‘word of mouth’ and that the taxi driver would tell the story to passenger after passenger.”

Supermarkets brought challenges to the business but, again, the Macsween family was ahead of its time, quickly spotting the potential threat to the high-street butcher shop, John steered the firm towards specialising in what they had become best known for – haggis.

He died in 2006 having overseen the closure of the Bruntsfield shop and the move to the Loamhead base.

Today the firm has an annual turnover of £4.5 million, 50 staff and products which wing their way into Marks & Spencer, Selfridges, pub chain JD Wetherspoon and top class restaurants across the country.

And yet some things, insist Jo and James, have stayed just the same. Indeed, the company has just picked up the title of Family Business of the Year, an outstanding stamp of approval for a firm that has soldiered on for three generations, through recession and rationing with, at the end of the day, a fairly niche product.

“Family tradition,” nods Jo, “one of the challenges for us is how to be both guardians and pioneers.

“Staying true to values is really ­important in business, but it doesn’t always make you money.

“We don’t want to mess with volumes of history that have survived very well and which people admire, we want to respect the quality of the product and the values we hold dear.

“But the business is not a museum piece and the world around us evolves, customers want new things and then what about the next generation of consumer? Will they want haggis like their mum and grandfather ate?”

Indeed, that’s why grouse, pheasant, duck and venison have made an appearance – to be followed eventually by other seasonal and, as yet, secret varieties cooked up by James in the Loanhead kitchen.

Eventually there may even be a low-fat variety. But, naturally, the old favourite will stay just the same.

“Haggis, neeps and tatties, the Holy Trinity,” laughs James. “It never goes wrong.”

Business was built up over six decades

1953: Charles and Jean Macsween open a butchers shop in Bruntsfield Place and create the first Macsween haggis and black pudding.

1957: Son John joins the family business. He displays remarkable marketing skills, turning the brand into a well-known name.

1963: The butcher shop expands to take over neighbouring premises, becoming one of the city’s biggest butchers.

Early 1980s: John takes his haggis to London for a business event and secures a prestigious contract to supply Selfridges – opening a new route into the English market.

1996: Production of Macsween haggis moves to new custom-built kitchens in Loanhead and in 1998 the Bruntsfield shop closes.

2013: Macsween haggis is exported around the world, selling in Dubai, Germany and France.

Haggis not only a Scottish dish

HAGGIS is our national dish, but many countries had their own version of the dish which was regarded as a perfect way of utlising every bit of a slaughtered animal.

The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes referred to a haggis-type meal around the year 400BC – the first written mention of the savoury meat pud. And there are references to haggis-like dishes in recipe books dating from the 15th century.

It fell out of favour in many cultures, but Scots love their haggis – largely thanks to Robert Burns and the classic Burns Supper which, of course, features haggis as its main event.

In recent years, haggis has morphed into vegetarian versions, pizza toppings and as pakora. Macsween makes about 350 tonnes or more than 1.5m portions – to supply the Burns Suppers in January.