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Issue 1 - Poor Man's Feast

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002

 

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Poor Man's Feast

Edinburgh based haggis makes Macsween's have a burgeoning reputation as the best in the business. Tom Brude-Gardyne discovers just what makesa Macsween's haggis so different from the rest...

Anyone seeking to break into Macsween’s, the only custom built haggis factory in the world, first has to wrestle with Robbie Burns. By day this life-size papier maché model of the great poet appears friendly enough, standing by the entrance offering visitors a haggis in his outstretched hand, but by night …

“A lot of people think he’s a security guard,” says Jo Macsween, who runs the marketing side of the family firm. “Frannie comes in first thing in the morning and still gets a heart attack, so if it works for my staff, it’s bound to work for others.”

The presence of Scotland’s national bard is entirely appropriate of course, for without him there would be no haggis. Perhaps that’s not entirely true, but it’s hard to think of one without the other. The dish had been around for centuries, and was probably drifting towards obscurity if not extinction when Burns came along and subjected it to the full glare of his florid imagination.

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’-race!” bellow the opening lines of his immortal address To a Haggis and with that the poor creature never looked back. Every January 25th, in every corner of the globe where Scots are gathered, she is wheeled out to the scurl of the pipes and the drinking of many drams to celebrate the poet’s birthday. He may not have known it at the time, but Burns created the national dish, and for that the Macsweens will be forever grateful.

But why address a haggis in the first place? It seems a curious thing for a poet to do, indeed there are no Shakespearean sonnets to semolina or spotted dick, as far as one knows. “Well it’s a very democratic dish,” says Jo Macsween. “It’s a poor man’s feast made from humble
ingredients that fills you up. It’s not about airs and graces which is good symbolism for a man of the earth who rose to meteoric literary fame within his own lifetime.” We do not know if Burns loved the dish beyond all others, but he sure loved rubbing the genteel noses of Edinburgh society in the haggis with its “gushing entrails bright” that were “warm-reekin rich!” Read the poem aloud and you will hear a glorious, rip-roaring send-up of pretension in all its many forms, and fancy French food in particular.

Burns and haggis certainly make a good double act on the night, but luckily for Jo and her family, haggis-eating is not just confined to Burn’s suppers. In Scottish restaurants haggis is on the menu year-round and in ever-more imaginative ways, some of which work better than others. but wherever it’s being served you’ll likely hear someone asking in anxious tones; “Is it a Macsween’s?” The truth is the two have become virtually synonymous, thanks not to any magic family recipe, just a bit of foresight, the odd lucky break and loads of determination. The story begins with Jo’s grandfather. In 1953 Charlie Macsween set up on his own in Edinburgh, after years running one of the city’s finest butcher’s shops on George Street, which has long since disappeared. At the new shop, in a part of town called Bruntsfield, Charlie continued making his own sausages and haggis just as he’d always done until he died in the 60s, at which point his son John took over. “Now while Dad was a very good master butcher, his heart really lay in manufacturing,” says Jo. Among local customers and butchers visiting from the south, Macsween of Edinburgh was getting quite a reputation for its haggis, “but it wasn’t a branded thing”. The crunch came in the 80s when, against a backdrop of rising vegetarianism and faint, ominous rumblings about BSE, the supermarkets moved in. “It wasn’t looking good for red meat, so Dad decided that it was time to really make something of the haggis.”

The big break came with an invitation to participate in a Scottish week at Selfridges, the London department store, when the haggis flew off the Macsween stand. “The promotion went so well we got an immediate listing, and that led to Harrods and once you’re in Harrods, well of course everyone wants you. London orders really started taking off and even now we’re probably better known there than in Glasgow.” As sales spread, some of the myths about haggis began to evaporate. Slowly people started seeing it for what it is – a dish of minced lamb, onion, seasoning and oatmeal cooked in the lining of a sheep’s stomach, and not an eight-legged timorous beastie that roams the highlands. “Yes, there are lots of jokes, the poor haggis is still the butt of ridicule,” says Jo wearily. “It’s not something the tourist industry have tried to change, so it still gets lumped in with the Loch Ness monster. It’s part of the reason people come – God help us!”

The biggest innovation has been vegetarian haggis which many people still think is an April Fool, even though it’s been around since the mid-80s. It generated a ridiculous amount of comment in the press, incensed the odd meat-eating highlander and comprehensively upstaged the event it was created for. The challenge to make a haggis without meat came from the Edinburgh Poetry Library as something novel to serve at their opening night party. Having force-fed his family “endless permutations of soggy muck”, a highly-sceptical John Macsween finally cracked it. Today veggie haggis accounts for a fifth of over a million pound’s worth of haggis sold by the firm.

Jo is painfully aware that family firms often carry with them the seeds of their own destruction. “Only 15% survive beyond the third generation, and we’re determined to be one of them.” If that means offending the odd carnivore too bad, though I wonder what Robbie Burns would make of it all as I pass his effigy on my way out …

MACSWEEN OF EDINBURGH
Dryden Road, Bilston Glen, Loanhead, Edinburgh EH20 9LZ
Scotland. Tel: +44 (0)131 440 2555 Fax: +44 (0)131 440 2674
Web site: www.macsween.co.uk Email: haggis@macsween.co.uk

Unfortunately Macsween are unable to export to the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, China or Japan, but their goods can be ordered elsewhere via www.expatshopping.com or by calling +44 (0) 1904 477 920.