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Issue 83 - Meet the Producer

Scotland Magazine Issue 83
October 2015


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Meet the Producer

Macsween of Edinburgh

The myths and jokes abound but haggis remains one of Scotland's most iconic foods, created in a country that throws nothing of value away. Think about it. Scotch whisky is produced from barley, grain and water; haggis is traditionally assembled from the left overs on the butcher's plate with added oatmeal and onion, suet and spices. Nothing is wasted.

And above all, there is one name which for over half a century has been synonymous with the manufacture of quality haggis – Macsween.

Charlie and Jean Macsween met whilst working for the respected Edinburgh butchers, poulterers, game dealers and cooked meat specialists William Orr Ltd of George Street. When the owner died in the early 1950s, his daughter loaned them £5000 to set up their own business. It was a prudent investment. The Macsween's first butcher shop, with Charlie at the butcher's block and Jean in the office, opened in the Edinburgh district of Bruntsfield in 1953. Having first gained a reputation for the quality of his meat and game, Charlie created the first Macsween Haggis and Macsween Black Pudding.

John, his eldest son, left school in 1957 and, despite being obliged to pluck three geese on his first day in the shop, went on to expand the business with vans delivering quality meat to customers all over the city. When Charlie died in 1975, John and his wife Kate took over and, recognising the demand, developed the specialised manufacture of haggis.

In 1984, encouraged by Tessa Ransford, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library, John created the first vegetarian haggis. Made up of various pulses and seeds, this was instantly approved by the Vegetarian Society and has also become immensely popular with vegans.

“I suppose genetics must have had something to do with it,” reflects James Macsween, who with his sister Jo, joined the family business in 1993. “We all enjoyed working in the shop when we were young. I can honestly claim to have had a go at everything to do with it. My Dad couldn't wait to have me home in the school holidays and it wasn't slave labour. He paid us well.”

When James left school he trained in education and for a while, taught at Blairmore School, near Aberdeen. “After that, I went to a college to learn about outdoor pursuits and worked in the shop in the evenings. Then my parents went on holiday and left me to it.

“When they returned, my Dad offered me a job in production,” he says, adding, “There's nothing more satisfactory than making meat products and turning them into something incredibly tasty.”

He was won over. “By this stage, we'd been talking about building a factory,” he continues. “And when my sister Jo also joined the company, the decision was taken to close the shop and to concentrate on manufacturing and wholesaling.”

It was a bold but far sighted move. They began with just one supermarket listing, Safeways, and then it just got bigger. By 1998, Tesco and Costco were on board, followed by Waitrose and Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Asda. Macsween now sell to all of the major retailers and to a lot of sources that nobody sees. “We supply haggis to every retail area in the market including Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges in London,” James announces with satisfaction.

Macsween of Edinburgh now operates from a state-of-the art factory premises in Loanhead, at Bilston Glen in the foothills of the Pentland Hills. An expansion was opened in 2003 by HRH Prince Andrew, Duke of York. Spotless and sparkling, the futuristic production line is a marvel in itself.

“Diversification and innovation are the names of the game,” says James.

Reaching into a convenience market, both meat and vegetarian haggis, with no change to the original recipes, are now widely available in one minute microwave packs. “We realised that we needed to target a younger audience. How do you make haggis 'cool'?” James asks.

“The answer was to make it available in a smaller format and so more affordable.”

While Macsween continues to manufacture traditional haggis in natural casings, plastic casings have been introduced for 'Delicious Everyday Haggis.' Moreover, working with Colin Bussey, former executive chef at The Savoy and The Gleneagles Hotel, a series of booklets highlighting original and ground breaking recipes is available to showcase the versatility of the product.

Two years ago Jo wrote
The Macsween Haggis Bible (Birlinn), featuring 50 haggis recipes for all seasons, occasions and places, available on-line. That same year, James used his knowledge to handcraft a venison Haggis, infused with port, juniper, redcurrants and spices, and a delicious Threebird Haggis, made up of grouse, pheasant and duck, subtly smoked with quince, lavender and spices. Both were winners of the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards.

All of Macsween's meat – lamb, beef and venison – is locally sourced and, not surprisingly, Macsween Haggis was nominated for the Guild of Fine Foods, 3 Gold Star Great Taste Award, the first haggis ever to have won this award. For the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Macsween was invited to produce a specially licensed, limited edition Commonwealth Games Haggis featuring a Commonwealth recipe card and official, individually numbered, Commonwealth holographic sticker.

‘Trust us to be interesting,’ is the Macsween slogan.

Haggis Nachos
Serves 2

1.30g Macsween Haggis in a Hurry
Bag of tortilla chips
100g grated cheddar or mozzarella cheese
100g guacamole
100g salsa
100g sour cream
Jalapeño peppers (optional)
Fresh chillies, finely sliced (optional)

Heat the haggis in the microwave according to the instructions on the pack. Meanwhile decant the tortilla chips onto a large plate.
Spoon the hot haggis over the tortilla chips and sprinkle over the cheese.
Dollop generous spoonfuls of guacamole, salsa and sour cream on the top and add a few Jalapeño peppers or fresh chillies if desired.

Haggis and Cherry Tomato Spaghetti
Serves 4

454g Macsween Delicious Every Day Haggis
400g spaghetti
15 cherry tomatoes
4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Handful fresh basil leaves, to serve (optional)
Grated parmesan, to serve (optional)
(Optional extras to consider: capers, fresh chilli or chilli flakes)

Cook the haggis according to the instructions on the pack. Meanwhile boil the spaghetti in a large pan of salted water.
Heat the oil in a frying pan, slice the cherry tomatoes in half and fry for 3 minutes.
Drain the spaghetti and return to the pan. Pour in the tomatoes and olive oil and crumble in the hot haggis. Toss everything together well. Season to taste.
Divide into 4 portions and sprinkle with parmesan, basil and any other accompaniments if desired.

Vegetarian Haggis Stuffed Peppers
Serves 4

454g Macsween Delicious Every Day Vegetarian Haggis
3 red or yellow peppers, halved and de-seeded (leave stalks on)
50g grated cheddar, crumbled feta or halloumi

Cook the vegetarian haggis according to the instructions on the pack.
Meanwhile, place the pepper halves under a medium grill, with the
outside facing up, for a few minutes, until they have softened and are beginning to char.
Remove the peppers from the grill, turn over and fill with the hot vegetarian haggis.
Sprinkle the cheeses on top and place back under the grill for a further 5 minutes until the cheese is bubbling.