John Macsween

Edinburgh butcher who made haggis glamorous and built the world's first haggis-manufacturing plant
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The Independent Online

John Angus Macsween, haggis manufacturer: born Edinburgh 17 October 1939; married 1964 Kate McKay (one son, three daughters); died Edinburgh 12 July 2006.

John Macsween's fortunes were founded on haggis, so much so that on his death he was apostrophised himself in Scotland as the "great chieftain o' the pudding-race". Joining the family butcher shop in 1957 with his father, John Charles Macsween, always known as Charlie, he built it up to such an extent that it now boasts the world's only purpose-built haggis-manufacturing plant.

Born in Edinburgh in 1939, John Angus Macsween was the eldest child of three, educated at James Gillespie's High School and then at Heriot's. He left school at 16. In 1964 he married Kate, daughter of John McKay, once Lord Provost of Edinburgh and the proprietor of a thriving insurance business. Macsween of Edinburgh is now run by the middle two of their four children.

Charles Macsween and Son was originally a retail butcher, deriving its high standards from John Macsween's grandfather's business, the famous William Orr and Son, also in Edinburgh. Our current concerns with the traceability and provenance of our food supply were already honoured at Orr's, for the beasts, all from livestock farmers known to them, went into the abattoir at the back in Rose Street, and came out as steaks and joints at the front.

John Macsween was an innovator by nature, and developed systems that are now commonplace and sometimes required by law, such as keeping cooked and raw meat separate, not allowing those who handled money to handle the meat, a ticketing system for queuing at busy times, and point-of-sale leaflets for mail-order goods.

In the 1980s he saw that the growth of supermarkets posed a serious threat to family-run small food businesses, and he made some difficult decisions about changing the business from a retailer to a largely wholesale firm. Invited to join other retailers in a Scottish-goods promotion at Selfridges in London, he was surprised when, at the end of the week, Selfridges' buyer gave him a very large order for his haggis. This gave him the confidence to establish Macsween's haggis as a brand, and he returned to London to knock, successfully, on the doors of Harrods and Fortnum's, so that, says his daughter Jo, "Macsween's haggis was now better known in London than in Glasgow".

In 1996 he moved the business from Bruntsfield to the Loanhead manufacturing plant, which employs some 30 people (though the gregarious Macsween always missed the customers). In the 20 business days preceding 25 January, Burns Night, Macsween's ships more than five tonnes of haggises every day.

Early in January 1984 Tessa Ransford asked John Macsween to sponsor the opening of the Scottish Poetry Library, at a Burns Night dinner, by providing the haggis - which he was happy to do for a friend. As an afterthought, she told him that there would be several vegetarians present. He at first protested, as "vegetarian haggis" is a contradiction in terms, but gave in to her entreaties and developed a recipe that omitted the lamb and beef of the traditional haggis, and was not encased in the usual washed large intestine of an ox. Vegetarian haggis, no longer an oxymoron, accounts for 25 per cent of Macsween's turnover.

Food historians tell us that haggis was as much an English as a Scottish dish until the 18th century, and one derivation traces the word from the French hachi, though in her 1996 book The Haggis: a little history Clarissa Dickson Wright says "the root of the word haggis is not from Latin languages, and its origin appears to be Scandinavian". As for the thing itself, rather than its name, there is a similar-sounding sausage in Aristophanes' The Clouds. But its origin, says the Macsween website, must lie in the need, having killed a beast in the hunt, to preserve the edible offals, which go off rapidly in heat. The sensible thing to do would be to chop them up, mix them with cereal and cook them in a ready-made vessel - the stomach bag.

This is the basic recipe for haggis, as it is for English faggots. What makes haggis Scottish is the use of oatmeal. The Macsween recipe, which goes back at least three generations, uses two kinds of oats, and you can clearly taste coriander seed in the secret spice combination. They boast that a family member tastes every batch (Jo Macsween says she gets through 1 1/2lb of haggis samples in a working day).

On Burns Night, after the haggis is piped in, it is stabbed with a dagger and Burns's "Address to a Haggis" recited, before it is eaten with bashed neeps (mashed turnips in Scotland, swedes in England, rutabaga in the United States) and self-explanatory tatties, accompanied by a tot of whisky. John Macsween's genius was to develop that seasonal sideline into a serious niche market. He gave the humble haggis glamour, as the essential Scottish dish, and he persuaded the world (and the buyers for the big shops) that haggis is a delicacy.

A pale-skinned, carrot-top Scot, he became very photogenic as he aged, his grey hair sometimes accompanied by a romantic grey beard. His only other consuming interest was horticulture - in 1999, when he and his wife retired to Pathhead, it was to a house with a large garden, which he made from scratch.

Paul Levy

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