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Gie her a Haggis!

Jo Macsween tells Melanie Henderson about the family business and her own special love of the national dish.

  The naturally queasy may balk, while those with heavily girded stomachs experience thunderous rumblings. Just as the turkey leftovers have all been well and truly curried, the mince pies are growing mould in the tin and the chocolate boxes have long been pillaged, thoughts of Scotland's most famous dish come to mind. Sated or not, soon it will be time to sample again that pudding of puddings that swells straining paunches still further. Still, like the festive binge, it's only once a year.

It was not always so. For although Rabbie Burns was obviously more than fond of the "glorious sight" that was "warm-reekin' rich" on his tea table, it wasn't a feast that would have been reserved for special occasions - or indeed for his own birthday dinner. In fact, says Jo Macsween, it was a common enough stand-by not yet elevated by rousing Scots elegy.

"It would have been a bit like having fish on a Friday. You would have eaten it about once a week. But it was no trivial issue to Burns. He talks a lot about the dishes that look down on haggis" - French ragout and fricassee - "And he's saying that after you've had haggis you're fit to fight anyone.

" If that's the case, then Jo Macsween should be fit to take on a band of black belts. It's doubtful whether even Rabbie at his hungriest consumed more haggis than she does. Forget cornflakes, sandwiches and pasta suppers, all she needs as her daily staple is haggis, haggis and haggis. However, getting through 1/2 lb a day of the stuff is all part of the job. As a director of Macsween of Edinburgh, the company that almost exclusively means haggis in Scotland, it's something of a bonus to be a walking advert. If she didn't devour it herself, how would she persuade households everywhere to eat her grandad's formula for the celebrated rustic recipe come January 25th?

"I do absolutely adore haggis and it's just as well," she says. "I would gladly sit down to it with neeps and tatties for lunch every day. It's a very genuine love."

At a crucial point in its making, the Macsween haggis, still made in a natural casings with two types of oatmeal and a heady concoction of spices (psst ... there's coriander in there), can go no further unless it is tasted by a family member. And Jo is only too happy to carry out this key quality control duty.

Along with her brother, James she has been key to the expansion that has taken the company from its roots in the capital's Bruntsfield Place to what is claimed as the world's first purpose-built haggis factory - on an industrial estate just off the city bypass. But the young Macsweens have long been involved in assisting their father John, the chairman, and their mother, Kate, financial director in the business, to build the reputation that has seen them scoop numerous awards, as well as contracts from the UK's most famous outlets - Harrods, Fortnum and Masons, Selfridges and Edinburgh's own Jenners among them.

"We've all really been in the company since we were table high. My dad used to say to me 'What are you doing in the holidays?' I'd say 'Working for you?' and he'd say 'Good, that's the right answer'"

"My elder sister isn't in the business, she's a doctor. But even she says 'You know, working for dad was one of the best trainings I could have had.'

"I've had over a decade of Burns seasons here. I never know how long it is exactly - I just know how many sleepless nights I've had in January!"

Within the next few weeks, around 250 tons of haggis will exit through Macsween's back door - around 10 tons a day - and temporary staff are recruited annually to deal with the boom.

Macsween of Edinburgh was established in 1953 by John Charles Macsween, who had formerly worked at William Orr & Son, a meat emporium that was a real institution in its time. When they ceased trading, he took the bull by the horns, so to speak.

"I really admire grandad," says Jo. "He'd have been in his late 40s / early 50’s at the time and it wasn't any age to be starting a business.

"Haggis wasn't a large part of what he sold, but it did very well. When dad joined in 1957 he saw the potential for increasing production, which was just as well because the supermarkets had started to hit us. He went out there and knocked on doors and eventually got the orders coming - and once you have names like Harrods and Selfridges, everyone listens."

Not everyone, however, has listened to the haggis battle cry over the years. Why, they say, do we savour such an ugly food that, after all, was just cheap peasant fare in its day? Many are, of course, put off by the mere knowledge of what it's made of (sheep's 'pluck,' consisting of heart, liver and lungs or 'lites').

"If someone has had a bad food experience, they always remember it," says Jo. "It's like going back to cold cabbage at school, and I can understand that. So there is a process of education - and we're totally convinced that once you taste it you'll change your mind. It's a case of reaching out in an almost evangelical way."

And she's in no doubt at all about what moved Rabbie to rapture. "It's got everything going for it. It's warming, it's delicious and it's nutritious. It just makes you feel so good."

One fan who'd agree is Clarissa Dickson-Wright, one half of TV's Two Fat Ladies, who has written a book about the dish - The Haggis: A Little History (Appletree Press) - and believes, controversially, that it came from the Vikings.

"We actually sponsor her when she's filming. She has supplies in her freezer and she has it after a hard day. She says 'It's just the greatest stress buster!'

"Haggis is such a mythical thing. We owe Burns a great deal. I mean, you don't see poets writing odes to hamburgers or pork chops. And of course, it's the nationalistic thing as well."

Ah yes, the fervour that inspires impassioned dinner speeches and provides a good excuse for much whisky sinking. That's something Macsween is keen to encourage. The company takes many inquiries from prospective Burns' Night organisers, and freely gives advice, as well as supplying instructional booklets and alternative recipes (among them barbecued haggis and haggis in filo pastry).

"I see that as absolutely essential. It's part of the job to preserve tradition. I do get unusual requests. Someone phoned me once and quoted me a couple of lines of Burns and said 'Which poem is that from? I'm entering a competition' So because I wasn't busy I went and found out and he was delighted. You get lots of requests from distant parts saying things like 'Do you know that bread with the burnt top? I haven't had any of that for a while. Can you put some in?' Or 'How about some of that custard you get over there?' You have to know where to draw the line!"

John Macsween did not draw the line, however, over catering for vegetarians bored with yet another spinach lasagne on Rabbie's birthday. Asked by Scottish poet Tessa Ransford to develop a veggie haggis for the opening of the Scottish Poetry Library, his initial reaction was 'Tough.' But he rose to the challenge, coming up with a product that now amounts to 20-25% of the business, even though it was originally intended as a PR stunt.

What would Burns have thought of that? And what would he have thought about the humble haggis as a 'luxury' item? Or the Burns' night phenomenon itself?

"Well, there was a play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that tried to answer that. It was about Burns coming back from the dead and seeing his image on napkins and shortbread tins - it would be very strange for him, I think. But I think he'd be very chuffed. It's a tremendous tribute, but one that's deserved. You can quote Burns for almost anything. It's a bit like the Bible - you can use him to back up almost everything you say."

No doubt he'd have had a special verse or two for the Macsween haggis, a brand that's surely as honest and sonsie as the one he thought "Weel wordy" of immortal grace.


But, if ye wish her grateful prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!