Guardians Of Scotland's National Dish
27th March 2017 Paul Andrews
Haggis and Macsween are world renowned. We spoke to Managing Director James Macsween to find out more about the evolution of this family firm.
The Macsween story begins with Charlie and Jean Macsween, the grandparents of James Macsween who is currently involved in the business who opened a retail butcher’s shop in Bruntsfield, South Edinburgh in 1953. Previously they had both worked at Orr’s, the well respected butcher and game dealer in central Edinburgh, which was where they met. Charlie was eventually promoted to store manager while Jean worked in the accounts department.
Mr Orr’s business was very much ahead of his time, with segregation of raw and cooked meats, its own slaughter house and even a dedicated engineer to look after the fleet of vans. After the death of Mr Orr the company ceased to trade, so Charlie and Jean decided to set up their own business. Dedication and entrepreneurship was at the heart of the business with strong family values and Charlie’s customers at Orr’s remained loyal to the new business and happily travelled across town to the new shop.
Word soon spread and within a few years adjoining space was purchased to accommodate the thriving business and growing workforce. ‘Charles Macsween’ vans were soon to be seen delivering quality meat to private and wholesale customers all over Edinburgh.
Like all good butchers of the time, ‘Charles Macsween’ made a range of home-made products such as pies, sausages and the now famous haggis.
The business quickly established a reputation for quality, a wide range of all meats and games and the friendly and knowledgeable service from Charlie at the butcher’s block and Jean in the office.
The second generation – John and Kate Macsween
John was Charlie’s eldest son and had always been passionate about the business. On the day he left school in 1957 he put his passion into practice and started working alongside his parents. Father and son enjoyed a great working relationship and jointly ran the business under the name ‘Charles Macsween and Son.’ John learned all the aspects of retail butchery while developing his natural abilities in the manufacturing potential of the haggis and other company products.
When Charlie died in 1975 the business passed to John but dynamic and challenging times were to follow. The growth of the supermarkets started to threaten the independent high street retailers and less time was being spent cooking traditional family meals at home in the kitchen.
Being the natural entrepreneur that he was, John and his wife Kate saw opportunity aplenty in the specialised manufacture of haggis. James explains, “Dad (John) met Mum (Kate) at 19 and were childhood sweethearts and they signed up for the same goals, a nice house, a family and a successful business and that is not only what they set out to do, they succeeded.” As James continues, “Dad worked tirelessly to build the business and his devotion to the family firm soon began to pay off.”
A chance to present Macsween haggis at a Scottish food fair in Selfridges paved the way for sales across the UK. John’s innovation and acumen for product development saw the introduction of the first vegetarian haggis in 1984 and this was another decisive moment in the company’s continued expansion. Kate’s blue sky thinking and John’s practical ability proved to be a winning combination and soon the words ‘Macsween’ and ‘haggis’ became intertwined.
John sadly died in 2006 after a life’s dedication to the business that he loved so passionately. As his numerous obituaries testified, he achieved a very special place in people’s hearts all over the world. As James continues, “He elevated the status of Scotland’s national dish and rightly takes his place as one of Scotland’s inspirational entrepreneurs.”
The third generation – James and Jo Macsween
John and Kate’s children, sister and brother, Jo and James joined the business in the mid-1990’s. When their father passed away in 2006 they both took on joint responsibility for running the business as it entered the next stage of its journey.
Both grew up doing their homework in the offices of the butchers’ shop, inhaling the smells of matured meat and steaming haggis. During the holidays, they served the very particular requirements of Edinburgh’s Morningside ladies and thereby gained very early insights into the challenges and rewards of excellent customer service. On joining the business full time, working with John and Kate, Jo set about nurturing and building the brand, while James started to make operational and technical improvements, ensuring that their haggis was consistently brilliant every day. In 1996, this multi-generation team created the world’s first, custom-built dedicated haggis factory.
Since taking on joint responsibility for running the business, Jo and James have driven an obsessive focus on making authentic haggis to the unique family recipe, concentrating on quality, product innovation, employee engagement and sustainability. Their successful microwaveable haggis and black pudding products are testament to this, launched to serve time-pressed customers who do not want to compromise on quality. The company embraced the digital age too and have taken a lead in sustainable management and reporting.
James Macsween continues to champion and celebrate the haggis in all of its glory, and continued hard work and dedication to continually improve sees new products being brought to market too – Sausages and Gluten Free Haggis for example. As James explains, “Over the last twenty years or so Macsween has focused on excelling in the manufacture of haggis, and I think that the numerous awards and accolades that we have been awarded is testament to us continuing to achieve that goal.”
James has the same passion for haggis and the business as the previous generations. “I genuinely love what I do,” he adds, “but am fully aware of where the business began and the fond memories that it provides from growing up in and around the business. I guess being involved in this family business has become instinctive, there is something about it being yours and having your name above the door adds to the pride, and helps keep the eye firmly focused on the business too. “
Working with your parents can be tricky but as James explains, “I never regretted joining the business at all, even in the early days when Dad and I ‘rubbed swords’ due to our similar personalities but at the end of the day it was business first and the business is essentially the common denominator for all of us anyway. The experiences have stood me in good stead and the entrepreneurial flair and dedication to the business and the underlying values have helped me become the person that I am today.”
Macsween is undoubtedly a pioneering family firm being the first company in the UK to embrace microwaveable food technology and continuing to embrace opportunities both at home and abroad, where Macsween are hoping that the ban on exporting haggis to the US will be lifted. James, is however, aware of the heritage and history behind the Macsween brand, something that his own children have reminded him of from time to time, such as one visit to the factory when he was asked, “Dad, what are you doing here in Granny’s factory!”
There are continued pressures on the business to grow and in order to do so there are plans in place to open a new, purpose built manufacturing operation in 2018 which will see all of the operation under one roof, with space to grow further too. As James adds, “These are exciting times for the business and the brand, but we remain true to our values and our roots, clearly identifying the family company origins dating back to 1953 on our packaging, and we’re proud of who we are a business. Not only is this a great point of difference but it also shows that we are a brand that is real and honest, and as our company strapline says, ‘trust us to be interesting.”
A fine Scottish family firm that is continuing to push the boundaries and harness their reputation as manufacturers of fine foods and guardians of Scotlands’s national dish.