Interview: Jo and James Macsween, haggis producers

It's funny the things you end up doing on a freezing cold Tuesday afternoon.

Hanging about the car park of an industrial estate in Loanhead, as the wind bites and the gritters rumble past, while watching two adults dressed as haggis play fight certainly ranks amongst the less ordinary. Inside the costumes are Jo and James Macsween, the managing directors of Macsween, Scotland's best known haggis makers and self-appointed "guardians of Scotland's national dish".

Jo and James are two serious-minded business people. They are the third generation of the Macsween family to run the business, which for more than half a century operated from the iconic butcher shop in Bruntsfield before moving to purpose-built premises in Loanhead (the world's first haggis factory). They've bucked the recession, increasing their sales by 20 per cent in 2009, their business is award-winning and they are, between them and the 50 staff employed at the firm's Midlothian headquarters, responsible for producing 3,000,000 servings of haggis every year.

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"Who's got the better legs?" shouts Jo, her voice muffled by the costume.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions over Scotland's small business community, but the laugh-a-minute performance of the Macsween siblings (including exaggerated rivalry and dead pan repartee, never mind the haggis suits) wasn't entirely expected. It's January after all, the busiest month in the haggis maker's calendar. The month in which Macsween will take a third of its annual turnover. Burns Night (25 January) is THE day in the haggis calendar. The month in which it sits is so important that it's how the Macsweens count years. James, 37, has worked for the company founded by his great-grandfather for 18 Januarys, he says. The team of James and Jo, 41, has been in charge for eight.

The factory is going at full tilt, producing meat and veggie haggis (which was invented by Jo and James's dad, John, who died in 2006 and who, it was announced last week, has been added to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography this year for his contribution as a premier haggis maker). There's no time to don hair nets and Wellie boots for a tour. A nosey journalist would only get in the way. In December, the factory was producing four-and-a-half tonnes of haggis a day. When they moved to the Midlothian factory which was built in 1996, they were making 235 tonnes of haggis a year. Now, says James, "We're a kick in the pants off 850 tonnes this year."

The Macsweens might be unfailingly jovial but haggis is a serious business. There are still occasional spats about where it's from and how it developed. Some say the Vikings are to thank, some say the Romans brought it with them, other braver souls contend it was first eaten in England. The Macsween family opt for a very diplomatic version of the rather cloudy history, believing that the dish likely arrived in Scotland from Scandinavia between the 9th and 15th centuries.

What there is less debate about is the ingredients. Pretty much the same stuff that was being slung in a sheep's stomach back in ancient times is used today. A Macsween traditional haggis contains lamb, beef, oatmeal and onions, plus the firm's secret blend of spices and seasoning (staff have to sign a confidentiality agreement). These are all cooked together in a natural casing.

For the cultural significance of the chieftain' o' the puddin' race we have Robert Burns to thank, of course. Burns celebrated the food's Scottishness and the fact that due to its cheapness, it could be celebrated as a democratic form of nutrition, fit for everyone, affordable for everyone. The funny thing is, that aspect of haggis is something that's once again playing a part in its success as a recession-friendly dish.

"I was speaking to a catering butcher the other day and he was saying he can't move for sirloin and fillet steak, it's just not selling," says James. "Shin, haugh – (those are] flying out the door because people are making stews. Haggis is one of those dishes: it's a cheap, humble dish that fills your belly."

Drams and poetry and Scotland's unquenchable thirst for couthy tradition sustains Burns' suppers with ease, but you can see why for Jo Macsween, the idea that the dish should be eaten once a year, each year in exactly the same way, doesn't quite fit with a 21st-century marketing plan.

"We're trying to get away from the notion that haggis is for winter, for Burns night, for old people, for neeps and tatties. It's not. Scotland has always been really good at understanding what it's essentially great at – wool, tartan and..." she points to the plate of Tunnock's caramel wafers on the table. "But it's a question of not forgetting what we've got. In other words, don't muck about with the quality of the recipe, but that doesn't stop you going a bit 21st century."

It's partly an issue of image, which is why the new Macsweens promotional material comes complete with soft-focus shots of 30-somethings eating haggis canaps.

"For too long Burns night has been perceived (as being] for older people with this idea that you need to know how to do it," says Jo. "No, we want it to be about just having some friends round, eating a haggis and drinking a beer."

The Macsweens newest product, launched in November last year, is haggis sold in slices in a pack that goes straight into the microwave and is ready in one minute. It's aimed to appeal to the under-30s, people who want fast, convenient food. No toasts or poetic outbursts are required and you are encouraged to stick it on a roll or serve it as nachos. Going by early signs, it's been yet another masterstroke – the packs are "flying out of the factory," says James.

It might be a reason for sheepishness that people under 30 are so busy watching cookery programmes that they can't take the six minutes out of their busy schedule to microwave a standard Macsween haggis but having investigated in a moment of what can only be described as culinary madness, how I might make my own haggis, there can be no doubt that we need haggis makers.

Think about it. First, you must find your local butcher, then you must request that they order you some sheep pluck – that's the liver, lungs and heart. Then you must get your hands on a sheep's fourth stomach (rumen), which you must wash and dry before using it as the casing for the meat. Then you must boil, cool, chop and mix the pluck with onions, toasted oatmeal, salt, pepper, and spices, before you finally sew up the stomach (leaving extra room to avoid a messy explosion as the contents expand) and boil again. Even the most devoted slow-food devotee would find it hard to argue that any of us should be doing that. Ever.

Maybe that's why James and Jo are so chipper. They have the conviction that they're doing what their family has been doing for generations and they do it about as well as anyone ever has. But it's not just them. As we wander about the premises, a bog-standard industrial estate building with strip-lit corridors, notices stuck to doors, and polaroids of staff pinned to a notice board, admittedly at least partly while James and Jo are dressed in their costumes, everyone talks to them and plenty have a good laugh at their expense. There's loads of healthy camaraderie.

It's the same in the boardroom. There's the usual office furniture, the requisite portrait of Robert Burns, a wall of black-and-white photos documenting the company's history. But it's also where the haggis costumes are kept. In one corner is the meaty version, in another is his veggie counterpart. Lying on the floor is the new one-minute haggis. They've all got names – Fast Angus is the newbie, I think one of the others is called Hamish but I confess, I forget what the other one's called. Hector? Torcuil?

"People don't know quite what to make of it," says Jo, explaining she signed an IT contract earlier in the day dressed as one, to capture the photo opportunity. "These costumes do live in here, they're not just in here because it's January. We'll have these quite serious meetings and you'll bring people in for the first time and you see them clocking the haggis. After a while they just become part of the furniture."

Jo and James do a nice line in friendly banter: They finish each other's sentences and often talk at the same time.

"I wouldn't do it with anyone else," says James. "I get on well with all my sisters but I get on really well with Jo. Some folk think we're husband and wife."

"They make that assumption," chips in Jo. "It's partly sexist, (they think] that the woman must've married into the business."

"The other two don't have the same attitude to business, and our philosophies and attitudes are similar," continues James.

"We've worked at it though," says Jo, as if to prove a point.

"We have worked really hard at it and there have been times when we couldn't have seen each other far enough. I kid you not. But we've overcome them. Yeah, therapy," says Jo laughing. "It's been expensive." She's joking but James says they did use a surprising technique to aid communication.

"We used to have a stone each," says James. Jo tries to dissuade him from this story but he's having none of it. "If Jo had something difficult to say to me she used to put the stone on my desk. I'd know that something needed to be said but it was up to me as to when I was ready to hear it. That worked really well. Now we don't need (the stone] because we can read each other." "We also have lunch together nearly every day," says Jo. "That helps." The other thing that I suspect helps is that they both have taken almost identical routes to get to where they are. Working in the Bruntsfield shop during school holidays, finishing school, opting for teaching as a career before deciding on the family business.

"We all worked in the shop," say Jo, "As soon as we were...

"Tall enough," adds James.

"Nose over the counter, that was the point you were expected to do it." And if you were a bit shy of that there was a stool kept behind the counter for additional height they say.

"You'd get quite menial jobs when you first started. I got giblets, making burgers. You really weren't allowed to serve the customers until you were... nearly ten." They both laugh.

But they learned every aspect of the business and they learned how to deal with tough customers. Morningside ladies are mentioned (respectfully) as a particularly hard crowd to please. James recalls being accosted during his shy teenage years with the classic: "Does it cost too much to smile in this establishment?" It's clear they enjoy their business, but I wonder if they also enjoy what they make. How often do they eat haggis, I wonder?

"Daily," they answer in unison.

Jo explains that she got snowed in over Christmas and it was haggis that saved the day.

"I had haggis pizza on Christmas Eve, haggis stuffed in chicken we found in the freezer on Christmas Day and haggis for breakfast on Boxing Day," she says. "I did think, talk about taking your work home. But it was lovely."

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on 23 January, 2010