EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND – It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Jo Macsween has haggis in her blood. The business founded by her butcher grandfather is a leading purveyor of Scotland’s national dish: a blend of offal, oats and spices, traditionally served in a sheep’s stomach.
Macsween is all too aware how unappetizing that might sound. She has dedicated her life to transforming the image of haggis for the 21st century.
“I describe it as the food that hugs you from inside,” said Macsween, a passionate advocate for her product. “I feel loved after I’ve eaten haggis.”
She says this while scooping crumbly nuggets of haggis onto a plate of nachos, along with cheese, sour cream and guacamole. Food purists might wince, but others may see haggis nachos as a symbol of modern Scotland, comfortable with both tradition and change — themes that run through Scotland’s independence debate.
Haggis, Macsween said, “goes to the very identity of what makes Scotland Scotland.” Like millions of other Scots, she has been thinking a lot recently about what that means.
On Sept. 18, Scottish voters will decide whether to break up Britain by dissolving a 307-year-old union with England to become an independent country. The outcome will be decided partly by economic arguments: Would independence make individual Scots, and businesses like Macsween’s, better or worse off? But questions of identity and national image also loom large.
The independence debate has made Scots think deeply about the story Scotland tells itself. Do images of bagpipes, tartan and warrior heroes like William “Braveheart” Wallace still speak to a modern, multicultural society? Does Scotland need to shake off the yoke of a domineering neighbor, or is it comfortable clubbing together with England, Wales and Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom?
Macsween — who runs the family firm with her brother James — has a complicated relationship with national myths, and especially with Robert Burns, Scotland’s 18th-century national poet. His “Address to a Haggis” — “Great chieftain o’ the pudding race!” — is recited at Burns Night suppers every January. That is how most people first encounter haggis, liberally doused in whisky and tradition, and Macsween thinks the “hullaballoo” can be alienating for newcomers.
At Macsween’s tidy modern factory near Edinburgh, workers stuff a blend of sheep lung, beef fat, oatmeal and spices into an intestinal casing to make traditional haggis, as round and solid as gray cannonballs. But the company also produces a popular vegetarian version, as well as canape-sized mini haggis balls and microwaveable patties that can be used in everything from tacos to lasagna.
“Scotland is not about old white men in kilts stirring pots to make haggis,” she said. “My team is multicultural. We use state-of-the-art equipment.”
If Macsween is something of a haggis pioneer — bringing tradition into today’s world — the pro-independence campaign has been engaged in a similar modernization effort. For decades the nationalist cause was associated with “Braveheart”-style images of woad-smeared Scottish warriors battling English oppressors — and never managed to gain the support of more than a third of Scots.
But the pro-independence “Yes Scotland” campaign led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has stressed a more modern brand of civic and economic nationalism, far removed from Burns Night romanticism.
The campaign argues that Scots should have control over their own taxes and resources — especially the oil and gas below the North Sea. Salmond says an independent Scotland would build a strong social safety net for the country’s 5.3 million people, an approach he contrasts with the budget-cutting, Conservative-led British government in London.
That vision of Scotland as a sort of Celtic Scandinavia has won over some voters wary of nationalist stereotypes.
“I like to think that we’re a country that will look out for each other,” said Roz Currie, a psychologist from Edinburgh who will be voting for independence. “Making a fairer place to live, and a place where everyone feels welcome.
“I think it should be about politics and ideals, rather than ‘I’m voting yes because I’m a true Scot.’ “
The Yes campaign’s call for a more equal society has strong support in areas like the poor quarters of Glasgow, which have some of Britain’s worst poverty and unemployment rates.
“I don’t think it would be a bad thing to say yes, I really don’t,” said John Doran, a retired oil rig worker from Glasgow’s gritty Gorbals area. “All the moneymen are down in England. The rich are down in England.”
That is an often-heard sentiment. There is a strong strain of social egalitarianism in Scotland’s self-image, fostered in part by its Presbyterian traditions, and by the poems of Burns, whose work includes the liberal anthem “A Man’s a Man for a’ That,” as well as his ode to the humble haggis.
“Scotland is essentially an egalitarian society,” said Stuart Delves, a playwright commissioned by Macsween to write a play about haggis that is running at August’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “And the food that (Burns) chose to address and to celebrate was the common man’s food. That’s why it is so rightly Scottish.”
The case against independence is succinctly summed up by voter Gillian MacKay, a marine biologist from Falkirk in central Scotland: “Why try and fix something that’s not broken?” Prudence is another component of Scotland’s self-image — after all, its national dish, made from oats and offal scraps, is a model of frugality.
Scotland already has considerable autonomy, with its own parliament, established in 1999, and separate legal and educational systems. The anti-independence “Better Together” campaign has focused on the economic uncertainties full independence would bring, arguing that Scotland would not automatically be entitled to keep the pound currency or European Union membership, as Salmond has promised.
Some campaigners want the No side to make a more passionate and positive case for Britain. Rory Stewart, a Conservative lawmaker who represents a constituency on the English side of the border, regrets the failure “to make the positive argument about Britain and British identity.”
“If your partner was threatening to leave you, you would want them to say ‘I love you and respect you, I’m committed to you and I want you to stay’ — rather than, ‘You’ll never survive on your own and you’ll be poor,’ ” Stewart said.
“The modern world is about diversity, it’s about scale, it’s about embracing many different nations, as we do in the United Kingdom. We show — we were almost the first to show — that four nations can coexist.”
The English have even acquired a taste for haggis. Macsween now sells 60 percent of its product south of the border.
As a small country, Scotland relies on doing business with others. Its food and drink industry — which includes meat, smoked salmon, Scotch whisky, and, of course, haggis — is a major source of exports, worth £13 billion ($22 billion) a year and rising. After conquering England, where haggis is even sold in Selfridges and Harrods department stores, it has its eye on Europe and South Africa.
Everyone agrees independence would have a big impact on Scotland’s economy — but there’s heated debate about what form it would take.
Many details are contested or unknown, including what share Scotland would get of North Sea oil revenue, what portion it would take of Britain’s national debt, whether it can continue to use the British pound, and how international markets would react to independence.
The Yes campaign argues that independence will unleash the creative energy of Scotland’s economy; the No side says it will limit it, by complicating relations with the rest of Britain.
“It’s only in the next two years that any of us will truly understand,” said Macsween. “How can you possibly know, because there are so many details to work out.”
The British government recently promised to use its clout to press the cause of haggis in the United States, where British beef and lamb have been banned since the 1980s’ mad cow disease outbreak. Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said the government would use “its considerable influence . . . to reintroduce our produce where markets have been closed.”
Not to be outdone, the pro-independence Scottish administration stressed that it “had been pushing this development for years.”
Despite their efforts, the ban remains in place.
Polls have put the No side ahead throughout the campaign, but shown that as many as a million of the country’s 4 million voters are undecided. Recent polling suggests some of the undecided are moving to the Yes camp — but not enough to ensure victory.
With six weeks until referendum day, Scotland is feeling confident. Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, is buzzing with thousands of visitors to the Commonwealth Games sports tournament. There has been a very un-Scottish heat wave. And English athletes have been cheered almost as loudly as Scottish competitors — a welcome that has even surprised some Scots, steeped in rivalry with their neighbor.
Many Scots now seem happy to laugh at their national icons. The Games’ colorful opening ceremony featured dancing teacakes, shortbread, a giant Loch Ness monster, bagpipers, Scottish terriers — and a giant haggis.
Some Scottish viewers cringed at the parade of stereotypes, but others looked with a dash of pride at their icons — including the haggis Macsween calls “Scottish charcuterie at its finest,” a delicacy to stand alongside European treats such as salami or serrano ham.
The positive mood may give voters the confidence to vote yes to independence. Or it may encourage them to say no, happy to forge a distinct national identity within the United Kingdom.
“I think whatever the (referendum) result is, Scotland should enjoy the debate about itself,” Macsween said. “I think it shows that Scotland is in a more confident place that it can even have the debate.”