23 February 2016back

IDEOMS Theatre Company and Macsween of Edinburgh – HAGGIS, HAGGIS, HAGGIS – The True Story

Impacts: Young people, Older people, Health and wellbeing, Education, Community and social empowerment, International engagement and Tourism

Project story

Our story begins with a 60th birthday and our decision to appoint Stuart Delves as our story teller/writer in residence in May 2013 to mark our 60th anniversary.  This residency was supported by a ‘Creativity at Work’ grant from Arts & Business Scotland and this gave birth to stream of amazing events I could never have imagined at the outset of this idea. It was really important to me that this significant milestone in our journey as a business, acknowledged the value of Team Macsween in the fullest sense (i.e. our staff, family, key stakeholders) in our evolution. 

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Stuart’s approach was to spend time with almost everyone in the team, and each person was asked to bring two objects - one that helped define them personally and one that linked them to Macsween.  These became a key part of the project.  Stuart’s material was then brilliantly transformed into a written piece, called ‘Another January’. This was performed to all the Macsween staff and family in January 2014 as part of a special 60th event.  He decided that the best way of performing his work was to use an actor and this led to IDEOMS’ initial connection to the project as John Nicol, one of the founders of IDEOMS was approached to help.    

‘Another January’ was a huge hit and afterwards, I felt that we needed to share the story of Scotland’s National Dish, haggis, and those of our multi-talented, multi ethnic workforce to a wider audience.  This was especially relevant in 2014, a year when Scotland was to be centre of a global stage with events such as The Commonwealth Games and the referendum.  We were also planning to launch a dramatic re-branding of complete product range and corporate identity and we needed to catch people’s attention with very limited budgets for any marketing.    With support from the New Arts Sponsorship Grant, Macsween began to take its first steps as a novice financial sponsor of the arts.  Stuart’s role then became one of match maker, connecting Macsween to IDEOMS more formally. ‘HAGGIS HAGGIS HAGGIS – The True Story’ needed a very strong lead to carry the narrative and Stuart was clear from the outset that John Nicol and IDEOMS were his top choice of creative partner. Having seen John perform so charismatically during ‘Another January’ it seemed like a good plan. 

At the start, IDEOMS had some understandable reservations – they normally wrote their own material and did not engage with playwrights, and they had never worked in partnership with a business before.  Stuart already had in mind some themes for the play, there was the opportunity to utilise some of the wonderful material that the Macsween staff had shared in their interviews, in particular, their personal objects, along with some much needed myth–busting to set the record straight on what was the TRUE story of haggis, its origins, the pivotal role of Robert Burns and its relevance in 21st century Scotland.  There is no denying there were healthy tensions at times, but with hindsight, they were watershed moments, allowing breakthroughs, and new ways to solve a problem.  As a business, we learnt from IDEOMS that we needed to ‘wing it’ from time to time, to hold the long view and I think IDOEMS learnt to understand that for us, money was really tight.  I had to continually convince my own board to keep faith, to put in unbudgeted funds and persuade them that the risks we were taking would provide a tangible return that would support our strategic objectives.  With two such cultures trying to work together, I am really impressed that all parties were able to adapt, to take the collective leap of faith, and together, were able to deliver great performances that delighted everyone. 

There are many legacies to this work, the multi-national team at Macsween continues to positively celebrate their diversity, many of the staff are actively teaching each other their mother tongue, whether that be some Scot’s slang or Polish.  We have organised other company-wide events often involving food and storytelling to bring the team together.  At a time when there are so many negative stories about immigration in the press, Macsween actively celebrates the benefits such diversity can achieve and that it can work very harmoniously, even in the context of making such an iconic  ‘Scottish’ food as haggis.  To this day, it is one of the projects I am most proud of as leader of Macsween now in its 7th decade. 

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Arts/cultural organisation story

Perhaps unusually this project was not initiated by IDEOMS, the arts partner.  Macsween had an anniversary project (involving IDEOMS actor John Nichol) which had evolved into an idea for a production at the Fringe, and so the theatre company was approached with a proposal that was already well into the conception and budgeting processes. IDEOMS had been in existence for some years but until a year earlier had been run under the umbrella of a trust, and had only struck out on its own as a constituted body in autumn 2013. IDEOMS had performed at the Edinburgh Fringe many times but this project afforded a wonderful opportunity to go with proper funding, allowing real pleasure in the experience without the usual constant underlying concerns about the financial outcome.  For a small company, going to the Fringe can be a very expensive exercise!

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The marketing support was particularly helpful, with input from Macsween staff and contacts – just fantastic to see giant posters for our production in prime positions around the city.  Normally IDEOMS work alone so there were several interesting aspects to the learning curve of this project.  John Nichol always writes all his own material so working in collaboration with Stuart Delves was a new experience – often quite tricky, but good natured throughout. IDEOMS usually works closely with a local designer for all their marketing materials, and while it was very logical to use the Macsween design company for this project, they naturally concentrated on the promotion of their client’s product - and as such there had to be constant reminders that this was in fact a joint IDEOMS production and had to be billed as such.  Getting the comparative font sizes correct for Macsween, IDEOMS and Stuart Delves proved quite difficult at times, but we got there in the end.

We liked the overall results, even though it was very different from our normal material.  Interestingly when I used the same material to advertise the tour dates in the borders we experienced quite a few problems, and in fact had to cancel one venue, because the public simply didn’t recognise that it was an IDEOMS show.

Having the Macsween team helping with promotion on the High Street and in the venue was terrific and an undoubted benefit as regards ticket sales. Macsween were able to ensure that we had much more press coverage, many more reviews than we might normally expect, and by bringing along their staff and guests, they increased our audience base quite considerably.  Again, it was interesting to note that some of the reviews concentrated more on the Macsween / food angle, and in some cases, IDEOMS was never even mentioned.  It was, however, beneficial to have a new sector of journalists reviewing our work for the first time.

We loved the fact that some of the Macsween staff who came along had never experienced the Fringe before or had never even been to a theatre.  Overall, this was a very positive and beneficial experience for IDEOMS. We now have the experience of working with a business sponsor and I’d certainly hope other theatre companies like IDEOMS give it a go to help them develop their experience, to reach new audiences, make new press contacts and take some creative risks.  It was also a new experience to be directed by Catriona Taylor – while this was challenging at times, it gave us some new ideas to consider, allowed us to experiment a bit. 


The sponsorship allowed us to make a guaranteed profit from the production run and there was money left over to purchase some new equipment for future productions.  So while there might not be further cash sponsorship from Macsween at this point, we will feel the advantage of it for many years to come.


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Business story

At the start I hoped for four main outcomes:

-Full engagement of the whole Macsween team.

-The end result needed to be something all Macsween stakeholders could ‘consume’/experience together.

-We would find a way to highlight our forthcoming major re-brand to the outside world in a bold and innovative way and over turn negative views on haggis – educate consumers on the True story of haggis.

-That the project would have some deeper legacy within the company and beyond Macsween.

Stuart’s work in the early stages of the project to focus on each individual member of the Macsween workforce and their personal objects ensured that everyone within Macsween felt very involved right at the start.  This evolved in later stages into staff stories being incorporated into the play itself and many opted to take part in the filming of the ‘Haggis Makers’ Dance’ as well as other short film clips to advertise the show pre-run. The haggis maker’s stories in the play were one of the most poignant moments in the show, bringing to the audience’s attention the diversity of the team.

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It was very moving for me to see all the team, the teams’ families, my own family and members of RBS, our bankers, enjoy the show.  Often it was the first time that any of my workforce had ever been to a theatre and they were thrilled that the show was about them and their important contribution.  Many of the team wanted to get more involved in the production; lending a hand to doing haggis tastings outside the Story Telling venue, drumming up ticket sales on the street, wearing the giant haggis costumes on stage or taking to the streets to do some leafleting.  Then of course, there was the haggis to make and serve for the show each night which gave the audience the chance to sample haggis pizza, vegetarian haggis pakora – a new whole taste experience for most of them!  

The conversations that Stuart had with the team were in a sense the most revealing and honest employee engagement ‘survey’ we have ever done.  We learnt what people really felt about working at Macsween – the good and the bad.  Following the initial ‘Another January’ performance, where these views were aired very openly, conversations about things such as pay continued, especially about how we could turn some of the less favourable insights into something better.  People felt and still feel we are listening, even though Stuart has long gone.  We have for example set up an employee lead council, and every quarter we have staff nominations for ‘The Macsween Marvel of the Month’.  Since the Haggis play, we have done some more amazing events to keep the stories coming – we hired a cook school in January 2015, and everyone prepared their national dishes from around the world, sharing the stories of their international heritage, their culture, and of course, sharing the food we ate together as a large family.   

I hope by taking part in public speaking events that Macsween, IDEOMS and the other creative partners can shine a light on how the project could inspire others to try such a creative collaboration for themselves.  I am aware that my own evangelising on this collaboration has helped support Stuart Delves make a number of pitches to companies such as Laing the Jewellers and his current work which is writing a 15 minute performance piece for Expo 2015 (Milan) promoting Scotland's Food & Drink.


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Audience/people/community story

The PR we managed to achieve, exceeded even my wildest expectations.  To get any PR at all during the Edinburgh Festival was a big task – we achieved significant coverage internationally, nationally, locally and digitally reaching millions of people and being covered in sections of the press that might not otherwise have covered the show – food journalists, restaurant critics as well as feature editors, bloggers along with the more conventional theatre reviewers.  This really helped me justify the (unbudgeted) investment into the show that the Macsween board was nervous they would not see any great return from. 

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The re-brand was due to be launched just after Fringe run ended and as there was already a buzz about Macsween in the media, the press continued to give us fantastic coverage of our new look and roll out of our new products – the most dramatic investment decision the company had taken in a generation.  There was a lot at stake; we’d made a huge investment in modernising a traditional food for the 21st century consumer. We were able not only raise brand awareness but also demonstrate the versatility of haggis via the press coverage, with the samples of haggis we gave out during the show, subsequent visits consumers made to our website, trips to the shops to buy the new products we launched in the weeks thereafter. We were able to debunk negative associations about haggis and celebrate the tradition and modern versatility of Scotland’s national dish in a really innovative way. We ignited a debate in the column inches of publicity that there was more to haggis than Burns Night, and tired jokes about hairy, lop-sided animals and hunting. 

IDEOMS, gained much wider coverage than they would normally have been able to achieve on their own.  While some of it was heavily slanted towards Macsween at times, it is important to bear in mind that the innovative hook to the press to attend and take an interest in the show, was the unlikely partnership that had led to this production. No one had ever done a show on the national dish like this before, involving so many complex elements – hot food every night served to the audience, a giant haggis costume on stage, light hearted prose, then serious factual elements, along with the sensitive delivery of poignant personal stories from Macsween staff (who were often in the audience). And we must not forget to mention the wonderful live fiddle music, delightful singing of original, new songs, all delivered by a cast of professional actors blended with amateur haggis makers giving their all for the first time via a film clip – you couldn’t make it up!

I’m so proud to say that many of team Macsween crossed the threshold of a theatre for the first time to attend the show and brought their families with them (also theatre-going virgins) and many have said what a positive experience that was for them, that they would consider going again.  Moreover, it united us a workforce in an incredibly powerful way that has a long lasting legacy to this day.

I know that this creative project helped to support other successes this year. I was awarded by The IOD Scotland, ‘Female Director of the Year’ and along with my fellow director, James Macsween, we were both awarded ‘Outstanding contribution to the Food Industry’.  I hope that we have helped to shine a light for other organisations to follow as I believe that projects such as this make for a better society, based on a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being.  


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“I hope that we have helped to shine a light for other organisations to follow as I believe that projects such as this make for a better society, based on a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being.”

Jo Macsween, Macsween of Edinburgh  

“For a show that had evolved from an event so specific to Macsween it was interesting to see the reaction of the “non-Macsween” audience.  They were interested by the main story, and loved the film footage of the staff (the lad from Newcastle raised a laugh every single time) and in particular the Haggis-makers’ dance. Once we got to the tour it was even more interesting – again the show title attracted some new audiences.”

Viv Ross, IDEOMS Theatre Company