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Haggis a potent symbol as Scotland decides future

Monday - 8/4/2014, 4:16am  ET

In this photo taken on Monday, July 28, 2014, Jo Macsween, co-director of Macsween of Edinburgh, prepares haggis nachos at the Macsween factory near Edinburgh, Scotland. The company produce a range of haggis products from mini haggis balls to haggis lasagne. (AP Photo/ Jill Lawless)

JILL LAWLESS
Associated Press

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) -- 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 whiskey 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 canapé-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."

A NEW NATIONALISM?

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."

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