From Field to Fork in Hook Norton

Hugh McSporran is happy. His first season has ended and it has greatly exceeded his expectations. Financially, much to his relief it is viable as he has a niche product which up until last year was unknown in this part of England. The weather had been kind to him, his gamble looked to have paid off. He had taken his grandfather’s advice when choosing a site for his first business venture in England.

The locals in Hook Norton had accepted him into the area but had initially thought his line of business had seemed a little quirky even by their standards. Why did he create a business in Hooky? To answer that question we have to go back to 2014 when the question of Scottish independence was on everyone’s minds – well those residing in Scotland anyway.

Hugh’s grandfather, Fergus, had been the subject of an interview for the village newsletter about his plans for the Friends of Alba. The Friends were a collection of mainly retirees living in Scotland who wished to remain within the Union and would not be able to come to terms with an independent Scotland. They had identified a few places in England with Scotland in their name as potential locations for establishing an expat Scottish community, Scotland End in Hook Norton being one such place.

However, as we all know the majority of those eligible to vote in the Referendum decided to remain in the Union and hopes for an independent Scotland were dashed. It was meant to be a “once in a lifetime” vote but the current incumbent of Bute House in Edinburgh’s Georgian Charlotte Square sees otherwise. The new government in Westminster, elected with a sizeable majority in December 2019, has initially stated that another Referendum vote for Scotland is a “definite” no. However, politicians change their minds and several businesses in Scotland are looking to relocate to England should an IndyRef 2 vote take place and the majority this time around vote for independence.

Hugh McSporran has already made his decision to relocate part of his business to England. Whisky is currently being produced in England. Of course, it cannot be called “Scotch” but it is essentially the same product using English water. The Cotswold distillery in nearby Stourton just across the county border in Warwickshire is enjoying success. Tapping in to this Hugh and his charming wife, Morven, have set up their business on the fringes of Hooky in Ale Wood, a relatively new plantation of mixed trees. A shepherd’s hut strategically placed at the foot of one of the fields acts as an observation post for his livestock.

In 2014 the Friends of Alba identified the field by the doctors’ surgery as potential for establishing their e pat community. Since then Stapenhill, a property on Netting Street but still regarded as Scotland End came on the market and Hugh and Morven snapped it up. Much work needs to be done to the house and they are gradually modernising it while they live in a mobile home on site. Those of us familiar with the property might wonder what they plan to do with the building to the right of it which has housed various tenants over the years. However, it has already been turned into a processing plant for their business.

What do Hugh and Morven produce here? Your correspondent was allowed a quick look around. The interior has been gutted and a production and packaging facility has been set up. The door at the rear has been altered to enable delivery vans to pull up and take away their unique product. Well, it is unique for the Cotswolds, but several local retailers are now stocking it thanks to a aggressive marketing campaign.

Apologies, the writer is getting carried away with describing the state of the art facilities at Stapenhill without telling you what these young entrepreneurs do in the village. Locals who walk on the footpath and bridleway which cross Ale Wood night have heard unusual noises coming from the plantation. We are used to pheasants and partridges in the area and to the untrained ear the new woodland sounds could be identified as coming from these game birds.

What Hugh and Morven have established is England’s first haggis farm. Normally haggis thrive on grouse moors and other upland areas in Scotland but the creatures that have been relocated to Ale Wood seem to have settled in well. As the trees are planted fairly close together they are quite difficult to spot, their natural colourings have enabled them to blend unobtrusively into the background. They are, of course, fenced in as there is no wish to have them spread to other areas as pests. Killing is very humane, the animals are caught in traps and brought in small batches to the production facility under cover of darkness for slaughter and packaging into the final product we have grown to enjoy. Whilst some haggis producers have a year round facility at the moment the McSporrans is seasonal culminating in Burns Night which falls on 25th January. This was their first year of production and it has been extremely successful. The Scottish expats in the area have enjoyed this premium product as numerous online reviews have testified. The local soil gives the haggis a milder flavour than its Scottish counterpart which means that even more discerning English palates are beginning to appreciate this delicacy.

What does the future hold? Hugh is setting up a breeding programme for the 2020 Christmas season whereby stud animals are being trapped in Scotland and introduced to those inhabiting Ale Wood. Thus the bloodlines are being expanded, this will eliminate inbreeding which has happened with some of the more remote haggis populations in Scotland. These are usually the three legged variety. The long term aim is to make haggis an all year round foodstuff not just for Hogmanay and Burns Night celebrations. This young couple have certainly impressed this writer who can vouch for the taste and flavour of this wonderful product.