It was sweet success for Lees Foods this week as the iconic brand was sold to bakery rival Finsbury Food Group in a cash deal worth £5.7 million.The maker of Scottish favourite Macaroon bars is also involved in the supply of meringues to supermarkets for their own-brand ranges, and has close to 100 years of history behind it.

Lees was founded in 1931 by John Justice Lees, a grocer’s son from Coatbridge. The budding entrepreneur invented the company’s most iconic product by accident, as he sought to develop a chocolate fondant bar in a room above his father’s shop.

Having rather failed in that endeavour Lees decided to experiment by covering his creation in coconut – and the macaroon bar was born.

Along with the Snowball it would become an iconic product for the company, though the famous “Lees, Lees more if you please” jingle certainly wouldn’t pass muster today. The 1960s ditty contains lines that would now be considered a racial slur, with some of the attendant imagery also extremely uncomfortable in 2023.

While the company was enormously successful in the 1960s and 1970s it hit hard times in the latter part of the 1980s and was sold to Northumbrian Fine Foods for £4.8m in March 1991.

The Gateshead company was unable to arrest the decline though and was on the verge of closing the Coatbridge factory which employed 215 people.

It was rescued by businessman Raymond Miquel and partner Klaus-Perch Nielsen who put together a £1m takeover bid.

Having found that almost half of the company’s 240 products made no money, the new owners scaled back the Lees range and by the end of the year the company was turning a modest profit.

HeraldScotland: Workers at the Lees factoryWorkers at the Lees factory (Image: Newsquest)

Despite promising to work until he died, Miquel stood down in 2009, handing control to his son, Clive, and passed away in 2021. Perch-Nielsen remained on the board until 2018 when he was killed in a freak tree surgery accident at his home.

Lees is far from the only iconic Scottish sweetie maker, with generations of schoolchildren able to testify to the allure – and chewiness – of McCowan’s Highland Toffee.

The brand, founded by Andrew McCowan, started out as a lemonade delivery service, with his wife attempting to make some extra money by selling toffee from the window of their Stenhousemuir home.

McCowan was originally from Crieff, but visited Falkirk often in order to take the family cattle to the Tryst market.

At 17 he moved to the town, and as an agent for a local confectionary firm would sell sweets alongside his bottles of lemonade.

He would open his own sweet shop on Church Street, Stenhousemuir in 1900 but it wasn’t until shortly before the First World War that he began selling his own produce, initially tablet made in a pan over a coke fire. In the aftermath of the war, in which his brother, Andrew, was killed, McCowan began selling toffee – with the Highland cow on the label a nod to his farming past.

With ingredients short, its simple recipe was a bonus, and McCowan hit on the idea of selling “Dainties” – toffee gobstoppers sold for a halfpenny to suit the straitened financial climate of the time. Andrew died in 1951, and his son Robert sold the company to Nestlé in 1959, though McCowan’s continued to sell Highland Toffee under its own brand.

By 1977 the factory in Stenhousemuir was producing 300,000,000 pieces of toffee per year, employing 220 people. Well into the 1990s and 2000s, McCowan’s was producing popular sweets such as Irn Bru bars and Wham bars – though one particularly novel idea never got off the ground.

In 2003 an American surfing website proposed the Disposable Anti-Shark-Attack Surfboard, made from Highland Toffee. The idea, of course, was that any passing shark who fancied a bite of a boarder would find its jaws gummed up by the confectionary.

Over time though, various mergers, takeovers and liquidations took their toll and the factory was shut down for good in 2011, though the Highland Toffee is still produced by a company in England.

Dating back even further than Lees and McCowan’s is Uddingston firm Tunnock’s, founded in December of 1890.

HeraldScotland: From Highland toffee to dancing teacakes Sweetie dreams were made of this

Its creator was 25-year-old Thomas Tunnock, the son of a coffin maker who had saved up £80 to buy a local bakery. Those premises would burn down in 1910, but a new location at Loanhead Mansions would soon open and include with it a tea room.

However, it wasn’t until more than three decades after the death of its founder that Tunnock’s as we know it today would truly begin. With rationing at the end of the Second World War, the demand was for produce which would last longer than cakes or scones. Archie Tunnock, son of Thomas, bought a dozen dry wafers and combined them with caramel and chocolate to create the Caramel Wafer in 1952. Four years later Archie’s son, Boyd, was tasked with developing a new product. He hand-piped Italian meringue onto a biscuit base and covered it in milk chocolate, dubbing it the teacake.

The foil-wrapped treat is now a Scottish icon, with dancers clad in its iconic red and silver packaging taking to the stage as part of the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.


Largely on the back of those two products, Tunnock’s became a high street staple, with a fleet of 37 vans delivering Caramel Wafers and Teacakes across the central belt.

It wasn’t just Scotland where the Teacake quite literally took off. A former RAF squadron leader told the Yorkshire Evening Post in 2013 that he and his fellow recruits would take the sweets on long flights, with the added bonus that the marshmallow expanding and cracking the chocolate gave an indication of altitude.

The practice was banned in 1965 when one exploded on the instrument panel of a V Bomber, with RAF chiefs presumably fearing Britain’s nuclear deterrent wouldn’t be quite so threatening to the Soviets if they knew it could be immobilised by meringue.