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Haggis: The Untold Story

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Words are superfluous.

Words are superfluous.

Inexplicably, the sales of haggis have been rising in recent years. The trend has been spotted in some of the most unlikely of places, such as Dubai and Singapore. What is going on?

The Offal Truth

The ingredients of haggis cover all the less-popular food groups: oatmeal, suet, onions, and sheep’s lungs, liver, and heart. The quantities don’t matter because you’re not going to make it, are you?

In recent years, cooks have taken to adding cinnamon, coriander, and nutmeg to the traditional ingredients in a pitiable attempt to make the whole thing more palatable.

“We can’t wait to grow up so we can become haggis.”

“We can’t wait to grow up so we can become haggis.”

Other Ingredients and Preparation

If you do decide to have a go, and you want to be authentic, you’ll have to track down a sheep’s stomach to stuff the ingredients into. Getting one of those from a grocery chain store is going to be a challenge.

And the purveyor of everything, Amazon, lets us down; the closest it can come is a book entitled Stomach Worms in Sheep Prevention and Treatment ($59.78). You might have to settle for an artificial sausage casing.

You stuff all the ingredients into the sheep’s innards and boil the thing for a couple of hours. Traditionally, the haggis is served with the appetizing sides of mashed turnip and potatoes—or as the Scots would have it “neeps and tatties.” And, horror of horrors, those neeps are likely to be rutabaga (see link below).

Haggis Burgers?

But now, some people have totally wigged out and have taken the haggis to parts previously unknown. Here’s Paul Waldie of the Globe and Mail: “Along with the burgers and burritos, there are haggis sausages, lasagna, nachos, truffles, bagels, pizzas, pies, doughnuts, bonbons, and even a haggis poutine.”

Haggis poutine? Say it isn’t so.

Rutabaga

For those who want to learn about the ghastly rutabaga that accompanies haggis, all you need to know is right here.

Haggis with neeps and tatties. No poutine here.

Haggis with neeps and tatties. No poutine here.

Haggis History

As with most things like this, the origin of haggis is long lost in the mists that so frequently embrace Scotland.

Its birth might be prehistoric, while some say a dish similar to haggis is described in Homer’s Odyssey. Here’s the reference, “a man before a great blazing fire turning swiftly this way and that a stomach full of fat and blood, very eager to have it roasted quickly.” Yum, yum.

History.com notes that “Although now haggis is a thoroughly Scottish tradition, its early history could be French, Roman, or Scandinavian.” Which is another way of saying we don’t have a clue where it came from.

The rarely photographed haggis in its natural habitat.

The rarely photographed haggis in its natural habitat.

A "Wee Beastie"

It was certainly a peasant food because the hard-to-cook innards of an animal were all the humble folk would get after the laird and his pals had gorged themselves on the choice bits.

When asked by a non-Scot what haggis is, the standard reply goes something like this: “It’s a wee beastie with four legs, two of which are shorter. This means it can run around the Highland mountains where it lives without falling over. You can catch it by running in the opposite direction.”

This explanation is no doubt why a third of American tourists to Scotland revealed in a poll they thought that haggis was an animal. The 2003 survey also showed that almost a quarter of U.S. visitors thought it was possible to capture a haggis.

The annual Haggis Hunt on Selkirk Hill in Scotland attracts hundreds.

The annual Haggis Hunt on Selkirk Hill in Scotland attracts hundreds.

Burns Night

On January 25 every year, Scots and people who would like to be Scots gather to celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns in 1759 and his incomprehensible poetry.

The Burns Night Supper is a ceremony more befitting the installation of members into some ancient heraldic order that the celebration of a bag of sheep’s guts.

Robert Burns.

Robert Burns.

The feast usually starts with a soup such as the enticingly named cullen skink. This is a chowder made with smoked haddock.

The highlight, if that’s the word we are looking for, is the piping in of the haggis and reciting of the poem Address to a Haggis. Then, there is the solemn drinking of a toast to the now disembowelled haggis, of course in whisky.

At this point, the revellers are served haggis, neeps, and tatties and it is required that diners pretend to enjoy the meal. Large quantities of whisky can help create the illusion that everybody is having a jolly time.

(Word of advice: It is considered bad form to ask for tomato ketchup.)

In the interests of journalistic integrity and balance here comes Norman Miller of the BBC: Haggis “when placed on a plate looks a little like a balloon bulging full of dark meat. It gives off a subtle, savoury aroma that soars wonderfully when the casing is cut open to reveal the hot meat within.”

It seems Mr. Miller may have imbibed a little too freely of the whisky before filing his story.

Haggis Trivia

  • Gluten-free and vegetarian haggis has been a great hit, driving sales up 120 percent at Tesco supermarkets in Scotland.
  • The Scottish Federation of Meat Traders has declared 2019 to be “The Year of the Haggis.” The United Nations has so far remained silent as to whether it intends to extend the honour worldwide.
  • Some sadistic person has created haggis-flavoured ice cream.
  • Hall’s is a Scottish food processor that, in 2014, turned out a monster haggis weighing just over 1,000 kg. It was the size of a small car.
  • In 1977, a new sport was invented for the Gathering of the Clans in Edinburgh; it’s called haggis hurling. Its name is self-explanatory, and the only rule is that the wretched thing must not burst open upon impact. The world record of 66 metres (217 feet) is held by Lorne Coltart.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1788, Robbie Burns wrote the poem Auld Lang Syne and set it to an old Scottish folk tune.
  • Canada and the United States both banned the importation of traditional haggis in 1971. They did so on the grounds that the lung meat could carry tuberculosis. Canada lifted its ban in 2017.
  • Cajuns in southwestern Louisiana have a dish called ponce that is similar to haggis. It is usually made with pork and seasonings stuffed into a pig’s stomach.
"Mom! Can we order pizza?"

"Mom! Can we order pizza?"

Sources

  • “Majestic Haggis of the Glens Proves Elusive for US Tourists.” John Carvel, The Guardian, November 27, 2003.
  • “Haggis, National Dish of Scotland.” Ben Johnson, Historic UK, undated.
  • “Ode to a Haggis: The History of Scotland’s National Dish.” Stephanie Butler, History.com, April 5, 2013.
  • “Suddenly Haggis Is Hot, and not Just in Scotland.” Paul Waldie, Globe and Mail, January 24, 2019.
  • “Why Scotland Loves Haggis.” Norman Miller, BBC, January 24, 2019.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on January 29, 2019:

When we took our family to Scotland, another relative asked the children to catch a haggis and bring one back for him. Luckily we managed to find one in our local Safeway store at the time, which we duly served up.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 29, 2019:

I am not sure what to say about these foods, except I do not plan to try haggis or rutabaga. It does not even look a bit enticing.