Haggis and Scotland. It’s complicated…

Haggis and Scotland. It’s complicated…

On our food tours, I often ask guests what Scottish dishes or foods do they already know about. Haggis is always mentioned although there is often some confusion about what, exactly, it might be. Well, be confused no more because this article could be subtitled ‘Everything you wanted to know about haggis but were too scared to ask’.

First up, while it is always fun to suggest that haggis are small mammals which are native to Scotland, this is untrue. As is the story that their legs on one side are shorter than the other so they can run around mountains more easily.

So what is haggis? Recipes vary and every butcher will have their own closely guarded version. However, at base, haggis is the chopped heart, lungs and liver of a sheep which have been mixed with oats, some fat and seasoning. Traditionally, it would have been cooked in a sheep’s stomach. In Scotland, it is usually served with mashed neeps and tatties. Neeps being swedes. You can also buy haggis from a chip shop. In which case it will be battered and deep-fried before being served.

Haggis and Burns Night

Haggis, neeps and tatties. Pic: wiki.

We do eat haggis in Scotland. It is not something that we only feed to tourists. While haggis is eaten all year round, consumption tends to peak around Burns Night on the 25th of January. This is when we celebrate Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. We also often eat haggis at Hogmanay which is the Scots term for New Year’s Eve.

It is Burns who we have to thank for haggis being perceived as Scotland’s most famous dish. His Address to a haggis poem, always recited at a Burns Night, means that Scotland and haggis will forever be linked. However, many other locations through the ages have had some form of haggis-like dish.

The most plausible creation story for haggis is that it is a convenient way to use the offal created at the climax of a hunt. If a hunting party had just killed, say, a stag then haggis was a simple way to use and even preserve the organs which would quickly spoil otherwise. Using the stomach of the beast would be a practical and thrifty way to carry and cook the ingredients.

Multi-cultural roots

It is perfectly possible that haggis evolved independently in Scotland but it’s worth bearing in mind that the Romans ate something very similar. Some people suggest that haggis may have originated in Persia and spread to Scotland across Europe. Bagpipes made a very similar journey. Others suggest that haggis was brought to Scotland by the Vikings about 1200 years ago. And others still suggest that haggis may be French in origin. There is probably some truth in all of the theories.

If haggis has roots in several different countries then it may be less of a surprise to learn that it has been adapted to fit in with several different culinary traditions. Haggis pakora, haggis-topped nachos and haggis pizza are all good examples of its adaptability.

Of course, haggis, neeps and tatties feature on our Eat Walk food tours. Usually accompanied by that other Scottish icon: a dram of whisky.

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