The History of Haggis

Who said this … and what on earth was he talking about?

 Robert Burn's famous quote referring to the importance of haggis.

It was Rabbie Burns, of course, Scotland’s most famous poet, in his poem Address to a Haggis, in which he honours that traditional Scottish fare. In fact, haggis takes centre stage on Burns Night (25th January), when, with much pomp and circumstance, it is served on a silver platter and cut with a ceremonial knife, all accompanied by the strains of a lone piper.

With St Andrew’s Day (30th November) coming up and Scots around the world ready to celebrate, we thought it was time to delve into the history of the haggis and find out just what all the fuss is about.

What ingredients are in a haggis?

If you read the ingredients on a haggis, you’d be forgiven for not wanting to try it. Sheep’s “pluck” (heart, liver and lungs), blended with oatmeal, onion, salt, suet and spices, and served in a sheep’s stomach (or, more frequently these days, an artificial edible casing) doesn’t sound like the most appetising meal. Yet according to the 2001 edition of Larousse Gastronomique (widely renowned as the bible of cuisine), haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour”. While it’s most commonly served on Burns Night with mashed neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) and a dram of Scotch, it’s also found battered in chip shops across Scotland, or even served as “haggis pakora” in Indian restaurants.

At iDeli.online we prefer ox-based haggis, and our version combines ox lungs with beef trim, suet, oatmeal, onion, pepper and salt. Once cooked, it’s both smooth and crumbly, with a delicate spicy flavour.

Despite its Scottish credentials, the origins of haggis are not known, but something resembling haggis was mentioned as early as 800BC in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s believed the Ancient Romans made haggis (though they didn’t call it that) and there are also stories telling how haggis was brought to Scotland on a longship from Scandinavia! More recently, a Lancashire cookbook dating from 1460 has a recipe for “hagese” … so it could be haggis is not Scottish after all!

Although haggis is now seen as something of an acquired taste, back in the day it was an everyday meal for Highland cattle drovers, whose wives would mix cheap yet nutritious ingredients like offal and oatmeal and package it in a sheep’s stomach for the convenience of transportation. Other stories describe how, after slaughtering an animal for meat, Scottish lairds would give the workers a share of the offal, and wrapping it in the animal’s stomach lining was the easiest way to keep it fresh.

The Haggis in Scottish folklore

Of course, the best story of all is the one that has become folklore in Scotland – the tale of the wild haggis, a small four-legged animal. There are two species of wild haggis – one has longer legs on the left-hand side, so it can run clockwise around mountains; the other has longer right legs, so it can run anticlockwise. The two species live happily together but can never breed – because that would require one having to turn around, but doing so would cause it to lose balance and fall off the mountain! The tale has been told so many times that allegedly, over 30% of American visitors to Scotland believe the wild haggis exists. A-haggis hunting we go!