This weekend Scots around the world will celebrate Burns Night, in commemoration of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. A traditional feature of the 'Burns Supper' is a steaming plate of Scotland's national dish, the haggis. But there is often some confusion (or lack of knowledge!) about what haggis actually is - so here's my guide to what Burns himself described as the "Great chieftain o' the puddin-race".
Contrary to some humorous representations, the haggis is not in fact an animal native to Scotland. It suits the Scottish sense of humour for locals to tease visitors about going haggis-spotting in the Highlands, or hunting parties to catch this shy creature - and think what sport we would have if this were actually the case!
The traditional haggis recipe is sheep-based, using sheep's lungs, liver and and heart finely chopped or minced together with onion, oats, suet and a blend of spices and seasoning. Originally the ingredients were combined in the skin of the sheep's stomach, before being boiled, but in recent times this element of tradition has been superceded by the use of synthetic casings.
As described, it is understandable that haggis might sound a little unappetising (and indeed one of the great misconceptions about haggis focuses on its unpleasant-sounding ingredients) but its flavour is rich and spicy and incredibly tasty. Vegetarian options are commonly available, but food puritans (from a nation that also consumes deep-fried Mars bars....) cry foul at these unnatural gastronomic creations.
Haggis is traditionally served with 'neeps and tatties', which is mashed turnips/swede and mashed potatoes. Some people also produce a sauce (often whisky flavoured) or douse the haggis liberally with butter to create a moist and tasty dish. Haggis is increasingly offered in a variety of other forms, including deep-fried in balls, in pies, or sliced and fried or grilled as part of a traditional Scottish breakfast.
For a 'national dish' it may be surprising to learn that haggis's origins are not inherently Scottish. Similar recipes from the north of England date from the fifteenth-century, whilst a description of a meal sounding very similar to haggis is described even earlier, in Homer's Odyssey, from 800 years BC! Other suggestions are that the haggis made its way to Scotland via France or Scandinavia.
At a traditional Burns Supper, the haggis is brought into the dining room to the accompaniment of bagpipes, and before it is served is toasted with Burns's Address to a Haggis, which celebrates its virtues before it is sliced open and distributed to guests. The address in full, in Burns's original Scots dialect, is as follows:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis
Make of that what you will! And so haggis remains a popular part of Scots culture, regularly eaten throughout the year as well as on Burns Night, on the 25th January.
In recent years the haggis has taken on another role, as a sporting icon. Haggis hurling began as a joke and is now practised relatively seriously - the current world record for hurling a haggis stands at 217 feet (66 metres)! One condition of the sport, as generally agreed, is that the haggis must remain intact and fit for eating after having been thrown...
Sadly, the composition of haggis - specifically the use of sheep's lungs in the recipe - has meant it is officially on the US government's food blacklist, and since 1971 has been illegal to sell or import a haggis to America. Quite what the millions of Scots Americans eat on Burns Night remains unclear!
If you're visiting Edinburgh, Edinburgh Expert can recommend restaurants where you might wish to try haggis - get in touch for a tour or for more information.
Edinburgh Expert is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 18 years of experience living and working in the city.