What is haggis?

martin crossStarred Page By martin cross, 8th Jan 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Recipes>British

Haggis is Scotland’s national dish, immortalized by Robert Burns, but what is it and how do you prepare it?

A little Scots humour

If you ask a Scotsman what actually is a ‘haggis’, you may well be told a tale about a ‘wee beastie’ that lives in the wild in the Highlands of Scotland. It is purported to have the legs on one side of its body shorter than the other so that it can run around easily on the steel mountain slopes and that, when it is haggis-hunting season, the hunters force the haggis to run in the opposite direction or drive it down on to flat ground so that it falls over and can be caught quite easily. There is even a specimen of a ‘wild’ haggis, designated haggis scoticus, on display in Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, next to a prepared version (see below: ‘A Stone Age haggis?’). A tall tale worthy of an Irishman.

A member of a large family

In fact, a haggis is a member of the sausage family and has no legs at all. Sausages have always been a convenient way to use up the bits and pieces left over from a slaughtered animal once the main cuts have been cut away and their actual contents vary according to the particular animal usually eaten in the country concerned. A sausage typically consists of finely chopped or ground meat, a cereal filler and some seasonings, historically packed into the animal’s intestines, which were duly washed, sanitized with vinegar and turned inside out (some artificial casing is usually used now). The andouille sausage that has become a staple of Cajun cooking is smoked pork meat with spicy pepper and potentially a little cereal binder. In Germany, a land famed for its sausages, these are usually made of pork and, by law, must be 100% meat.

Scotland has its own love affair with sausages. There is black pudding (largely fat, suet, cereal and blood), white pudding (fat, suet and cereal without the blood), red pudding (bacon and pork, etc.), Lorne sausage (a kind of finely ground pork/beef square meatloaf), fruit pudding (beef suet and dried fruit), and of course haggis, in a variety of forms.

The haggis unmasked

Since the most commonly farmed animal in Scotland is the sheep and the local cereal oats, Haggis is made from leftovers from the lamb and oats. The peasants slaving away in the kitchens to prepare the animals for the notables were allowed to utilize any unwanted bits for themselves but since the notables tended to eat almost everything except the bleat, the peasants were left with just the sheep’s innards – the liver, heart, lungs, etc. and these were chopped and packed, for convenience, into the sheep’s stomach with oats and seasonings and subsequently boiled for a few hours.

Nowadays artificial casings are normally used so haggis can come in various sizes to suit the occasion but it is still produced from sheep offal. It is a very rich and tasty dish but worthy of inclusion on the Heart Attack Café’s menu because of its very high cholesterol content. The USA has long banned the import of authentic Scottish haggis because it contains lung meat so it can be difficult to obtain. Locally prepared versions are available in most countries to which Scots have emigrated.

The origins of haggis

Although haggis, like sausages in general, was a peasant dish, which subsequently became immortalized by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, and is now quite upscale, forming the essential centrepoint of any Burn’s Supper, celebrating the poet’s birth on January 25th 1759, its origins may go back much further.

The word haggis may derive from the Old Norse verb root hag, meaning to hack or chop and some Scottish folklore claims that the dish came to Scotland with the Vikings but a similar dish is recorded in Roman times and something similar is even mentioned by Homer around 800 BC. It is quite possible that the basic dish goes back to Palaeolithic times.

A Stone Age haggis?

If you can imagine a hunting party back in the Stone Age has downed a large animal and is hacking up the carcass into large chunks for wrapping and transport back to the village. The hunters are tired, having tracked the animal for hours and even days. The soft inner organs would provide quick restoration of all the energy expended but they cannot sit around eating in the middle of the plain. Already the scavengers are circling and the smell of fresh meat will soon attract large unfriendly predators like the sabretooth or the dire wolf, which would not be averse to a ready-killed meal and would look on the hunters as an appetizer. So, instead, they quickly chop up all the juicy bits, stuff them in the animal’s stomach for easy of transport and hightail it out of Dodge as quickly as possible. That evening, in a more defensible position, the internal organs can be cooked with grain and any seasonings and vegetables to hand to provide the energy for carrying back all the rest of the meat to the village – a celebratory feast!

A proliferation of different versions

Whereas the traditional haggis has assumed its place as ‘haute cuisine’ at upscale celebrations, Burns’ Night Suppers and, occasionally, the New Year’s Eve festival, Hogmanay, haggis in other forms has become a part of the everyday diet of Scotland. Haggis can be served with other ‘puddings’ as part of a full Scottish breakfast, fish and chip shops sell a ‘haggis supper’ or battered haggis sausage with fries, cafés offer haggis burgers and unbattered haggis sausages, it can even be served sliced and fried like meatloaf.

Whatever way it is served, it remains ultra-rich in cholesterol. Variants combining ground meat with liver, heart, etc. have been devised for areas where the original article is difficult to obtain. A lower-cholesterol version that emulates the original in spicy richness is available for serving as a loaf or sausage or in a haggis pie.


Ground Lamb, Haggis, In A Sheeps Stomach, Offal, Origin Of Haggis, Scotland, Scottish, Scottish Cuisine, Scottish National Dish, What Is, Wild Haggis

Meet the author

author avatar martin cross
I am a technical translator and writer, a former chef and marketeer, currently disabled. I write articles on food,, travel, politics, religion and technology among other topics.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
8th Jan 2012 (#)

The wild haggis picture was great.

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author avatar Val Mills
10th Jan 2012 (#)

I experienced my first true haggis a few years ago. I expected to hate it, but was surprised that I enjoyed eating it. Enjoyed this article.

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