Although haggis is the national dish of Scotland, it’s often eclipsed by jokes and tall tales. This traditional staple involves the sheep’s pluck, or heart, liver, and lungs, being boiled in the animals’ stomach with potatoes, turnips, onions, oatmeal, suet, salt, and spices. Despite being the subject of many jokes, haggis remains the nation’s most iconic food for a variety of reasons.
The origins of the haggis have been lost to time, although there are many claims about where it could have come from. While some imagine haggis arriving on Viking longboats, others look to pre-historic cooking practices. Most, though, point to old Scottish cattle drivers whose wives would prepare a ready-meal for the long trips to Edinburgh. In its heyday, chieftains or lairds often gave haggis to slaughter-men for preparing the food for feasts. Throughout its known history, this dish was always popular among the poor due to its use of cheap but nourishing offal. Yet, from these 17th century roots, haggis would soon become a tourist luxury in the modern era.
For a long time, this mix of sheep’s innards, vegetables, and spices was a dish that people loved to hate. Today, it remains illegal to import haggis in the United States due to a 1971 ban on sheep’s lungs. Even for the Scottish people, it was only with the work of national poet Robert Burns that haggis came to be held in high regard. In his 1787 “Address to a Haggis”, Burns declares his admiration for “the great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race” and glorifies the poor man’s food as misunderstood but delicious. After his death, celebrations of his life on January 25th involve Scottish food, whiskey, and the presentation of the haggis, further establishing its place in Scottish culture. Today, it is widely enjoyed in delis, restaurants, supermarkets, and fast food joints in a range of options, from synthetic cases to gourmet and even vegetarian versions.
Beyond various recipes or even its mysterious historical roots, one of the main ways that this dish has become a Scottish symbol is through the legend of the haggis. According to the lore, this small, four-legged creature lives in the Highlands and so has two shorter legs on one side to help traverse the mountains. Unfortunately, this makes the haggis quite easy to catch by simply running around the hill in the opposite direction and knocking it over. Many tourists believe the legend and even hope to catch one themselves, but what matters more is participating in a shared culture of storytelling and foodways. Whether you’re hunting for haggis in the Highlands or shopping for a vegetarian one in stores, participating in this long tradition nurtures an appreciation for Scottish culture and the many people who live there.