Hungry History

Ode to a Haggis: The History of Scotland’s National Dish

By Stephanie Butler
Haggis

PaulCowan/iStockphoto.com

Perhaps more than any other food, haggis has an exceptionally bad reputation. This Scottish national dish—a mix of sheep’s innards, oatmeal and spices, all wrapped up in a sheep stomach—has been the butt of jokes for years. It’s a dish that people love to hate, even if some of those critics haven’t had a chance to taste it in over 40 years. That’s because importing real Scottish haggis to the United States has been illegal since 1971, thanks to a ban on foods containing sheep’s lungs.

Although now haggis is a thoroughly Scottish tradition, its early history could be French, Roman or Scandinavian. Some say the word “haggis” derives from the French term “hacher,” which means to chop up or mangle. Others insist a similar dish appears in sources as old as Homer’s “Odyssey,” while English food historian Clarissa Dickson-Wright claims that haggis came from Scandinavia “even before Scotland was a single nation.”

But while the dish’s exact provenance remains in doubt, food historians agree that it was a peasant food. Encasing hard-to-cook cuts like lungs and intestines along with undesirable muscle meats like liver and kidneys into a convenient stomach packaging would have been a wonderful way to feed a group—while making sure no meat went to waste.

Haggis languished uncelebrated until 1787, when poet Robert Burns penned his great ode “Address to a Haggis.” In his poem, Burns declares his love for the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race” and glorifies what was a poor man’s food into a dish greater than any French ragout or fricassee. Burns was already a national hero, and haggis’ profile soon soared. After Burns’ death, a group of his friends began commemorating him every year on his birthday, January 25, and so began the “Burns Supper” tradition. The suppers continue to this day, featuring Scottish food, Scotch whiskey and a grand presentation of the haggis to the assembled guests.

While Burns Suppers are haggis’ main opportunity to shine, the dish is still widely enjoyed throughout Scotland. Supermarkets sell packaged varieties, with the cheaper variations now placed in synthetic casings instead of stomachs. It’s served in fast food restaurants, deep-fried along with chips and Mars bars. There are even vegetarian versions, which rely on grains and beans instead of lungs and hearts.

Categories: British History, Meat, Scotland