A recent poll showed that over 30% of American visitors to Scotland believed that the haggis is a real creature, farmed for its tastiness in the Scottish Highlands. Postcards of a small round bird-like animal with unequal legs have only served to keep the joke alive (the legs on one side of a haggis are claimed to be longer than on the other side to allow it to run round steep hills in the Highlands without falling over).
In fact the haggis originated as a sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal. The wives of Scottish cattle drovers would give their husbands minced heart, liver and lungs packed into sheep stomachs for their long journey to the cattle markets in Edinburgh. The word haggis may come from the Old Norse word “haggw”, meaning to hew or chop up.
The traditional haggis recipe takes offal and minces it with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt. Additional ingredients can include dried coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Originally it was always boiled, but these days it is also baked or even deep-fried. Recipes for kosher haggis and vegetarian haggis – substituting pulses, nuts and vegetables for the meat – have also been developed.
Although it is the traditional dish for Burns Night (25 January), haggis is now available in Scotland throughout the year. Supermarkets sell it plastic-packed from the chill counter, but it is also sold in tins or even microwaveable containers.
At the Writers’ Museum in Lady Stair’s Close, you can see the desk at which Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote so many of his poems, including the famous “Address to a Haggis”, which is read every Burns Night (25 January) by hosts of the evening. It is somewhat unusual for a people to celebrate their national poet’s birthday with a dinner wherever they happen to be in the world, but distinctly unusual that one of the poet’s best-known works is a poem in praise of a ball of offal. The annual ceremony begins with the dish being ‘piped in’ by a bagpiper and then the eight stanzas of mock heroic salutation commence with the words: Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face/Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Traditionally at the line, “His knife see rustic Labour dight,” the host draws and sharpens his knife, and at the line, “An' cut you up wi' ready sleight”, plunges it into the haggis, cutting it open from end to end.
There are three essential accompaniments to haggis. Whisky, the national drink of Scotland, is always used to propose a toast to the dish, which is then eaten with neeps (mashed turnips, or, rutabaga) and tatties (mashed potatoes). Both of these can be bought at Edinburgh’s picturesque Grassmarket – the traditional site of a livestock market – every Saturday morning.
In Scotland, potato and rutabaga are traditionally boiled and mashed separately to produce tatties and neeps, but the rutabaga can also be mashed into the potatoes to make the dish known as “clapshot”. Rutabaga has a long folk association in Britain and Ireland, where in the Middle Ages the vegetable was carved into lanterns to ward off harmful spirits. In Scotland children used to play an early version of Trick-or-Treat by wearing hideous masks as they carried ugly carved turnips called "tumshie heids" round the village.
Although potatoes are common throughout Britain, most UK seed potatoes come from Scotland, in areas where westerly winds prevent aphid attacks and thus prevent the spread of potato virus pathogens. As in the Americas, where the potato originated, this vegetable is best grown in northerly climates where cold hard winters kill pests and long hours of sunshine during the summer make for optimum growth.
One of the best places to buy haggis in Edinburgh is Findlay’s of Portobello Ltd, a family-run butcher in Portobello. This coastal suburb of Edinburgh was once famed as a beach resort before everyone started holidaying in Spain. The famous blue-painted shop is situated one block back from the promenade, and Findlay’s has operated from here since 1974.
Joe Findlay has won awards for many of his products and holds titles for his haggis, black pudding, sausages and bacon. “All our cattle are selected from farms in Speyside and are free range and naturally fed,” he says. “The cattle are then hung for a period of no less than two weeks to mature the meat and enhance the flavour. Our pork is selected from Hillfoot Farm in Hawick, which rears free-range animals that are used for all our sausages and bacon. All our lambs are selected from farms in the Scottish Borders.”
In recent years Joe Findlay has developed gluten-free haggis and now has an online service offering a guaranteed next-day delivery service. However such is the demand for Findlay’s haggis that a week’s notice (18 January) is needed in the run-up to Burns Night.
One of the best bars to sample haggis in Edinburgh is Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the Royal Mile. It’s named after the notorious Edinburgh burglar who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The two sides of the pub sign depict the good and villainous sides of Deacon William Brodie.
The tavern occupies the bottom two floors of a typical six-storey Edinburgh terrace. Inside, the pub proves itself a genuine example of Victoriana with a highly decorated coffered ceiling, drinking booths and a bar with twelve brass pumps serving Scottish beers including Caledonian 80, Flying Scotsman and Deuchars.
The haggis here is given a slightly nouvelle cuisine presentation. Other Edinburgh dishes include cranachan, the traditional Scottish dessert, here made from whipped cream, honey, whisky, raspberries and toasted oats, and that great British staple fish and chips, which is prepared using sustainably caught cod. Less traditional – but well worth trying – is the wild boar and chorizo burger.