Haggis – the food and the creature

Far away in the highlands of Scotland is a lopsided little creature. This creature is so rare, it’s super hard to find and is so important to Scotland, they made it their national dish; the haggis. Saying it in a Scottish accent just feels right. It is traditionally served neeps and tatties; the only thing more fun to say in full Scottish accent.  Although most Scots claim that a haggis is a little animal, I’ve never seen a haggis in the wild. All I know is that the butcher sells them ready to heat and eat; I just don’t know if it comes from this mythical creature, or if it’s made of sheep stomach, liver, kidney, lungs and fat like the packaging suggests. I guess we’ll never know.

The Wild Haggis

A haggis Haggis scoticus is a small animal, probably a mammal, living in north-western Scotland. There are a few different breeds, but they generally look like badgers. Due to their mountainous habitat, the most distinguishing feature is the length of their legs. One side of the body is shorter than the other, sometimes the left front and hind legs are shorter, sometimes it’s the right. Allowing the animal to move easily on the steep mountains without falling over, this adaption is also the haggis’s biggest weakness.  If they come face to face with a predator, they are unable to run the other way without falling over. This makes them a very easy animal to hunt.

Wild haggis at the Glasgow Museum     Source: Emoscopes via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.5

Cooking the Haggis

When you get your haggis from the butcher, it should already be pre-cooked. All you need to do is heat it up. The best way to prepare is to shove it in the oven at 160°C for 30-60 minutes. Rule of thumb, cook for 1 hour for every kilogram. While you wait, dice and boil your neeps and tatties. Neeps (swedes) take about 30 minutes, tatties (potatoes) about 15. When soft, mash them with a bit of butter, salt and pepper. Now you can call yourself a Scottish chef.

Offal and oats are packed into the sheep’s stomach, tied at one end by a string

Taste and Texture

The nostalgic smell of Nan’s cooking (if you grew up in the Scotland, otherwise it just smells like offal) fills the kitchen as your open the oven door. Full of anticipation, you place your knife over the stomach. The haggis sounds a small “pop” as you pierce the membrane. The meat sticks to you knife, almost like pate as you cut further down the pudding. It keeps its shape really well when you dish it up with your neeps and tatties.  Don’t forget, pour yourself a glass of single malt.

The taste is very homely and surprisingly pleasant given its reputation. The strong meaty taste of offal is dumbed down by the oatmeal. The result is a soft meaty flavour not at all overpowering. On a scale of meatloaf to pate, the texture is about two thirds the way to meatloaf. It is very filling, one is enough for a family.

Cross section of a cooked haggis

Experiencing Haggis

You can find haggis on the menu at loads of restaurants throughout Scotland. It is very popular in England, particularly in London, and can be found in other countries with Scottish populations.

The best way to enjoy haggis is to attend a Burns Supper. It’s a feast honouring Scottish poet Robbie Burns. Here you will hear the Selkirk Grace and a poem about haggis written by Burns. It’s also a great way to experience other Scottish cultural icons, like bagpipes and whisky.

To see a wild haggis, you’ll need to go to the Scottish Highlands. Bring a pair of binoculars and an active imagination. If you are unlucky, you can see one at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

Haggis with neeps, tatties and a glass of scotch
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Further Reading

Wild Haggis – All About Haggis

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