Cut into your haggis this Burns Nicht, and within you’ll find paradox, myth and mystery. The paradox is that a sheep’s stomach, stuffed with heart, lungs and liver, is also imbued with romance – thanks to the power of Burns’ words in the Address to the Haggis.
To the sound of the Selkirk Grace on January 25 around the world, Scots and non-Scots will gather in Russia, Sweden, Bahrain, Japan, Zambia and other far-off places to toast the poet on his birthday, “oor land” and, most of all, the “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’ race”.
A miraculous rise, one might reflect, for a wee, roond gut-bag. Say what you like about Burns representing Scotland, he is probably the best advocate for offal in the world.
Haggis is an aptly chosen national dish, because it symbolises our Scottish virtue of thrift: making the most of small means. “In haggis,” writes F. Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen, “we have concocted from humble, even despised, ingredients a veritable plat de gourmet. Further, it is a thoroughly democratic dish, equally available, and honoured, in castle, farm and croft.”
Writing in Old World Scotland in 1890, historian TE Henderson describes the enthusiasm haggis was greeted with by those who could afford little else: “In the peasant’s home, the haggis was set in the centre of the table, all gathering round with their horn spoons, and it was devil take the hindmost.”
There’s no doubting Scotland’s love of haggis, nor its symbolising our country abroad, so surely we invented it?
No. We didn’t. This is the first myth to debunk. The technique of cooking offal in a vessel ready-made within the animal is an ancient one, pre-dating Scotland, or indeed any nation. Hunter-gatherers couldn’t afford to waste a single part of their kill, and since offal is the part of the animal that deteriorates fastest – and is the hardest to carry – haggises have evolved in food cultures across Europe.
The ancient Greeks cooked, and even burst, the first recorded haggis, immortalised by Aristophanes in his play The Clouds. Here Strepsiades entertains Socrates with the comic tale of his haggis supper:
So was I served with a stuffed sheep’s paunch I broiled
I never thought to give the rascal vent
Bounce goes the bag, and covers me all over
With its rich contents of varied sorts…”
Following the Greeks, the Romans stuffed pigs’ paunches with chopped pork, suet, egg yolks, pepper, lovage, asa foetida, ginger, gravy and oil – according to a recipe preserved by Apicius Coelius in his cook book De Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), written during the reigns of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius.
And here’s a more disquieting revelation: haggis is English too. The Form of Cury (cookery) is the first known English cook book, written in 1390 by a chef to Richard II. Amongst its pages is Afronchemoyle: a sheep’s stomach, or “shepys trype”, boiled with sheep fat (or “talwe”), breadcrumbs and eggs sewn inside.
Perhaps more disturbing for a Nationalist’s sleep is “Hog’s Pudding”: a Sassenach haggis eaten even today in Devon and Cornwall, as related in The Book of the Sausage by the very un-Scottish sounding Antony and Araminta Hippisley Coxe. There, far down in the West Country, minced pig pluck is stuffed into casings with oats or barley, pepper, salt, mace, nutmeg, thyme, and then cayenne if you’re in Devon, or parsley in Cornwall.
But at least, the Nationalist will be relieved to discover, the name haggis isn’t English.
No, it’s Scandinavian. Or French, if you believe Sir Walter Scott, which, Shirra forgive me, I can’t say I do.
The debate divides between our Scottish haggis tracing to the Auld Alliance, or to the Vikings. On the French side, so the story goes, Mary of Lorraine married King James V in the 16th century, and introduced the perfection of noble French kitchens to Scotland, including the words gigot (a leg of lamb), and hachis, from which we derive the words hash and, so legend says, haggis’.
However, no dish in France seems to resemble anything we’d recognise as haggis, and the French didn’t seem to use the word hachis to refer to haggis here either: during the Auld Alliance, they called it le pain bénit d’Écosse, (Scotland’s blessed bread) and more recently Puding de St André.
Hachis probably meant something quite different, and sounds similar because it derives from the same original root as the Middle English hagas, and even the Gaelic taigeis: the Scandinavian verb hag – to chop.
This Norse source also gives us the English verb to hack, and the Germans the name of their minced sausage hackwurst.
“When King Duncan came to the throne of a united Scotland in 1034,” writes Clarissa Dickson Wright in The Haggis: A Little History, “a huge tract of the North and all the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland were not in his realm, but part of the Kingdom of Norway. The Northern Isles became part of Scotland only in 1468.”
Perhaps, she wonders, the Viking settlers brought their sheep and their recipe with them on their longboats?
But, on the other hand, maybe Sir Walter was right about the French introducing haggis to Scotland, since the Norsemen conquered northern France too. Hence the name Normandy, and the Norman-French verb haguer – to cut up. Or maybe haggis was here in Scotland already, cloaked in a name we’ve now lost.
The origin of haggis is still a mystery, with tantalising clues left only in the language. But for sure Scotland didn’t invent the name, or the dish, which was as much English as it was Scottish. However, haggis fell out of fashion in England in the 18th century, and the stuffed paunch, thanks to Burns, became recognised as a characteristic Scottish dish.
So now, whatever its history, in the eyes of the world, haggis is definitely oors.