From 1989 until 2010, the import of haggis was banned in the USA because of fears over BSE. As a result, enterprising Canadian meat companies developed a haggis recipe that didn’t include lights (lungs) in order to comply with US law. However, this inauthentic version of the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race’ didn’t satisfy American purists and a brisk cross-border trade in contraband authentic haggis sprang up. Despite this, 33% of American tourists in Scotland still believe that the haggis is an animal, rather than a dish – it is sometimes said to have the legs on one side shorter than the other, so that it can run round a hill clockwise but not anti-clockwise.
Is haggis Scottish? Not originally. Much like tartan, it has been invented in different places at different times. Preserving offal is a universal problem, and most cultures have some version of the same solution. Chopping up fresh offal, mixing it with fat, salt, herbs and cereal and then packing it tightly into an intestine produces a sausage, which can be boiled, or dried to preserve it. The earliest definitive account of this process dates from the Romans, who made theirs from pig offal, although the Greek playwright Aristophanes and Homer both refer to dishes made from stuffed animal stomachs. The earliest recipe we have for ‘a hagese’ is, of course, English and comes from a collection of verse recipes from 15th-century Lancashire. Some food historians suggest that the Vikings might have introduced it to Scotland, but there’s no definitive proof.
As with its origin, the etymology of the name is uncertain. Some say that it comes from Old French agace (‘a magpie’), because a haggis is a bundle of odds and sods just like a magpie's nest. The Old English verb haggen (‘to chop up’) sounds more likely.
The Burns Night Supper started soon after the poet’s death in 1796. Burns’s friends gathered on the anniversary of his death (July 21st), to recite his poems and toast his memory. In 1801, a group of merchants from Ayrshire founded the Mother Club, dedicated to Burns’ memory, in Greenock, on the banks of the Clyde. They decided to hold the supper on the anniversary of his birth (January 25th) and the Burns Supper was born. Like Highland games and clan tartans, it is observed all over the world, wherever a critical mass of Scots has gathered.
However formal or informal, the culinary centrepiece of the supper is the arrival of the haggis. It is led in by a piper and Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ is performed, with various degrees of histrionics. Once the pudding has been sliced open by a dagger, the haggis is toasted and its ‘reekin’ innards’ consumed by the guests. The traditional accompaniments are bashed neeps and champit tatties (mashed swede and potato) and, of course, copious drams of whisky.
Various toasts and speeches are made, the most significant of which is the Immortal Memory in which Burns’s life and work is celebrated. The dinner usually ends with a performance of Auld Lang Syne, a song whose words, QI fans will remember, Burns didn’t write, but adapted from a much older folk song. We got a lot of letters from Scottish viewers after David Tennant led us in singing the words ‘for the sake of Auld Lang Syne’, which should have been just ‘for Auld Lang Syne’.
In Vancouver a Burns Night celebration is held in collaboration with the city's large Chinese community. Burns Night is often within a few days of the Chinese New Year, and so Gung Haggis Fat Choy evolved. The dinners include improbable things like haggis and bean curd stir-fry.
I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence.
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursel's as others see us!
Haggis is growing in popularity south of the border. According to MacSween's, the world’s largest producer of haggis, Sainsbury’s now stock it 52 weeks a year.
They recommend haggis nachos and haggis pizza and have even developed a vegetarian ‘haggis’, made from pulses, fresh vegetables, nuts and spices blended together.
The first Burns Nights were held on 21st July, the anniversary of Robert Burns’ death rather than his birth.
Haggis hurling was invented as a publicity stunt but has now developed into a genuinely competitive activity, of sorts. The competitor stands on a whisky barrel and attempts to throw the haggis as far as possible.