Hail to the Chief!
With Burns Night fast approaching Bryn Frank goes haggis hunting.
The haggis is a fascinating creature. Uniquely in the animal kingdom, it has legs on one side of its body that are shorter than on the other. These are thought to have developed over thousands of years to enable the haggis to scurry round the sides of Scottish hills and mountains to escape its predators.
But sadly it is still vulnerable, and for one particular reason. It's incapable of holding the liquor of which it is fatally fond. One wee dram of malt whisky from a dish left near the entrance to its highland lair will, when taken, send the creature into a state of contented but hopeless inebriation, allowing the licenced haggis hunter to bash it into submission.
Any suggestions from outsiders that all this is a myth are strongly refuted.
The fact is...
The fact however, that the haggis is simply a mixture of fat, onions, oatmeal, stock and cut-up heart, lungs and liver, boiled and minced and mixed with oatmeal swaddled tightly in the stomach lining of a sheep, is just too mundane for some.
Even its greatest fans don't pretend it's beautiful: it has a bulbous look that its greatest champion, the poet Robert Burns, compared with the sight of bare buttocks ('hudies').
Nevertheless haggis wouldn't be where it is today if people didn't generally like it. I for one like it in the same way that I like fried black pudding with a traditional English breakfast but never want to examine it too closely.
What is not a myth is that this creature is used in haggis hurling, which involves throwing him or her as far as possible.
The present world record for Haggis Hurling was set at 217' by Lorne Coltart at the Milngavie Highland Games on 11 June 2011.
Distance and accuracy is important in the hurl, and a split or burst haggis is immediately counted out. A sensitive touch is more important than brute force, as the hurl must result in a smooth landing to keep the haggis skin in one piece, for it is stipulated that the haggis must be fit to eat afterwards.
So having acquired your haggis, what on earth do you do with it? Well, you simply wrap it in foil and simmer it for 30 minutes per pound, then serve with neeps 'n tatties (mashed swedes and mashed potatoes).
Each January the haggis comes into its own as the centre-piece of the Burns Night Dinner on or as close as possible to Burns's birthday, 25 January.
In family homes and hotels across Scotland indeed, all over the world the piper makes his entrance, kilt swirling, pipes skirling, followed by the chef bearing the odiferous beast. The piper, or the most eminent Scot available, takes up his position behind the haggis as it rests on a top table, and launches into Burns's ode To A Haggis: eight verses of dramatic but challenging Scots dialect in praise of the 'great chieftain o' the puddin' race'. This came about when Burns , a guest of a Haggis Club in Kilmarnock in 1785, was asked to say grace, he instead chose address the haggis thus:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.
Fair full your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.
Among seven more verses, here's another taste:
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hudies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead
The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your buttocks like a distant hill,
Your pin* would help to mend a mill
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distill
Like amber bead.
On the fifth anniversary of his death in 1796 a group of dignatories gathered in Alloway to have what is now considered to have been the first Burns Supper. They dined on haggis and recited the 'Address to a Haggis'. They agreed to meet on Burns's birthday the following year, and so evolved the annual tradition of holding a Burns Supper on or near 25 January.
Haggis with a twist
Man-of-the-people Robert Burns would approve of the fact that haggis is often served much more mundanely in Scottish fast-food establishments deep fried in batter. Together with chips, this comprises a "haggis supper". A "haggis burger" is a patty of fried haggis served on a bun. A "haggis pakora" is another deep fried variant, available in some Indian restaurants
'Vegetarian haggis' is made of minced oatmeal, kidney beans, nuts, mushrooms, lentils, carrots, swede, onions, margarine, stock and seasoning. It looks like a haggis, is cooked the same way, can be served with neeps 'n tatties or with rice.
Haggis travels well and therefore can be ordered over the internet to be delivered by post, although there are import restrictions in countries such as America and Canada. It will keep up to one month in the fridge and from six months to a year in the freezer.
But as 'Visit Scotland' points out you can't do better than to experience haggis in its natural habitat. Well, they would, wouldn't they?