Disclaimer: no haggis was harmed during the researching or writing of this article. The same can not be said however about a few wee drams. So, what is a haggis?
Haggi – plural of haggis, though sometimes hagisses can be used – are native to Scotland and wonderful beasties that deserve the crown ‘great chieftain of the pudding race’. It has to be noted, the Scottish ‘pudding’ doesn’t need to mean a desert. Pudding is any foodstuff inside a cloth or natural structure (i.e., animal stomach or bladder), that is cooked to perfection; as there is no other way to cook puddings.
Puddings can be meaty, fruity, starchy, or any combination. Suet is added to improve the consistency, herbs and spices are added to the mix to enhance the flavour.
Is the haggis just a pudding?
The haggis is not just THE ultimate pudding, but it’s a clever wee beastie as well.
Haggis usually consists of a bladder or stomach, filled with liver, kidney, lungs; all kinds of organs. Some carbohydrates are present as well, oats usually, but that depends on the foodstuffs that are available to the haggis. The main difference with more commonly known mammals is that in the haggis the organs are not nicely separate but mixed together in a unique anatomical configuration.
The haggis originated in the Highlands of Scotland, the Hebridean Haggis. It is a small and tough beastie, which of course it had to be in order to survive in that challenging environment. From there they spread out over the northern parts of Scotland. The beasties are good swimmers, so travel between the isles and the mainland is no problem.
What is special about their legs?
An anatomical specialty of the haggis is the beasties’ legs. They tend to have shorter legs on one side and longer on the other. This is to facilitate running around the mountains. The ones that run around the mountains clockwise have shorter legs on the right side, the left running haggi have legs that are shorter on the left.
There is much speculation about this, with some suggesting males and females have different legs (nonsense of course, a right leg longer haggis trying to mount a left leg longer haggis would just slide off and roll down the mountain to almost certain death, and vice versa. So interbreeding would be very dangerous except for those few clever enough to channel the Haggis Kama Sutra and find alternative positions.
Leg length does tend to vary per clan as some mountains are more amenable to clockwise running and others to anticlockwise, so it is a regional thing.
Suggestions that the leg situation is reversed in Australia is a distinct possibility as mountains behave differently down under. But the practical implications of this are uncertain, as the wild haggis population is too small in Australia for any statistically relevant research.
Breeding of the haggis species
Most haggis breeding occurs in the wild, though there have been attempts at haggis farming. Unfortunately the haggis requires very specific circumstances such as the right type of mountain for its legs, the right type of heather to run in and to eat, rainwater of the correct acidity to drink and shower, peat to dig a nest. This is not easy to duplicate in artificial circumstances. But attempts are ongoing.
Haggis has two different species names, Haggis scottii (with a sinistrous and a dexterous variety) or Scoticus, or Dux magnus gentis venteris saginati which is a reference to the old ‘Great Chieftain’ accolade.
In the Highlands, where the circumstances for haggis breeding are optimal, there has been some success breeding larger varieties with shorter hair (of course the wild haggis needs a long wiry coat to keep warm). Fank (=litter) size has increased with selective breeding and can now be up to eight haglets (the original wild variety would only have two or three per yearly birth). To determine gender and possible pregnancy and ultrasound scan can be used, aiding the breeding project even further.
However the attempt to breed even-legged haggis was a disaster. A small haglet being born with diagonally shortened legs caused the poor beastie a lot of trouble walking (and of course, no mountain sunning was possible). Therefore this type of cross-breeding should be discouraged.
Even the beasties’ thirst for a dram or six has been modified with breeding, though falling-over disease (caused by too large an intake of the national drink) is still a problem if not closely supervised.
Falling-over disease or ‘severe Burns’
This is a very common veterinary emergency mainly seen in wild haggi and unsupervised captive specimens.The cause is thought to be overindulgence in a certain tipple, which causes clumsiness, falling over and dehydration. This disease affects humans and haggi both. It mainly presents on a Friday or Saturday evening, and in humans it seems to be particularly prominent in the student variety of the breed.
Less is known about a specific age or occupational demographic of affected haggi. To decide whether it has a viral or purely an environmental cause, more research is required, and indeed empirical induction of the condition seems to be ongoing in both populations.
Affected haggi need urgent care and should be taken to the nearest veterinary clinic with haste. This post describes in detail how haggi are treated at clinics.
In short, they need an Irn Bru drip (into the body of the Haggis if a suitable vein can not be found), and as soon as the beastie starts to improve, start feeding little pieces of shortbread. Before releasing the haggis back in the wild make sure you top up its necessary level of whisky, of which the haggis can not survive the harsh Scottish winter without.
Less severe cases where the haggis is still able to react it may not require the Irn Bru. If so, a steady supply of whisky and shortbread will be enough to help the beastie recover.
And make sure you always wrap the haggis in a tartan cloth, as that is the only thing their delicate skin and fur tolerates for longer than a few minutes. Ideally it would be the haggis clan’s tartan, but if the correct one is not available any tartan will do. Be certain to change the cloth every four to six hours so the tartan doesn’t have a chance to imprint on the haggis’ skin and brain and alter the haggis’ clan identity.
That of course would cause confusion and possibly long term mental health problems for the poor Haggis, and therapists who can deal with this are few and far between.
Are there different breeds of haggis?
The most important breakthrough in breeding the haggis is the American variety, as importing haggis into the US has been strictly forbidden for years.
This was obviously because they did not want to risk importing the Scottish variety of falling-over disease, a disease the Americans tried to eliminate in their country by long years of ‘Prohibition’, when what they presumed to be the causative agent of the illness was banned.
So Americans have had to breed their own variety of haggis from stock they had left over from before the ban. This seems to have been effective, although real haggis connoisseurs are likely to be able to tell the difference. Unfortunately neither the Prohibition nor the haggis import ban has managed to eliminate falling-over disease, in humans or in haggi.
Interbreeding between the American and the Scottish haggis has not happened, as the beasties may be good swimmers but not good enough to cross an ocean. So whether it is a genuinely new breed, or just a new variety within the breed, is impossible to tell.
Other varieties have been attempted, including the vegetarian haggis but the scientists failed to keep them alive long enough to breed, because a haggis can’t survive without liver, kidney or lung tissue.
There has been a report of a flying haggis, but after careful consideration the author decided this is a hoax. Why would a self respecting haggis take to the skies? It is simply not believable.
In order to catch the wild haggis, hunts are regularly organised. There is some controversy over when hunting is permitted. The breeding season is not a good time of course, as that would prevent the population maintaining numbers.
Most people agree the hunting season starts on St Andrews Day (30 November) and ends on Burns night (25 January). Some hunting outside of these dates might be done if the breeding in captivity failed that year and a supply of haggis is needed outside of Burns Night.
We will not go into hunting protocols, as that would give humans an unfair advantage when attempting to catch a haggis.
Address the haggis
If you do manage to get hold of a haggis and want to enjoy its particular flavour, there are a few stipulations. Neeps and tatties have to accompany the haggis. A bottle of Scotch needs to be at hand, single malt is preferable. And of course you need to know how to address the haggis properly before consumption.
Without giving the full address, it would be a travesty to consume any haggis, especially on Burns Night.