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What is in a haggis? The 12 essential ingredients

What is in a haggis? The 12 essential ingredients

Q. What's in a haggis? A. More than the sum of its parts!

In this blog I tell the colourful story of Scotland’s obsession with our national dish and explore just how closely connected it is to both our national poet and our national drink.

Let's dive in!

1. Robert Burns

The ‘modern' story of the haggis starts 200+ years ago with the one person who has single-handedly put more into haggis than anyone else: Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. For it was Burns who immortalised this culinary curiosity in verse and started the ripples of its current popularity.

Until this point haggis was merely the honest working-man’s fare: barely written about; definitely not celebrated and even less consumed by the 'educated' classes of his day.

As was Burns’ genius, he recognised the common and every-person issues of his day and captured them in humorous and visceral egalitarian sentiments with global-reaching influence that resonate as strongly today. 

2. Address to a Haggis

Perception: from this artist’s perspective, a vastlty elevated perception is the main game-changing ingredient Burns gave to the haggis in his barn-storming poem penned in 1786. By celebrating the haggis as the ‘great chieftan’ above the reality of its wonderfully tasty but basic and lowly ingredients, in a masterstroke of marketing he romanticised the haggis and through his words made palatable to increasingly squeamish future generations.

Robert Burns is undoubtedly the haggis’ single greatest salesperson and a significant  reason why it is now Scotland’s national dish!

3. Burns Supper: history and format

Where the Address to the Haggis gave the haggis its voice, it was the Burns Supper that gave it the platform.

The first Burns Supper held in 1801 was thrown by a group of Burns' friends on the 5th anniversary of his death, July 21st. This being a small and informal affair held at his first home, Burns Cottage. The following year the date was changed to celebrate the date of his birth, January 25th, and so started the global party that is the Burns Supper.

While you can take haggis out of Scotland, you just can’t take Scotland out of the haggis. So what are the essential ingredients of Scottishness that enrich the haggis and the overall haggis experience?

4. Weather

Burns Night is always the perfect antidote to the Scottish winter and the January blues. Who else but the Scots would go out and "celebrate good times” on invariably the coldest, wettest and windiest night of the year? It brings to mind these 2 storming lines from the classic Tam o’ Shanter...

    The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last; 
    The rattling showers rose on the blast;

But it is this Scottish climate that is perfect for growing haggis: the oats, lamb or venison, the accompanying neeps and tatties and, of course, the slowly maturing Scotch whisky.

5. Music: the pipes

Can you imagine the haggis paraded to the host’s table for the Address by a harp, accordion or billabong? No way, pal!

The sound of a single bagpiper indoors is an experience that has got to be heard to believed and never fails to send shivers down the spine. Especially when belting out A Man’s A Man for a’  That or a Robbie Burns Medley. Bagpipes: another Scottish ingredient that is uniquely interwoven into the haggis experience.

6. Intangibles: that unique blend of Scottish je ne sais quoi

Scottish nature, landscape, history, the highlands and islands, language and the indomitable Scottish spirit all subtly flow through the story of the haggis. They give the haggis heritage and a home. Scotland’s national dish and national drink: a marriage blended in heaven.

7. Haggis & Scotch

Not many, if any drinks could stand up next to and complement the taste and texture of haggis. Enter the mighty Scotch. A number of fine Scotches provide an equal measure of pepperiness and oiliness to match the haggis. But don’t be suckered in and go too big and bold with some of the peaty Islays or too meek with the lunchtime Lowlanders. Choose wisely my friend!

8. IRN-BRU, Scotland's other national drink

I fondly remember the first Burns Supper I attended hosted at my primary school starring we the pupils offering up squeaky recitals. As with any fine upstanding Burns Supper, the main event was the haggis. Our parents in the audience were each given a dram (in a primary school!) and the weans an IRN-BRU. Due to the similar colour and its ‘unique’ gingery flavour, it really felt that it was us that were sipping Scotland’s national drink. 

The origins of haggis and haggis-like dishes have a long and well-travelled history. But irrespective of where it first originated, one thing is beyond dispute, the home of the haggis for the last 200+ years is firmly in Scotland.

9. Traditional haggis

A haggis is essentially a savory sausage and a sausage is essentially efficient butchery. As Scotland has no shortage of sheep (there are more sheep in Scotland than people) over the centuries there has been plenty of opportunity for making sausages from sheep. Combined with oats and other locally grown vegetables, et voila, so you have the haggis.

With the introduction of deer farming in Scotland in the 1970’s (another Scottish first) and the growing demand for venison, so the traditional lamb haggis was joined by a venison cousin.

10. Vegetarian haggis

Macsween, the biggest name in haggis, introduced the first veggie haggis in 1984. Fully approved by the Vegetarian Society and jammed full of pulses, oatmeal, seeds and spices, this diversification has grown to represent over 25% of all Macsween haggis sales. And, interestingly, the majority of their haggis sales originate from south of the border.

11. Accompaniments: Neeps & Tatties

Certain national food pairings have evolved synergistically over time to be simply better when served together:

• French baguette and brie
• Italian spagetti Bolognese
• British fish and chips
• Indian baltis and naan bread
• and of course, Scottish haggis, neeps and tatties

For those not steeped in Scots, neeps = turnips; tatties = potatoes. And for the Burns Supper win, its mandatory that both neeps and tatties are finely mashed, ideally with lashings of butter (or is that just me?).

12. The Burns Night Menu

What a haggis is made of is much, much more than just the sum of its sausagey parts. It is a romantic and uniquely Scottish story that is enriched by Robert Burns lyrics, a dram to two of Scotch, essential Scottishness and an expanding larder of locally sourced ingredients. 

Because of these very ingredients, haggis tends to be either loved or loathed - or probably more accurately feared! 

But unlike so many of the other society splitting topics of today, all participants are welcome at a Burns Supper where there is no wrong answer:

• traditional or vegetarian

• Scotch or IRN-BRU

• lassies or laddies

So wrapping it up I return to Burns where I started: the haggis is the great chieftan of'the puddin'-race (read: sausage). 

Happy Burns Night this January 25th one and all!

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