"Haggis" - Photo: Samantha Gillogly
It’s that most Scottish of dishes: chopped sheep’s organs, oatmeal and spices cooked in a sheep stomach. And one culinary historian has just made a controversial pronouncement: it’s actually English.
Food writer Catherine Brown has discovered, after conducting research for a television documentary being broadcast this week in Scotland, that the first recorded mention of haggis appears in a 1615 English cookbook by Gervase Markham entitled, The English Hus-wife. According to Brown, Markham’s book described haggis as having been, “very popular among all people in England.”
In her research, Brown found no mention of a Scottish haggis appearing until 1747. A 1771 novel by Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, does indicate a strong association of Scotland with haggis by the late 18th century, by which time Brown believes the dish may have fallen out of fashion in English society.
So does this mean that England can now lay claim to the much maligned (if misunderstood) food icon? Perhaps not.
“Every country has a peasant dish which chops up the inside of an animal and stuffs them into a stomach bag,” says Brown, noting that even the ancient Romans would have dined on such a concoction.
Brown says that what does lend the haggis its Scottishness is, “the body of history which has been built up over 350 years,” with large credit due to Robert Burns’ famous 1786 poem, Address to a Haggis. Burns celebrated the haggis as a simple and practical dish that could be enjoyed by the everyday Scotsman, while criticizing the elaborate French cuisine popular with aristocratic elite of the day. Brown believes that haggis came to symbolize Scotland’s cultural independence from England, and has since ingrained itself as a token of pride in the Scots national consciousness.
“I don’t think we’ve ever professed to say that it was ours,” says James MacSween, director of MacSween, Scotland’s premier manufacturer of haggis. “Scotland has taken it as their own because I think Burns made haggis famous, and haggis has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years…You just need to go back to the days of not far away from cavemen, and you had to preserve meat: you either salted it, smoked it, or dried it, but these preservation techniques aren’t good for offal. So, you made something where you put all the offal in a bag, and that happened to be the stomach, and added cereal and spices, and hey-presto! It’s a haggis.”