A history of Scotland's fascination with haggis

We take a look at the traditions, stories and myths surrounding one of Scotland's favourite dishes: Haggis

Published 19th Jan 2016
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

Though its origins are widely disputed no-one can deny the strong association that haggis has with Scotland. Considered to be the national dish, haggis is widely eaten on many days celebrating Scotland's national heroes and of course, its patron saint Saint Andrew.


Some claim the origins of the humble haggis can be traced back to England, while others still say its origins harken back to the Roman Empire. Many even say it was brought to these shores by the Vikings. Whatever the truth, its origins remain disputed.

Food historian Catherine Brown claims the dish was invented by the English, citing references to 'haggas' in a book called The English Hus-Wife, dated 1615.

In the book, Author Gervase Markham referred to “this small oat meal mixed with the blood, and the liver of either sheep, calfe, or swine, maketh that pudding.”

Brown also added that the first mention she could find of Scottish haggis was in 1747.

However opponents of her claim cite the poem Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, which is dated before 1520 and makes reference to 'haggeis'.

She is not the only one to have claimed the dish was not invented by the Scots, a Helensburgh butcher claims the dish was invented by Vikings who settled in this country, and should be made using deer and not sheep.

The claim was even backed up by celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson Wright, who cited etymologist Walter William Skeat – who suggested the word haggis was derived from the Old Norse haggw, meaning to hack into pieces –  as part of her research into the subject.

Ancient Romans are also said to have made a haggis-style equivalent to feed their soldiers, while a primitive version haggis is even mentioned in Homer's Odyssey.

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However, James Macsween, director of Macsween's, the award-winning Edinburgh haggis-maker, said that whatever its origin, the pudding remains a Scottish icon.

He said: "Haggis is now renowned as Scotland's dish largely due to Robert Burns, who made it famous.

"That's not to say that prior to Burns that haggis wasn't eaten in England, but Scotland has done a better job of looking after it. I didn't hear Shakespeare writing a poem about haggis."


So how did Scotland's love of haggis come about? Well as these things always do, with a great story.

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As a nation, there are few things Scots love more than telling - or indeed hearing - stories, so what began with Robert Burns dramatic poem quickly snowballed into tales of Highland crofts and clans and where haggis fit into Scotland's rich history.

Where Academics and historians failed to explain the origins of haggis, popular folklore did its best to fill in the gap. From tales of Highland drovers taking long trips to drive their cattle to the southern capital - their wives creating rations for the long journeys, usually packaged in a sheep's stomach allowing for easy transportation during the journey - to stories of benevolent lairds and chieftains allowing the workmen who slaughtered their cattle to keep the offal.

All these tales helped to tie into the romance of a dish that is now endemically tied to Scotland.

It is probably the most famous story surrounding the haggis that is probably best well known, the tongue-in-cheek tale (or well kept secret, depending on who you believe) shared by the locals to foreigners and tourists arriving on our shores, that the haggis is actually a “a small four legged creature that lives in the Highlands and has two legs shorter than the others so it can run around the mountains without toppling over" and that it "can easily be caught by running around the hill in the opposite direction.”


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While it may have been the English, the Vikings, the Romans or even the ancient Greeks who created the original haggis recipe, its the Scots who have gone on to embrace, refine and make this wonderful dish famous around the world.

Haggis permeates Scotland's cultural fabric, with many customs, stories and traditions surrounding the dish.

Scotland's love affair with haggis clearly began with Robert Burns and his 1786 Address to the Haggis and has only grown stronger since.

The first ever Burns supper was held at Burns Cottage by Robert Burns' friends on 21 July 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death, and now, 215 years later, Burns Night is celebrated all over the world.

Every 25th January, the haggis takes centre place as Scots and their descendants - and plenty of others too - celebrate the life and times of Scotland's national bard.

Beginning with the piping in ceremony, everyone stands as the haggis is brought in by the cook, while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host's table, where the haggis is laid down.

The haggis is then addressed by the speaker before a toast is given and those in attendance tuck into their delicious meal of haggis accompanied by neeps (turnip) and tatties (potatoes), all usually washed down with a dram or two of whisky.

Not all traditions involve actually eating the haggis, indeed one actually involves throwing it.

Haggis hurling has  gained massive popularity over the past few decades.

It began in 1977 when Irishman Robin Dunseath placed an advert in a national newspaper inviting entrants to The World Haggis Hurling Competition.

Mr Dunseath claimed to be reviving a 17th century practice, where the women of Auchnaclory tossed haggis across the River Dromach to their husbands, who were working in the fields, in an effort to save time which would otherwise be spent walking to a crossing point. The men would have to catch the haggis in their kilts to avoid having dirt mixed in with their dinner.

Hundreds of people responded, and the sport soon spread throughout the rest of the world, with competitions popping up in countries with links to Scotland through migration, such as the US, Canada and Australia.

But in 2004 Mr Dunseath dropped a bombshell – the history of the competition was a complete work of fiction.

He said: “It was all just a joke. Myself and a few friends were annoyed at people exploiting Scotland for their personal advantage, selling all of this rubbish – tartan knickers and tartan pencils – to tourists.”

Many haggis hurlers reacted angrily to the news that they had been duped, with some even denying the hoax was a hoax.

However, the admission has done little to dampen the spirit of the competition and Haggis Hurling continues to grow in popularity not only here but also around the world with the current world record being achieved by Lorne Coltart in 2011, who hurled his haggis 217 ft (66 m). This throw surpassed the longstanding previous record of 180 ft 10 in (55.12 m), held by Alan Pettigrew since 1984.

Other traditions highlight the typical Scottish sense of humour. Poking fun at the belief that the haggis is a real creature, the Great Selkirk Haggis Hunt is an annual event that sees the good folk of Selkirk go out hunting for haggis on Selkirk Hill.

Now in its 11th year, the hunt is more popular than ever with over 350 people turning up last year to watch the hunters scour the hills with baggie nets before returning to the town to eat some of the haggis that were 'caught'.

Modern interpretations

Scotland's favourite dish continues to fascinate and enthral with more and more chefs experimenting to create their own wonderful interpretations.

Butcher Joe Callaghan has made a version of haggis which he believes to be the true recipe. Dubbed Staggis, Joe's version is made using deer's pluck used instead of sheep's.

Fred Berkmiller of L'escargot Bleu and Blanc in Edinburgh , created his own culinary version of the Entente Cordiale, when he combined Scotland's national dish with French cuisine.

Instead of sheep's pluck, the award-winning chef used the heart, liver and kidney of a horse to create the dish.


Mr Berkmiller told the Edinburgh Evening News: “Horse is very popular here – people are willing to try it. I think people coming to a French restaurant do expect to try some exotic things.

“It looks a bit like venison, but its got a very light flavour. It’s very tender and very lean – there’s virtually no fat.”

And he's not the only Scottish chef to have put their own mark on haggis, from haggis curries and pakora, through to vegetarian haggis, the dish remains as popular as ever.

There is even talk of attempts to have the US ban on haggis overturned, to satisfy demand.

We'll leave the final word to haggis expert, Jo Macsween - from the renowned haggis producer Macsween of Edinburgh - who believes the dish is a global phenomenon with a rightful place in Scottish culture: “No one in Scotland can claim to have invented haggis, but we made it was it is today.

“We put it on the map."

Like this? See also:

• Tom Kitchin recipe: Haggis cannelloni

Derek Johnstone Recipe: Haggis bon bons with Arran mustard and Glenkinchie whisky mayonnaise 

Hardeep Singh Kholi Recipe: Haggis Baba ganoush

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