As many of you will know, tonight is Burns Night. For most of the year haggis is rare in English shops, but around this time of year it is easy to find. I have been out and secured my own wee hairy beastie ready for the pot.
With yesterday’s post on kangaroo fresh in my mind I think it worth noting that the Scots have never expressed much outrage at the thought of eating their national totem animal. Indeed, they don’t even seem to worry much about the habit of Scottish sports fans of wearing the pelts of juvenile haggis as wigs (1). Even the English, whose fondness for animals is legendary, have rarely been known to upbraid their northern neighbors for eating a cute, furry creature. The fact that haggis are pretty scraggy-looking animals, and are possessed of a temper akin to that of a Tasmanian Devil, may have something to do with this.
A word of caution for unwary American visitors is appropriate here. My local Sainsbury’s is selling what they claim to be “vegetarian haggis”. Please do not be fooled. This product is still animal flesh. The haggis exists in two species: the carnivorous haggis (haggis jimmii carnivori) and the herbivorous haggis (haggis jimmii herbivori). The former is actually omnivorous, supplementing its diet of mice, frogs and insects with fruit when in season (2). The latter subsists mainly on root vegetables such as beets and turnips, and since the 17th Century has developed a particular fondness for potatoes. It is this quirk of their diet that caused the herbivorous haggis to be hunted to extinction in Ireland during the mid 19th Century. Food connoisseurs generally agree that the taste of the carnivorous haggis is far superior. However, unscrupulous English supermarkets have used the public’s lack of knowledge about the haggis to sell “vegetarian haggis” to their unsuspecting more soft-hearted customers.
Also please do not be fooled by haggis labeled “organic”. Despite entertaining rumors spread by certain Scottish science fiction fans, the haggis is not a silicon-based life form. All haggis meat is composed of organic molecules, just like beef or pork. Furthermore, haggis are not farmed. The use of the term “organic” with reference to haggis simply means that the animals have been shot with expensive carbon-fiber bullets, the cost of which is passed on to the consumer. Some Scottish hunters, in search of a more authentic and challenging experience, have taken to pursuing their prey with traditional bows and arrows, or even wrestling them to the ground and killing them with a knife. Haggis killed in this way are labeled “naturally culled”.
All that said, however, the fact remains that the haggis is a prime example of a wild creature whose survival is, at least in part, due to its popularity as a food.
(1) Various theories have been advanced to explain the vivid orange coloring of the juvenile haggis. Some biologists believe that it is an evolutionary adaptation to the fact that golden eagles have difficulty seeing the color orange. Others claim that the chemical that provides the orange coloring is a necessary precursor to that which, later in life, provides the characteristic purple and lilac dappling that allows the adult haggis to blend in so perfectly with heather-covered hillsides. A third group believes that the coloring is a reaction to the habit of mother haggis of lining their dens with the molted fur of Aberdeen Angus cows. Whatever the reason, haggis-pelt wigs have been traditional wear for Scots sports fans down the ages. There is now also a thriving export industry supplying the wigs to sports teams around the world who have orange as part of their colors including, of course, the San Francisco Giants. Kevin and I are proud owners of haggis-hair wigs.
(2) Some naturalists have claimed that a family link exists between the carnivorous haggis and the drop bears of Australia. It is certainly true that an adult male haggis is a ferocious fighter. That’s one of the reason why the Scots love to wrestle them. However, drop bears are almost entirely carnivorous and have been known to prey upon kangaroo and sheep as well as their usual diet of unwary tourists. The haggis is a much more gentle eater.