So what’s addressing the haggis all about, and what is a haggis?
Haggis is a dish traditionally associated with Scotland. It is a pudding made of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced through with oatmeal, onion, suet and spices, and plenty of salt. The former custom was to cook the pudding while still in the sheep’s stomach but today we usually do so in an artificial casing. It is served along with champit neeps an tatties or mashed turnips and potatoes. Although it might not sound too appealing haggis is actually quite tasty.
When and where haggis was invented has been a matter for long debate. There are references in ancient Greek and Roman texts to a dish that sounds like something similar, and some think that the Vikings first brought it to Scotland. The first clear references to a dish of this name – hagas - are found in the north of England around 1430 but as the peoples of Scotland and northern England had much in common in those days it is unsurprising.
The Scots word hag means to hack or chop and originally comes from the Old Norse hǫggva, meaning to strike or fell. Haggeis turns up in the poems of William Dunbar around 1500 and is well recorded after, giving rise to other forms such as haggersnash, meaning offal or scraps of meat, and haggisbag, the stomach in which the dish was formerly cooked.
In modern Scotland a tradition emerged of teasing American tourists with tales of a strange animal called the haggis, with legs longer on one side for running around the hills, and which had a cousin named the Aquatic Haggis as well. According to polls taken in recent decades, a large section of Americans really do believe the haggis is a living creature. The Kelvingrove gallery, in Glasgow, even has on display a mocked-up specimen of the fictional Haggis scoticus alongside a cooked version!
So what has the poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) got to do with haggis? The short answer to this is that Burns wrote an Address to the Haggis in 1787. Five years after the poet died his friends got together and held a supper in his memory and it was haggis that was eaten in celebration of his poem. The Greenock Burns Club established the tradition of holding a supper on or around the poet’s birthday – 25 January – from the year 1803 onwards. This is why in modern Scotland, and around the world, we hold Burns Nicht suppers around the time of the poet’s birthday, and why haggis is the main dish of the night.