The exact historical origins of our great national dish appear to have been lost in the mists of time. Some claim the dish originated from the days of the old Scottish cattle drovers, who took their herds from the Highlands to market in Edinburgh. Others believe the dish is pre-historic and a pragmatic way of cooking and preserving offal that would otherwise spoil following a kill. Fresh offal or pluck consisted of heart, liver and lungs which was chopped and mixed with cereal (oats) and herbs then stuffed into the stomach of the animal before being immersed in boiling water for two to three hours. Haggis became a popular dish with poor people because it used cheap cuts of nourishing meat that would otherwise have been thrown away.
The first published haggis recipe (hagese) appeared circa 1430 in the verse cookbook Liber Cure Cocorum which came from Lancashire.
Þe hert of schepe, þe nere þou take,
Þo bowel noght þou shalle forsake,
On þe turbilen made, and boyled wele,
Hacke alle togeder with gode persole,
It was eaten in Scotland because in 1520 the Scottish poet William Dunbar, penned Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy which refers to 'haggeis'.
“Thy fowll front had, and he that Bartilmo flaid;
The gallowis gaipis eftir thy graceles gruntill, As thow wald for ane haggeis, hungry gled.
Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting (poetic jousting) was a popular and influential poem and was almost a de rigueur inclusion in Scottish anthologies of verse for the next two centuries.
Gervase Markham wrote The English Hus Wife (1615) and included a receipt for Haggas or Haggus in the section entitled “Skill in Oate meale”. Haggis was popular in England until the middle of the 18th Century before it became more associated with Scotland.
In 1771 there is reference to haggis as a Scottish delicacy in Tobias Smollett’s novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.
In 1774 the English cookery writer Hannah Glasse published a recipe for Scotch haggis in The Art of Cookery. Glasse wrote mostly for domestic servants and referred to them as "lower sort". Her book was most influential with many of her receipts still recognizable today. She did however show marked disapproval of French cooking styles and in general avoided French culinary terminology.
Burns immortalised the haggis in his eight verse poem Address to a Haggis (1786). By ringing the praises of common fare the bard was gently lampooning the pretentious French cuisine popular in Edinburgh at the time. Only after his death in 1796 when Burns’ close friends decided to celebrate his memory did they organized a supper in his honour and ate haggis. Each year on the 25th January Burns Suppers are held all over the world to commemorate Scotland’s national poet. Recitation of the poem Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns is an important part of the Burns supper. The haggis is now as firmly established as a Scottish national icon as the much revered whiskey.
There are many recipes for haggis but most have the following ingredients in common: sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver and lungs) minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock. The traditional animal's stomach has been replaced with sausage casing. The dish is served hot with neaps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) and taken with a dram (a glass of Scotch whisky). Today there are many different varieties including vegetarian haggis and kosher haggis.
Since 1971, it has been illegal to import haggis into the US from the UK due to a ban on food containing sheep lung. The situation was further complicated in 1989 when all UK beef and lamb was banned from importation to the US due to the Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis. Despite regular reviews of the ban on food products containing sheep lung it remains enforced. Hence Americans cannot get authentic Scot’s Haggis but make do with what is available
A common fiction promulgated by some is the haggis is a small Scottish animal (Haggis scoticus) with longer legs on one side, so that it can run around the steep hills of the Scottish Highlands without falling over. The Hebridean Haggis is "thought" to be the original native species. The Lewis Haggis is different from the Haggis on the mainland: unlike its mainland relative all its legs are of the same length. The two varieties coexist peacefully but are unable to interbreed in the wild because in order for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate, causing him to lose his balance before he can mount her. As a result of this difficulty, differences in leg length among the haggis population are accentuated.
Haggis Hurling has become popular of late and involves throwing a haggis as far as possible. The world record for haggis hurling was achieved by Lorne Coltart at the Milngavie Highland Games in 2011, who hurled his haggis 217 feet.