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A word of warning. Those who have never tried haggis, and perhaps those who have, may find it better to steer clear of the details we give below of the ingredients and method of preparation, and just skip straight on to topics like the wild haggis, haggis hurling, and Robert Burns' Address to a Haggis.
For those of a stronger disposition, the haggis is very probably a dish that goes back for as long as there have been sheep in Scotland. This has never been a wealthy country, and the rural areas in particular have always had to struggle hard to make the best use of the limited resources available. When you kill a sheep it is possible to preserve or store the meaty parts relatively easily. But parts like the lungs, heart and liver tend to go off pretty quickly.
At some point someone had the bright idea of mincing these elements of the sheep; mixing the mince with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt; stuffing the result into its stomach; and boiling it for a number of hours. This is the haggis: and you were warned! When ready it is traditionally served with "neeps and tatties": mashed turnips and potatoes.
Accounts differ about the origin of the name. Some claim it comes from a Scandinavian word such as höggva, meaning to chop: others that it comes from the Old French agace, meaning magpie, a bird that makes use of odds and ends.
Haggis is traditionally served at Burns' suppers on 25 January each year, which take place worldwide. But it remains an everyday food found in Scottish butchers and supermarkets, and on the menus of even the best restaurants wanting to add something of the true taste of Scotland. Perhaps most commonly, it is on sale in the form a deep-fried batter-covered sausage in fish and chip shops the length and breadth of Scotland. We Scots will deep-fry anything, from pizzas to batter-coated Mars Bars (this latter is sadly not an urban myth!) and the chip shop haggis is usually on sale alongside battered black puddings and battered white puddings.
There are many variations on the traditional recipe. Some do not include the liver, for example. And it is even possible to get hold of a vegetarian haggis (which seems something of a contradiction). In the United States, the prohibition on the sale of animal lungs for human consumption means that "real" haggis is extremely hard to obtain: and the smuggling of the genuine article into the States is said to be quite common, especially in the run up to Burns' night. At least one manufacturer in the States now makes haggis that conforms with US law but which is said to be virtually indistinguishable in taste from the real thing.
There are other dishes around the world which resemble haggis in one way or another. The eastern USA boasts scrapple which uses pig offal instead of sheep offal; cornmeal instead of oatmeal; and is baked as a meatloaf rather than boiled as a sausage. Elsewhere the Netherlands is home to balkenbrij, Sweden to pölsa (using beef), and Germany to saumagen (using pork).
And, finally, haggis seems to have been prone to more than its share of what you'd be tempted to call urban mythology were it not such an essentially rural subject. Amongst the most persistent of these myths are the story of the wild haggis, and (not quite so mythical) accounts of the sport of haggis hurling.