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Why detractors are wrong: Haggis is delicious

A rediscovery of the Scotland’s cuisine has given even the most maligned dishes new-found cachet

Three men in skirts, one of them blowing into a goatskin bag, another holding a steaming orb on a plate above his head and the last carrying a large stick, march noisily into the room. They are here as part of a Burns Supper, a celebration of the life and poetry of one of Scotland’s most famous poets and the man who gave the world one of its great culinary poems: Address to a Haggis. The centrepiece of any self-respecting Burns Supper, of course, is always a fresh, steaming hot haggis.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who wrote Address to a Haggis, inspired the tradition of the Burns Supper, the centrepiece of which is a fresh, steaming hot haggis. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Few foods on earth are presented with quite so much fanfare as the humble haggis. Some would argue that the dish is so bizarre and unpleasant that it requires an ornate ritual to make it palatable, while others insist it’s a perfectly reasonable amount of fanfare for such a noble and honourable dish.

“Most people either love it or hate it,” is how chef Edward Murray – co-owner of The Gardener’s Cottage, a much loved restaurant in Edinburgh known for its celebration of local ingredients – puts it.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There are quite a few people who are squeamish because it’s offal, rather than anything to do with the taste, and there are people for whom the idea of it just makes them uncomfortable. Haggis is quite a strong flavour, I suppose, but I quite like it sometimes.”

At its most basic, haggis is simply a combination of sheep offal, beef, oats, onions and spices in a natural casing. It’s only when people start to look too closely that they tend to get squeamish, but taken at face value, it’s a genuine treat.

No debate over this

The less divisive Scottish foods include  shortbread, Scottish smoked salmon and Dundee marmalade. (MARTIN RETTENBERGER) 

It says something about Scotland’s national dish that even the locals are divided about it, but that’s Scottish food in a nutshell. For every universally loved Scottish culinary invention – shortbread, Scottish smoked salmon, Dundee marmalade – there’s something seemingly designed to horrify all but the most dedicated proponent: crappit head (stuffed cod-head soup), black pudding (blood sausage) and, of course, the infamous deep-fried Mars bar.

The fact is that the food of Scotland has been the butt of too many jokes for too long, and while crappit head might not be the next big food fad, there is a rediscovery of classic Scottish cooking that’s giving even the most maligned dishes new-found cachet.

The version of black pudding made on the Isle of Lewis in the far west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, for example, is considered among the world’s great blood sausages, on par with Spain’s morcilla and France’s boudin noir. Given texture and heft by the presence of Scottish oatmeal and studded with white beads of fat, the sausage is considered by many to be the best sausage made in Britain and is recognized under Europe’s PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) label.

The prehistoric Callanish standing stones in Lewis, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides islands. The version of black pudding made on the Isle of Lewis is considered among the world’s great blood sausages. (HUGH A. MULLIGAN/AP)

Seumas MacInnes, owner of Glasgow’s renowned Cafe Gandolfi, has even written The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible, a cookbook that includes more than 100 recipes, from black pudding with mushrooms and pancakes to black pudding pakoras. MacInnes believes that it’s black pudding and not haggis that should be considered Scotland’s true national dish.

Gardener’s Cottage chef Murray, who sources his black pudding from the remote Orkney Islands, cites two components in particular as being crucial to the creation of a great blood pudding. “It all comes down to the quality of the ingredients,” he says. The oats must be quite carefully sourced and it’s important to only use fresh pig’s blood. Some places use dried blood, so it’s dried to a powder and when they make it they add water.” Ultimately, he says, a great black pudding should be quite peppery and well seasoned but still allow the irony mineraliness that you get from the blood to show through.

While black pudding might be making a play to move into position as Scotland’s national dish, don’t rule out haggis quite yet. Earlier this year, Macsween, a third-generation haggis-making company in Edinburgh, developed a Wagyu beef, white summer truffle, 24-carat-gold sprinkled haggis that sells for £4,000 (about $7,500). Each of the precious delicacies are packed in their own handmade wooden casks and must be specially commissioned. As to why anyone would want to make a £4,000 haggis, Macsween’s managing director and director of innovation James Macsween explained to the Edinburgh News, “Good haggis making is an art and we wanted to highlight this.”

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