Beware The Wild Haggis, Scourge Of Travellers

December 15th, 2023
Beware The Wild Haggis, Scourge Of Travellers

If you’ve lived in Scotland for a while as I have, it’ll become a familiar sight: seeing a first-time visitor to this part of the world, often identifiable by the shiny newness of their waterproof outdoors gear, talking to an impressively grizzled-looking local about wild haggis.

Oh, the things you’d learn, if you were this lucky! Did you think that Scotland’s national dish of minced sheep’s organs mixed with chopped onion, oatmeal, beef or mutton fat, spices and a little salt is just a cleverly stuffed savoury pudding? No! Of course it isn’t. What, you’re planning to go walking in the Scottish Highlands, and you don’t know the danger posed by the wild, untamed haggis up there? Seriously? Haven’t you done your research?!

Is it that Haggis? It is a Scottish dish of minced sheep organs mixed with oatmeal, encased in a stomach.

Is it that Haggis? It is a Scottish dish of minced sheep organs mixed with oatmeal, encased in a stomach.

But it’s okay, that local will say with a wink. It’s lucky you talked to me. I’ll set you straight, laddie/lass. Aye. Listen up, and take notes if you’ve got a pen handy…

As the increasingly baffled listener will learn, it’s not technically called a “wild haggis”. The scientific name is Haggis scoticus - presumably to differentiate it from other forms of haggis worldwide, although the conversation may mysteriously skim over this point rather quickly… 

Perhaps you’ll be treated to a bit of haggis-focused poetry - like the words of journalist James J. Montague that graced the January 2nd, 1924 edition of the New York Tribune:

My heart’s in the Highlands, twa strings on my bow
To hunt the fierce haggis, man’s awfu’est foe.
And weel may my bairn ha’ a tear in his ee.
For I shallna come back if the haggis hunts me.

A description of one? Well, you can’t miss them. Imagine a rotund feather duster bristling with teeth at one end. Or a Tribble from Star Trek crossed with a Great White shark. Imagine a shell from a cannon, covered in fur and moving at much the same speed, but with the ability to bite right through the sole of your walking boot. If you can already see a wild haggis, there’s no escape. If it’s visible, there’s no point running. It has you, and that’s just that.

But there’s still hope - even if you’re not accompanied by a professional haggis hunter, there’s always hope if you keep your wits about you. Cast your eyes left and right. Are there any low hills nearby? As you’re desperately fighting off the wee haggis as it comes homicidally at you, pay attention to its legs. You’ll notice that on one side of its tiny propulsive body, its legs are shorter than on the other. 

Which side? THIS IS THE CRITICAL QUESTION. 

The wild haggis, a whimsical Scottish creature, is famed for its uneven legs adapted for Highland slopes.

The wild haggis, a whimsical Scottish creature, is famed for its uneven legs adapted for Highland slopes.

It’s like this: for long-forgotten reasons, at some point in ancient history the Scottish breed of haggis divided into two separate varieties: the ‘lefties’ and the ‘righties’. If they’re the former, with longer legs on the left side of their bodies, they have the ability to run on a clockwise-turning slope of a hill or mountain without slowing down….

And if their legs extend more on the right side, they can do the same on anticlockwise slopes.     

This, then, is your key to escaping with your shins and your hide intact. A leftie haggis will have a terrible time on an anticlockwise-turning slope, and a rightie vice-versa. Pick your slope direction with care, and the pursuing haggis will be so slowed down by the terrain that you should be able to make a clean getaway!

(A fun fact you may be told: haggis-trappers know their prey so intimately that they know the perfect slope angle that will trap a haggis into circling helplessly at a speed reduced enough that they can be safely scooped up with a steel-roped net - so they build special artificial hills to trap unwary haggis on them.)

At this point, you may be told further fascinating facts about haggis mating-rituals. Let’s not dwell on those here. Or perhaps how in medieval naval battles, enraged haggis were tossed through the portholes of energy ships, so they could wreak havoc inside and eventually chew their way out through the planking below the water-line, sinking the ship from within. There’s no end to the anecdotes about their ferocity. Pin your ears back, friend - hey, you won’t believe this story… 

And of course, not believing is the smartest thing you could do here. It’s absolute nonsense from beginning to end - and earnestly feeding these tall tales to visitors in such exhausting detail that they start to believe it is something of a national sport. 

It’s as absurd as affixing googly eyes and false teeth onto one end of an aluminium box of poutine and claiming you’ve been rearing it in your back garden until it was big enough to eat. 

The red deer, unlike the mythical wild haggis, is a truly common and existing wild animal in Scotland.

The red deer, unlike the mythical wild haggis, is a truly common and existing wild animal in Scotland.

Nevertheless, however daft this “legend” is, it still catches people out. In 2003, a poll by haggis-makers Hall's of Broxburn of a thousand visitors to Scotland from the US foun d that 33% believed a haggis is an animal - and 23% specifically came to Scotland to catch one.

How true is this two decades later, considering how easy it now is to perform a Google search for the real facts? Unclear! But in some way, it must still be happening. 

(Cunningly, the lop-sided haggis legs myth is based on an existing legend from American folklore, known as the Sidehill Gouger. Does this mean that US travellers are more likely to be tipped off that the whole thing is fake, or is this a clever way to borrow apparent credibility by riding on the back of an existing international myth? Someone should definitely run a poll on this too.)

So! If you’re coming to Scotland, I have the truth of the matter. No, the wild haggis isn’t real. No, you won’t have your ankles savaged by them as you tramp the Highland undergrowth. No, your yacht won’t be sunk by one… 

But yes - a haggis is surprisingly delicious, despite how it may look on your plate. That at least is a fact you can rely upon. 

In addition to the cuisine, you can also enjoy the magnificent scenery in Scotland.

In addition to the cuisine, you can also enjoy the magnificent scenery in Scotland.

John Wheel & Anchor in September of next year for a privately-chartered cruise through the heart of the Scottish Highlands, taking in Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides, and an optional extension to the Isle of Skye and the spectacular West Highland Railway. Get the details here.

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