The haggis has a long history and, although this solitary, elusive creature was only discovered in the Scottish Highlands during the middle of the 14th Century, it is believed to have been one of the first mammals to have evolved around 225 million years ago. According to renowned palaeontologist, Dr. William Roberts, the species has been remarkably stable in terms of its evolution. His study of the Loch Lochy haggis, a fully intact skeleton exposed on the shore by unusually low water levels in 1994, have not only proven the link to the modern haggis but carbon dating has shown it to be over 135 million years old. The science of convenience has been used prove its existence back to the other 90 million years.
Although a harmless creature, with no threat to humans, livestock or crop, since its discovery on the 23rd July 1356, the haggis has been hunted to the extent of near extinction by the local Highland population. Thought of as a messenger from the devil, it was considered that it’s eradication was the will of God. The Church at the time condoned this view introducing the tradition of Haggis Bashing which it decreed should take place on the anniversary of its discovery.
Barbaric by today’s standard amongst normal, right thinking people, the ritual would begin by the haggis being gathered up, squeezed into sacks with probably 20 to 30 others and taken to nearby villages where the torture would begin. Released in to makeshift pens in the centre of the village, the men would start clubbing the haggis around the neck and shoulders so as to break its back while the village women would prepare the stuffing of mashed turnip seasoned with cowslip.
Once crippled, the Haggis would be skinned, transversely cut, bones and unwanted organs removed and stuffed. The haggis, sewn up using hair from its head, would then be cooked on a huge fire especially constructed fro the occasion and, after around 20 minutes or so – nobody had a watch, so exact cooking times were unknown – the villagers would tuck in. Contemporary accounts suggest that the taste was of burnt, sooty flesh, not dissimilar to that of today’s barbeques, but despite that, fun was to be had and celebrations went on into the night, or, as some of them did, into the week. In fact, the longest Haggis Ritual ever was recorded in 1527 when it lasted from the 23rd July until the 31st of December when it was necessary to stop for Hogmany.
These ceremonies were finally put to a stop in 1871 when the British Government, disgusted at the treatment endured by the animals and alarmed at the rate the population was decreasing, passed an Act protecting the creature for future generations. This, and the fact that the Haggis over the 500 years of persecution moved up the mountain to escape man’s cruelty, has resulted in an increase in numbers once more.
Fast forward to today and, although the rite has stopped altogether, the concept of eating haggis continues. The new dish is made from chopped sheeps’ (or calfs’) heart, lungs and liver together with oatmeal, suet and onion. It is then boiled in a stomach bag and is particularly tasty as part of a Full Scottish breakfast.
The Haggis Species
The Primitive Haggis
Although Dr. Roberts is dedicating vast time and resources towards the study of this particular species, currently very little is known about the primitive haggis beyond the facts that they had spiky red hair and curly tails, as depicted in Mesolithic rock paintings of the very early Scottish settlers. Specimens found in the peat bogs on Rannoch Moor indicate that they were in existence from about 225 million years ago until about 2,000 years ago, at which time it was succeeded by the modern bald haggis. Similarities are believed to exist between the two, driven in part by both species being indigenous to the Scottish Highlands, such as their almost complete baldness save for the tufts of hair present on their heads. Although no physical evidence exists as to the eating habits of the early haggis, due to Dr. Roberts’ requirement to justify his funding, he maintains that it is very similar to that of the later species.
Modern Bald Haggis
Appearance wise, the spikey red hair and curly tail of the primitive haggis has been replaced by a fluffy brown bobbley bouffant and a straighter appendage in the modern haggis. This transition of hair styles between the two species has been likened, by those speaking on late night cultural programmes, usually too pretentious to hold mass appeal, to the cultural shift in Britain from the punk era to the eventual, early 1990s indie rock dominance of floppy hair. Actual scientists and conservationists concede that very little is actually known about its evolution, but suspect it more likely due to environmental changes rather than any spurious reasonings made with the soul intention of filling late night television airtime.
A similarity between the two are the feet which makes the modern bald haggis very, very clumsy, indicating that the primitive haggis was also an uncoordinated beast. Andy McNaught, an expert in this subject for many years, however has put forward the idea that the modern haggis just forgot how to walk properly during the conversion from primitive haggis some two thousand years ago, going further asserting that the ancient predecessor had an immense physical prowess: an attribute which would have been useful in escaping from man since 1356. It is generally accepted by the academic community, however, that, similar to someone pointing to the sky and asserting that it is green, that these are just words with no basis in logical or scientific reasoning whatsoever.
What isn’t disputed is its habitat of the Scottish Highlands where it can find food, water and accommodation in the countless number of haggis warrens which have accumulated there. An estimated 436 kilometres of new tunnels, reaching about 50 metres below ground, have been dug in the last five to six years by the modern bald haggis. It will usually leave the warren at about 6 o’clock at night and again in the morning at about 4 o’clock to feed on grass and heather and take water from the various freshwater streams in the area.
The haggis is undeniably fewer in numbers after the six centuries of human interference with the likelihood of a sighting about the same as that of the Scottish wildcat. In fact the fate of these two animals are inextricably linked and, with the decline of the wildcat, haggis numbers are set to increase from an estimated 30,000 in 2017 to around 750,000 in ten to fifteen years time.
The Woolly Haggis
Having only been in existence since around 1800, this breed of haggis is the newest of all and is thought to be as a result of the cruel and excessive hunting of the modern haggis since the middle ages. The shift of habitat to the higher slopes of the highlands has provided a safer environment, but, of course, they had to adapt to survive the icier conditions and instead of being bald, it has an all year round woolly coat to cope with the in its new habitat.
It still has large warrens and takes in fresh water form the many high altitude lochs, or if necessary has evolved to eat ice without reducing its core temperature. Although the rockier terrain of the higher mountains prevent the haggis from getting to food above ground, this innovative animal overcomes the problem growing its own in large chambers deep in the vast network of tunnels it has made its home.
These haggis are fewer in numbers than the bald haggis with only around 2,000 in existence but, again, numbers are set to increase with an expected 13,000 roaming the upper reaches of the highlands in 15 years time.
Various agencies have been set up to protect the species including HagFam; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Haggis (RSPCH) and the Haggis Research Fund (HRF). These charities oversee some important work such as protecting the natural environment to ensure food is plentiful for the animal; funding a hospital in Dunfermline that treats the injured and orphaned haggis and upholding the Government Act of 1871. So far the RSPCH has prevented 17 cases of baiting, resulting in 53 prosecutions this year alone.
Since the ruling in 1871 banning all forms of Haggis hunting, bashing or any other such rituals, opposing societies have been set up. United Kingdom Haggis Bashing (UKHB), the largest organisation of its type, constantly lobby the British Government to reconsider their decision to ban the sport and to even have it televised so that more countries can see this part of Scottish tradition. It is unlikely, however that this will come about as the number of pressure groups for the preservation of haggis outweighs those against by three to one.