All hail the haggis!
A gentleman claiming Pennsylvania Dutch connections writes to ask if I am familiar with the famous German hog's-belly feast from which the Scottish haggis - he brashly avers - is derived. It has been peaceful along the border for some time, and few have been the occasions to summon the clansmen, and I hasten to settle this brooding battle before anybody in Scotland gets excited.Skip to next paragraph
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I shall start by reminding this gentleman that Queen Elizabeth I of England was never a queen to the Scots, and accordingly Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain is automatically discounted north of the border when "God Save the Queen" is offered.
The haggis is the pluck of the creature stewed in its own maw, and was no more derived from a German swine than is a fire-engine pet dog in Nome, Alaska. The creature is a sheep.
When achieved in full ceremonial splendor, a highland haggis is piped to table as the "Ode to the Haggis," by Robert Burns, is repeated in Gaelic by a competent enthusiast. This is followed by cheers, several verses of "Annie Laurie," and further cheers. The haggis, hereafter referred to as "piping hot," is then attacked with a skean dhu and served to the multitude. Skean dhu is said to be Gaelic for the murderous weapon always seen in a pipe major's Argyle at important social functions.
A haggis, I can, and will, report, is a tasty delicacy when encountered on its native heath from the kitchen of a loving dame with strong biceps and a feeling for tradition. It is not a thing to be poured from a package bought at a chain market, but is in fact a culinary treat deriving from life on a Highland croft where nothing was ever let go to waste. Sheer artistic enthusiasm caused the early Scots to add oatmeal, their national sustenance, and give the end result substance, class, and palatability.
As is well known, the finest Scot alive is the one for the moment at the greatest distance from the Highlands, and on two occasions the haggis is obligatory to all displaced Scots. These are Jan. 25, the birthday of Robert Burns, and Nov. 30, the feast day of St. Andrew, who donated the land for the golf club at Edinburgh.
It is true that, over the years, in the widespread places displaced Scots have decided to locate, a great many cooks in hotels and restaurants who have never heard of a haggis have been asked to make one for the St. Andrew Society dinner. In this way many a haggis has been brought off that shouldn't have been. De gustibus non disputandum, but a properly prepared haggis is a hearty dish and pleasant to meet.
Years ago, I was happy to attend a St. Andrew's Day meeting of the St. Andrew Society of St. John, in New Brunswick. The festivities were held at the now-departed Admiral Beatty Hotel, an institution that changed the parking lot guards in full panoply every hour on the hour. Having given the pass, grip, and word, I was permitted to enter the lobby and receive the full examination by the plenipotentiary pontiff of protocol. He gave me a permit to proceed further and instructed me in the various postures I was to assume at different stages of the higher levels of Caledonian conduct.
I was then invited to assist with the drum, and we sang three verses of "Annie Laurie" and once through "Scotland the Brave." Then my garland of gorse, heather, and bluebell was fastened to my Glengarry by three striking lassies named Bonny, Annie, and Laurie. They had been chosen from 100 applicants to do this, and also to chop the haggis. I learned the three young ladies each represented a clan; MacEachern, MacCrimmon, and MacKorzenuewski.
The meeting was rich with Scottish allusions and references. The president of the society that year was a braw Scot named Smith. He called my attention to the intricate carving and scrollwork on the heavy thronelike chair reserved for the society president, and allowed me to sit in it for a moment, just so I could go home and say I had done so.
He had a degree from the University of Glasgow, but said he'd come to Canada for want of work in the mines. He introduced me to the local chieftains of several clans, such as MacDougal, MacPherson, MacDonald, MacEtc. At each introduction we sang "Annie Laurie."
When the haggis was piped in and the Ode was recited, a hush fell on the assembly. The pipe major drew his knife to pass it to the honorable president of the society.
While the haggis was sliced and distributed, not a sound was heard other than the hereditary moths fluttering their feeble wings in the purses of the members. It was an occasion to be remembered, and I have not forgotten what the blessed haggis means to those whose tartans have given bright color to the glens and braes of Scotland.
The waitress brought me my bit of haggis, and in the burbling bubble-gum dialect of Westmoreland County she asked if I had previously enjoyed one.
"Many times," I said, trying to sound like a Maine Yankee. "I have been looking forward to this special treat."
"Then," she says, "You'll know if this'n's good or not. I tasted it, and I can make better."
She did not return so I could give her my opinion. It was, I thought, a good haggis. If she was capable of a better, good for her.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society