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The wild haggis eludes Scots and visitors alike, but there is a secret to catching one. Writer Jonny Sweet begins the search.
Text by: Jonny Sweet
Country: Scotland

midst the beautiful rugged backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, something stirs amongst the undergrowth. This is no field mouse, badger or squirrel, however. This is the infamous and elusive wild haggis, a four-legged rough-haired creature peculiar to Scotland. The beast is no bigger than a hedgehog, but instead of spindles upon its back, the haggis has a coarse black fur, and its most distinguishing feature is the fact that two of its legs are longer than the others, an evolutionary quirk which has developed over the centuries to allow it to navigate the Scottish hillsides more quickly and easily.

THE HUNT

The beast is considered a delicacy and is hunted avidly every mating season, which runs from St Andrew’s Day, on November 30th, to the birth of legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns, on January 25th. However, it is also notoriously difficult to catch, since the disproportionate length of its legs gives it an advantage against the two-legged hunters who attempt to chase it over the hilly terrain of northern Scotland. Over the years, they have developed techniques to counter this; for example, working in pairs, they force the haggis to double back on itself, thus rendering its shorter leg useless and actually detrimental, since it will force it to capsize and become helpless on its back. Because of its elusive nature, there are several websites that offer tips and hints to capturing the creature as well as competitions to encourage people from overseas to be on the lookout for it as well. The largest and most devoted of these websites is actually owned by The Scotsman, one of the nation’s foremost newspapers.

Their website, http://haggishunt.scotsman.com/, features page after page of trivia about the zoology of the beast and even offers real prizes for a competition it runs annually called ‘the haggis hunt’. In this competition web users are invited to peruse several web cams apparently placed around Scotland and send in their sightings of the diminutive creatures. The competitors with the most confirmed sightings win the grand prize, as well as three runners-up prizes and a ‘hunter of the week’ accolade to boot. The competition is so popular that it is entices entrants from all over the world; from central Europe to North America and even New Zealand. In fact, a survey conducted by haggis manufacturer Halls in 2003 revealed that one third of all American visitors to Scotland were under the impression that the haggis was a wild animal they would have the opportunity to hunt on arrival in the country.

THE UGLY TRUTH

Unfortunately, these visitors will be ultimately disappointed and most likely quite abashed. For in truth, the idea that the haggis is a wild animal roaming the highlands is an elaborate practical joke, cooked up by the locals to fool unsuspecting foreigners for their own amusement. The truth is a little bit more mundane and a good deal more disgusting. Haggis is actually the national dish of Scotland and comprises pieces of meat that other nationalities might turn their noses up at. Haggis is created by taking the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep and boiling them inside the sheep’s stomach, along with herbs, spices and oatmeal. The contents of the stomach are then emptied out, minced, and served hot with mashed turnips and potatoes, better known in Scotland as ‘neeps n tatties’.

The dish was first conceived in the north of Scotland centuries ago, where tough economic conditions dictated that the poor inhabitants should not throw away any part of the animal that could be used for sustenance. Despite the unpleasant nature of its creation, the taste of haggis, especially when accompanied with a good whisky or pepper sauce, has been delighting travellers to the country for decades – only to leave a bad taste in their mouths when they learn the recipe. And it was perhaps a willingness to conceal this recipe that – at least in part – gave birth to the myth of the wild haggis.

A MYTH OF OUR OWN MAKING

There are many myths surrounding the customs and practices of the people of Scotland, but undoubtedly the largest one has been created by the people themselves. The collective practical joke of a nation has been fooling foreigners for decades, and the fact that one of the country’s leading spreadsheets would go to the lengths of creating an entire website with the sole aim of propagating the myth demonstrates how much effort goes into the joke. The website offers a multitude of spurious ‘facts’ about the creature – all of which are decidedly tongue-in-cheek – and its participants are undoubtedly aware of the humour behind the project. Nevertheless, it remains true that some Scottish people will endeavour to fool foreigners in earnest, a supposition I can corroborate with my own personal experience.

TRICKSY TOUR GUIDES

Whilst working as a tour guide in Edinburgh for a year and a half, I made it my daily business to dispel such myths as the one surrounding the haggis. However, I regularly found with chagrin (and a small amount of amusement) that some of my co-workers and colleagues were actually going out of their way to maintain the misconception that the haggis was a real animal. After talking to one bemused American tourist, she told me that a guide on a tour of the Highlands had fed her a labyrinth of lies about the fictional beast.

“He told me it had a set of wings on its back but that it couldn’t use them, like an ostrich. He also said it had 2 legs longer than the others, which meant it could walk on a hillside easier, but on flat ground it would walk around in circles.” Furthermore, the guide tried to convince her of other, even more unbelievable falsities surrounding Scotland’s fauna. “According to him, the Loch Ness Monster is not only real; it actually kills several fishermen each year. And there is also a rare breed of seagull with tartan-coloured wings,” she confided. It was at this point that she started courting suspicion of the young man’s integrity.

A HARMLESS JOKE

Scotland is a country steeped in history and tradition, and so it is entirely unsurprising that some myths and fabrications will affect how other countries perceive it. It is slightly more surprising that some of these have been conjured up by the inhabitants themselves; however, it should not be interpreted as a malicious attempt to hoodwink unsuspecting foreigners for the purposes of ridicule. In fact, there is no malice in the lie at all. Instead it betrays more a sense of the warm Scottish humour and the lengths people will go to in order to raise a smile and wheedle out a laugh. And when the Scottish climate consistently offers an almost year-round winter, the Scots have to find some way to amuse themselves, right?

HAGGIS HUNT FACTFILE

The competition, run by The Scotsman newspaper, has been running since 2000 and is played every year by hundreds of people from all over the world.

It has a dedicated Facebook page with more than 3,500 likes.

People play the game from all over the world; countries such as Canada and the United States – as well as the UK – are the best represented, but there are participants from France, Belgium, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

Prizes this year included dinner and an overnight stay in a hotel in St. Andrews, a round of golf for four people, a 90-minute spa treatment, afternoon tea for two, as well as weekly prizes of bottles of whisky, calendars and square feet of turf from Glencoe wood.

The real haggis can be bought from the butcher or in canned form in supermarkets.

A full Scottish breakfast is exactly the same as full English breakfast – except it contains haggis as well.

Haggis is traditionally served with ‘neeps n tatties’ but can also be served in breadcrumbs as an appetiser, as well as being found on pizzas or sold deep-fried in chip shops for an unhealthy treat.





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Haggis Hunt .

In the wilds of the beautiful Scottish Highlands, there is a very strange animal lurking. It is the infamous and elusive wild haggis. It is a very strange creature with coarse black fur and with two of its legs longer than the others, to move around the Scottish hillsides more quickly and easily.

This beast is considered a delicacy and is hunted every year from November 30th to January 25th. One of the nation’s newspapers holds a competition every year and the person with the most sightings can win a fabulous grand prize. People from all over the world participate in this competition and many visitors to Scotland look forward to seeing a wild haggis with their own eyes.

Unfortunately,the Haggis Hunt is one of the biggest lies in Scotland. The Haggis is actually the national dish of Scotland made from the heart, liver and lung of a sheep boiled inside the sheep’s stomach with herbs, spices and oatmeal. The myth of the wild haggis was created by the Scottish people, not because they wanted to make fun of visitors, but because they are a fun-loving people that enjoy a good joke.


 

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