A researcher reports on this mysterious creature, long-rumoured but rarely seen. Is there a haggis in =your= hedgerow? -- by Janet MacKay
Scots everywhere are recovering from the traditional feast of haggis, taters and neeps (potatoes and mashed turnips) which they scoff with the same zeal Canadians eat turkey for Christmas dinner. But the difficulty is catching one.
In Nova Scotia the haggis hunting season is January 18th-25th. Haggai licenses are available to qualified Highlanders at Hogmanay.
Most haggai are found in the Garden of Eden, in the south-east corner of Pictou County, but there are undocumented reports of haggis sightings in Halifax -- on Citadel Hill, in Point Pleasant Park and in the Hemlock Ravine area. In the early 1800s, some Pictou County haggai were kidnapped and taken to Cape Breton. These haggai intermarried with Cape Breton wild animals and today constitute a variety called `mutt haggis'.
The haggis ("Haggis Haggis Caledonesis L.") is a protected species in Scotland, being in danger from predators from the Sassenach (English) territory to the south. Those convicted of taking haggai out of Scotland are given heavy fines and frequently sentenced to long jail terms.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the Highlanders and Lowlanders were emigrating to Nova Scotia, the haggai =chose= to come with them to escape their certain fate at the hands of the Sassenach. They hid carefully on the ships, for fear of discovery or being eaten by the often starving passengers. Haggai also accompanied Highlanders who emigrated to Australia and today are found mainly in the Dunedin area of New Zealand.
Rather than facing extinction, haggai are thriving in Pictou County. Problems of over-population gave rise to an open season on haggai during the week prior to Robbie Burns' birthday. Only the older and the weaker haggai are captured, leaving the robust haggai to enjoy their lives in good health.
Haggai hunting requires specific techniques and great stealth. The longer of the haggis's three legs, convenient for remaining upright while running around the Scottish hills, becomes its undoing. The hunter creeps up until about three kilt-lengths behind the wee beastie and plays sharp, loud notes on the chanter or shouts "Gu dearbh" (Gaelic word, loosely translated as `gotcha!'). This startles the haggis, causing it to turn suddenly and lose its balance. Few haggai can get back on their feet before capture.
The cold winter weather and icy conditions on the hills and mountains in Nova Scotia and Scotland make haggai hunting a sport for only the hardiest Highlanders. Nova Scotia haggai seldom leave their winter lairs before the groundhog signals `all clear,' so are more elusive than the deer in hunting season.
So what to do is there is no haggis for the Robbie Burns' banquets? It's synthetic haggis to the rescue, made from grains and finely chopped pluck of sheep. Originally, this mixture was cooked in a carefully washed sheep's intestine, which gave it the appearance of a table-dressed haggis. Today haggis is boiled in a pot in similar fashion to a steamed pudding.
It is haggis that allows the Scotsfolk to consume great quantities of whisky, yet remain sober. The custom of eating haggis during Hogmanay celebrations was slyly instigated by the county sheriffs and the Edinburgh Police Department since the 16th century to ensure safe travel from home to home for `first footing' visits in the New Year, and other parties.
The first haggai were found in the Garden of Eden, where Gaelic was the accepted language (although the serpent was speaking English). Unlike the unicorns, the haggai joined Noah and his family in the Ark. The Old Testament `Book of Haggai' is named in their honour.
Reports from Balerno, Scotland, attribute the uniqueness of the haggai to the fact that they are extra-terrestrial beings from another solar system. They are said to have had problems with their space craft and were lucky to find a congenial habitat in Scotland. No proof has been found to substantiate this theory.
It is more plausible that the haggai were with the Celts in Gaul and northern Italy and followed them in their migrations through Europe and up to Scotland. Commonly considered a Lowland animal, the haggai are frequently found in the Highlands of Scotland where they are offered safe refuge. Their virtues are extolled by Robbie Burns in his poem, "Tae a Haggis," which is quoted in addressing the haggis before serving it to guests.
(Copyright) 1992: Janet MacKay
Published: "The Westender", Halifax, Nova Scotia: February 1992
Grateful acknowledgement for scholarly research and documentation
of the haggis, by Alasdair McKay, Ph.D., published at: Haggis