2019 may be the Year of the Haggis, but Oban has been celebrating our national dish all along! Between our annual Haggis Festival, the range of haggis dishes on our local menus and our outstanding local butchers, we definitely recommend that you try this savoury, wholesome treat when visiting.
Haggis is especially celebrated as part of the traditional Burns Night Supper festivities. Since he waxed lyrical on the subject of the national dish, it’s only appropriate that it takes centre stage on this night dedicated to food, drink and revelry. The traditional Burns Night ritual calls for the cook to carry a platter of giant haggis as it is piped out with great fanfare, after which it is toasted, poems recited about it, and then ritually cut, its guts gushing gloriously forth, which is then shared with the merry company. Few foods can claim such an honour!
What exactly is haggis, you may ask? It falls under the savoury pudding category, made with sheep’s ‘pluck’- heart, liver and lungs- mixed with oatmeal, suet, onion, stock and spices (the formula varies and is often kept secret), then encased like a large, round sausage in, traditionally, sheep stomach, but today, often in a artificial casing.
Haggis’ origins, much like its ingredients, are shrouded in mystery. Those who claim a Scottish foundation say it started with the old cattle drovers. The women would send their men away to market in Edinburgh with a filling dish neatly carried in its own skin. Another story is that the recipe originated in medieval times when the Laird, after having an animal killed for a feast, would pass the offal to the slaughter man as payment. Others say it actually originated in England, or even in Scandinavia, arriving with the Vikings. More likely, this convenient and economical method of using up the nourishing offal- or innards- of any freshly killed animal, in its own handy carrying pouch, has been around for millennia.
However, the Scottish definitely put their own twist on it with oatmeal and spices such as black pepper, coriander, mace and nutmeg. And, yes, it really is nutritious, mostly because of the liver and lung- high in iron vitamin A, B12 and copper. Some nutritionists actually prescribe haggis for their patients who could use a vitamin and mineral boost!
Whatever its true origins, Scotland proudly claims the haggis as its own. Today it’s not just for peasants - in large part, thanks to some savvy PR from Burns, haggis is mainstream, served everywhere from the most humble pub to the most elegant restaurant, and, thanks to Oban’s award winning butchers, in kitchens all over Oban. Making haggis from scratch is a complicated and messy business, so locals get theirs ready to eat, whether whole or in convenient ready to grill slices.
For Obanites, Jackson’s Butchers is ground zero for the perfect haggis. They sell about 100 haggis a week- and in the run up to Burns’ Night, that number more than doubles to nearly 250!
Fridays find the Jackson’s crew busy in the preparation area, cranking out batches of 40-50 at a time. ‘We boil the liver and heart, then mince it through,’ master butcher James Paterson explains. ‘To make 40 haggis takes about an hour and a half- you’ve got to wait for it to boil, then run it off. To encase it, we don’t do it traditionally, we vacuum seal ours so it lasts longer and has a better shelf life.’
As for the exact recipe, no butcher would ever share the secret. Jackson’s has developed their signature recipe over the nearly 85 years they’ve been trading in Oban. ‘Really, over the years it came down to listening to our customers’ opinions- whether the haggis was too peppery, or spicy enough, or whatever,’ James shared. ‘We’ve had the same recipe for a long time, since before I started.’
James Paterson of Jackson's Butchers in Oban shows off their famous handmade haggis.
Their recipe is definitely a hit among the locals. ‘We make the haggis fresh on Friday and by Monday or Tuesday the next week it’s gone,’ James said. ‘We get loads of English tourists taking them home. Some have been coming for years and they come to see us.’
Once you get your scrumptious haggis home, preparation is easy, according to James. ‘The best way to cook it is to boil it- put in a pan of cold water, bring it to boil and let it simmer for half an hour. Or you can slice it and fry it but I prefer to boil it. We are happy to slice it for you in the store.’
James loves to eat haggis for an easy, wholesome dinner anytime. ‘I don’t like neeps, so I’ll just put beans with it.’
And where does James come down on the controversial subject of veggie haggis? He pulls a face when asked. ‘We’ve had a few customers ask if we do it but we’ve never considered making it,’ he laughs.