Scotland has a number of foodstuffs you’d be hard pressed to find outside of Scotland—proper shortbread, porridge, good butter. And haddock is regarded as a “trash” fish here in the US, so smoked haddock is all-but impossible to get, except at internet specialty sites where it fetches prices per ounce that rival cocaine!
Haggis is another thing altogether.
Our family tried it when we lived in Edinburgh in the ‘seventies, when I was a boy, but we didn’t like it. My mother happened to mention our experience to a neighbor, who immediately asked which butcher my mother had seen. It was the wrong butcher, the neighbor tutted, and we tried it again from the correct butcher. It was good!
My American haggis journey began in 1997, when my wife and I decided to have a proper Burns Supper with friends in Seattle. I scoured the city for the Chieftain of the Puddin’ Race. With no luck. If butchers even knew what it was (and more than half claimed not to), they still didn’t have it. I grew desperate. Remembering that there could be great variation in quality and taste, I worried that I’d just have to settle for whatever I could get, and risk that the friends I was inviting over might get a poorly made one, and dislike haggis from then on.
Hoping for some guidance, I took a chance and called a number in the phone book, “Scottish Connections.”
Mrs Wilson answered. She had a lovely, lilting Edinburgh accent. I told her I was looking for haggis.
“Weel, dear, yer starting a bit late, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “but I’ve been trying for weeks.” Did she know of anywhere I could get it?
“I could let ye have one…but I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you,” she said.
Ah, here it comes, I thought. The soak. “I see. How much were you thinking, Mrs. Wilson?”
“Well,” she began cautiously, “it’ll end up costing you at least five dollars.” She sounded genuinely apologetic, though at this point I’d have paid $20 and still felt like I’d done well. “You could come over now, if you’d like,” she said.
I rushed over, lest someone else beat me to her last one.
On the night, it turned out to be sublime, and very well made. And best of all—illicit!
Because it turns out that wee Mrs. Wilson, well into her pensioner years, had—and not for the first time—smuggled eight or ten haggis across the Canadian border where she’d procured them from a butcher in Burnaby, British Columbia, who made them in the traditional way—“lights” and all. Not all heroes wear capes!
One of the ingredients in a traditional haggis is the sheep’s “lights,” its lungs. The USDA will not allow food for human consumption that contains sheep’s lungs. Which, when you write it out like that, sounds kinda like a good thing.
But the point is that traditional haggis uses it–and has done for centuries. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK are fine with “lights” in their haggis. It’s only our own Dept. of Agriculture that prissily abjures it.
I loved that not only were we getting haggis, but a true one. That it was also smuggled, like whisky from the Highlands, only added to its steamy, earthy savor. I imagined Mrs. Wilson and her husband at the Blaine border crossing sweetly, innocently claiming they had nothing to declare, when in fact the car was sitting low on its springs under the weight of all the bootleg haggis they carried—less Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road, perhaps, and more a Matlock-era Andy Griffith version.
On Burns Night, we feasted, we toasted, we read not only from Burns, but from William McGonagall (a friend was from Monifieth, near Dundee, and if Burns was the poet laureate of Scotland, McGonagall was the eedjit laureate of Dundee; a poet so bad that pubs would pay him NOT to read his poetry in their shops).
And we raised a glass to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, too. We had a grand and a delicious time.
Next up, further tales and travails of the elusive haggis on American shores.
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James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector, Dark Network , and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.
His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place in issue #7 this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.
For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out my Events/About page. And follow this blog!