"A Wondrous Beast": Motif, Style and Context in Early Depictions of the Haggis as a Legendary Creature
Few foods have inspired such a large and varied corpus of expressive cultural material as haggis, Scotland’s “national dish.” In addition to its longstanding symbolic and stereotypical associations with Scottish ethnicity, traditions concerning the supposed mysteriousness or outrageousness of its ingredients and methods of preparation have circulated within British folk, popular and elite culture since at least the early 1800s. Among the best-known of these is the legend that depicts the haggis as a creature native to the Scottish Highlands and describes its appearance, its habits and the means of its capture.
This paper explores several early versions of this legend drawn primarily from printed sources dating from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. I posit that depictions of the haggis as a legendary creature developed out of two pre-existing strands within expressive culture about haggis as food: the poetic tendency to personify the dish, exemplified in Robert Burns’ famous address “To a Haggis” (1786); and the tradition of creating humorously exaggerated accounts of its ingredients. I go on to trace the emergence of the legend as its own distinct tradition, analysing the key motifs and stylistic features of the early texts and comparing them with those of contemporary versions. I also consider how attention to the contexts in which the early texts were circulated affects our interpretation of their meaning and of the motivations of their creators.
Paper presented at Aldrich Interdisciplinary Conference, Memorial University of Newfoundland, March 2010