WHEN others learn you are from Scotland, some common questions regarding Scottish cuisine inevitably arise (deep-fried chocolate bars notwithstanding): Do you eat haggis, and what is it? They’ve seen wild haggis postcards or plush toys in tourist shops and wonder if it really is a heather-eating Highland beastie, running one-way only round the hills with longer legs one side than the other? Oh, and what exactly is the plural of “haggis”?

Haggis is sheep, sometimes cow or pig, innards: heart, liver and lungs, often called the “pluck”, mixed with cereals and spices, and wrapped in a sheep’s stomach. It’s essentially boil-in-the-bag offal and oats, served with neeps and tatties. As for the wild lopsided haggis? Apparently, they will mate this week on St Andrew’s Day, and their babies will be born on Burns Night. Scientists are attempting to create an even-legged hagglet (baby haggis), though the jury is out on whether their parents’ plural is haggises or haggii.

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The origins of traditional haggis are well kent, as is its longstanding import ban in North America due to lungs in the recipe, and the ode to it by Scottish bard, Rabbie Burns with Address To A Haggis, which has associated it with Scotland and Scottish culture for almost 250 years. One can make one’s own haggis from various traditional recipes or “pluck” a ready-made one from a supermarket shelf. They have been the proverbial bread and butter of Scottish butchers for many years, not just being piped in on a silver platter for a ceremonial stabbing on Burns Night. Little notice, though, has been given to the steady rise in readily available animal-free alternatives.

Almost 40 years ago, butcher John Macsween of Midlothian made the first-ever vegetarian haggis for the opening of Edinburgh’s National Poetry Library. Commercial sales trended quickly upwards, and now account for more than a quarter of Macsween of Edinburgh’s overall turnover, as well as bypassing the export ban to the United States.

Recently, vegetarian or vegan (collectively referred to as veg*n) haggis has become a staple of many Scottish butchers, and more widespread than ever before. Most large supermarkets stock one or more brands, whether Macsween’s, Hall’s, or a little later to the party but making no less noise, Simon Howie Butchers of Perthshire, the self-proclaimed “Scottish Butcher”. The latter saw veggie haggis sales increase by 53% in recent years.

Also noteworthy is the split between traditional and veg*n haggis sales: once a 70:30 split, 60:40 by 2019, and in early 2022, 50:50 or more in favour of veg*n haggis in some UK supermarkets, with the haggis scales continuing to become veggie-heavy. Macsween’s, the self-proclaimed “guardians of Scotland’s national dish”, report regular increases in veg*n haggis sales, and have encouraged consumers to consider haggis as an alternative for their Christmas dinner table. That these butchers have their fingers on the pulse is apparent.

That pulse belongs to the plant-based food industry, exponentially increasing year on year since the twenty-teens, where it saw a sharp uptake of suitable-for-vegan and other plant-based products that has not yet abated. Thousands of new vegan products launched globally during January 2022 and some attribute this in part to campaigns such as Veganuary, which has grown in popularity since its inception in 2014. Others may consider the growing concern for the decline in environmental and global health, which animal agriculture is held significantly responsible for, and for others, a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle is the goal.

Fife-based producer Stahly (which, incidentally, is clear that the plural of haggis is… haggis) sells tinned haggis products, including veg*n-friendly, across Europe. Since 2003, it has manufactured Scotch and vegetarian haggis in North America to allow consumers in the US and Canada access to its product. Canned foods have a long shelf life and require no refrigeration, making this particular veg*n haggis readily accessible to a significant number of people across the northern hemisphere.

However, plant-based food is not special, or new. It consists of everything we should be eating regularly for a healthy life: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, with iron, protein, carbohydrate and calcium requirements more than adequately met. Simon Howie’s vegetarian haggis includes 28% fresh vegetables, oats and barley, vegetable oils (including sustainable palm oil), lentils, dried vegetables, kidney beans and chick peas.

Of course, one could spend time and energy creating a vegan haggis from one of the countless available recipes, including specialist recipe sites such as Viva!’s Vegan Recipe Club. If so, fully load your spice rack, since that is the secret to great tasting haggis.

Perhaps originally added to mask the taste or texture of the offal, herbs and spices can include nutmeg, paprika, sage or thyme, and more recently, cayenne pepper or garam masala. Granted, not all of these are native to Scotland, and traditional haggis was often seasoned with only salt, pepper and onions, but the flavour combinations are as endless as your herb collection and imagination.

In the end, traditions and customs are often replaced with new habits that become future traditions. Oats have long been a staple of the Scottish diet, whether as porridge or oatcakes. It could even be that modern Scots making a shift to veg*n haggis is a reversion of sorts to an old norm: high oatmeal content plant-based haggis as tradition with a twist. Veg*n haggis represents another “new” way of living in a world where consumers increasingly understand that they can make a difference to the health of themselves, their families, other animals, and the planet overall … and lang may that particular lum reek.