A Scottish Christmas, Twice Removed

Here it sits, the haggis, like some offal thing washed up from a distant land. Which it is, of course—a mix of chopped lamb’s liver, beef, oatmeal, suet, onion, bread crumbs, buttermilk, salt, pepper, and ground cloves, in a “beef or fibrous casing,” shipped frozen from the shores of south Florida.

My in-laws, who immigrated from Scotland in the ‘50s, retired to Ft. Myers and were delighted to find a Scottish butcher and grocery in the Everglades heat. Now I order from the company online, for special occasions.

Haggis, like most organ sausages, is not popular in the US. But organs (and blood) are often a frugal choice, are rich, and sometimes delicious. Most cultures around the world have some version of encased organs/blood, such as boudin, black pudding, kishka, headcheese, and liverwurst. My mom got me to eat liver as a kid by calling it Braunschweiger as she squeezed it from the plastic tube and smeared it on white bread with mayo. The ground liver was thick, like cold peanut butter, and tore the bread. I folded the slice in half and squeezed it all flat, a poor-boy’s pâté I do not revisit. A child of the Depression herself, she would watch me eat it and say my body must need the iron.

My in-laws sometimes ate whole cooked liver but never bought haggis. They wanted what they had enjoyed at home in Scotland, such as meat pies in cold-water crusts, and sausage rolls, and they were discriminating. They would buy the company’s HP Sauce or Branston Pickle but said it tasted different from the same brands in the UK.

Inverness, where they were from, is known as the gateway to the Highlands and Islands, which implies somewhat isolated and very Scottish. The relatives there seemed puzzled by Americans’ projections of Scottish life. They cared nothing for American St. Andrew’s Society Balls, or highland games in places like Louisville, and Aunt Judy sneered that Robbie Burns was a Lowland Scot. I got much from them—practical knowledge of whisky; warm, comfortable visits filled with laughter—but no love for haggis. They preferred prime rib.

No, this haggis is here only because my elder son wants to try it again on Christmas, with a sampling of pies, rolls, pasties, and various UK candies, because he is very interested these days in his Scottish ancestry, Scottish Gaelic, and Scottish independence. “They had to build a wall to keep us out!” he crows, thinking of blue-painted warriors.

I like his passion, so I do not tell him the wall was actually built to keep haggis off shelves in Warwickshire, where my people are said to be from. I prefer other things I was introduced to above the Great Glen—scones, clotted cream, and jam; French cakes; a perfect cuppa—but I will, for his sake, make something of these innards mixed with grain and spices. That is love. Nollaig Chridheil to you and yours.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.