More than a third of US visitors to Scotland believe haggis is a wild animal. According to one survey, some even dream of stalking a “wee beastie” across the glens. Sadly, after learning the offal truth about the ingredients they return home disappointed.
Heart, liver and lung stuffed into a sheep’s intestine are not an easy sell on any menu. And with Burns Night approaching on Thursday, one member of staff at The Principal Hotel in Edinburgh confides that it might be easier to claim haggis actually is a rare Highland creature.
I’m trying to explain the significance of the savoury pudding to a French guest sat with me in the hotel’s glass-roofed bar. His guidebook suggests there is no conclusive evidence the dish originated from Scotland - it may even be 15th century peasant fare from Lancashire. A look of horror descends on other drinkers before I move the subject on to safer territory.
The chef at The Principal still expects to cook kilos of the stuff on Thursday, accompanied by the obligatory “neeps, tatties” (mashed swede and potatoes) and a wee dram. That evening, the life and works of poet Robbie Burns will be remembered by misty-eyed Scottish folk around the world.
These days, chefs have added a modern twist to how haggis can be served. Apart from deep fried haggis after a night out on the Royal Mile, there’s haggis pizza, haggis soup and ever so posh haggis canapés. Just up the road at the swanky Balmoral Hotel, they actually serve haggis truffles, with a choice of 400 whiskies to wash it down.
However, the search for the ultimate pudding will take me far from the capital, south across the Scottish lowlands and on to Dumfries. And just in case roaming wild haggis isn’t a fairy story, my Volvo V90 is equipped with Large Animal Detection System, ready to warn of any oncoming beasties before it’s too late.
The V90 is the modern equivalent of the family-friendly V70 estate – often loaded with furniture and Labradors, plus room to spare. It’s bursting with safety equipment and borrows a lot from the excellent, if bulkier XC90 SUV. V90 is more svelte and all the better for it I say.
The Cross Country version features all-wheel drive too, minus the XC90’s ground clearance. But if you don’t live up the side of a mountain and rarely chase marauding haggis, it’s more than capable. At last, Volvo offers classy alternative to rival German estates, arguably with a better cabin too.
An obvious route out of Edinburgh is south-west on the M8, or A71. Instead, I’m driving the Scenic Trail along the A701, due south through the Scottish borders towards Blythe Bridge and Kirkdean.
The scenery overload here increases with every kink in the road. This region is a glorious microcosm of what picturesque Scotland is all about. Hilltops lost in the mist, the occasional, crofter’s cottage and rivers tumbling through the glens.
A blanket of snow covers the bronzed bracken as the roads passes through Broughton. There’s time for a coffee at the local tearoom and then on south to the Devil’s Beef Tub, a dramatic hillside hollow once used as a hiding place for stolen cattle.
The road meanders gently downhill from here to the “Dark Sky” town of Moffat. The community achieved its heavenly status two years ago, thanks to special street lighting that makes it a haven for stargazers. Moffat itself is bustling, with a pretty central square and a Grade II-listed town hall.
Nearby Dumfries is one of those towns I always motored past with haste, en route to the Stranraer ferry. Turning off the M6 at Gretna Green, the A75 passes the curious Savings Bank Museum at Ruthwell, and then Ecclefechan, home of an eponymous pastry tart packed with sultanas and cherries.
While I can’t set an Address To a Haggis on the Volvo’s large screen navigation system, I have no problem finding JB Houston – Scotland’s reigning champion haggis maker. There’s a queue of folk spilling on to the pavement by the Lockerbie Road, patiently waiting to snaffle up Stuart Houston’s latest batch.
Dumfries was home to Robert Burns in his later life, with links to Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert the Bruce. If you follow motorsport, it was the birthplace of David Coulthard and Allan McNish, too. Now Houstons is also on list.
The family has been running a butcher’s shop here since 1950, nowadays shipping haggis to London restaurants and celebrity chefs alike. Perhaps thankfully, there’s one market Stuart doesn’t have to worry about – haggis imports to the US were banned in 1971 because the pudding contains sheep lung. There’s no accounting for taste…
Volvo V90 Cross Country Pro D5 PowerPulse AWD
ENGINE 1,969cc four-cylinder diesel
TOP SPEED 140mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 7.5sec
FUEL ECONOMY 53.3mpg (EU Combined)