Yesterday, 25th January, was the anniversary of the birth of one Robert Burns, who is considered to be the national poet of Scotland. It is traditional to celebrate this day with a Burns Supper, especially in Scotland, but more widely where any Scots gather.
As this was our first such occasion since moving to Orkney, and therefore nominally Scotland, we felt it was appropriate to enter into the celebration in some way, so spent the preceding day looking for a wild haggis, Haggis scoticus*, around which to base our evening meal.
Though Orkney suffers from a general lack of mountain terrain, their favoured habitat, the best place in the archipelago for seeing this species in the wild are the hills of North Hoy. Sadly we did not have the option of making the trip across Burra Sound, so we scoured the rugged hills of Mainland in the hope of snagging our prey. Steering clear of the hunting restrictions in place on the Birsay Moors nature reserve, we concentrated our efforts between Corrigall to the west, Cottascarth to the east and Starra Fiold to the north. Though there were plenty of scat and other more ephemeral signs of the beasts, we were unable to confirm a single sighting, let alone approach close enough to realise our dreams of an authentic wild centrepiece for our Burns supper. The habitat here provides plenty of low cover, so that even experienced hunters in this landscape, such as Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers, rarely catch a haggis, unless it is suicidally unobservant.
As the light and our hopes faded, we made our way to Stromness to activate Plan B.
Now, away sooth across the Pentland Firth, a few enterprising farmers have diversified into new areas that don't involve wind turbines and sheep. Although the featureless expanses of Caithness are not ideal terrain for raising a happy haggis, it has proved possible to breed these creatures in captivity, to supply the many restaurants and eateries keen to provide a tourist meal through the Summer and also the local market at the end of January.
However, we were wary of the provenance of farmed haggis, concerned about the conditions that are rumoured to prevail in cramped, dark barns, where nary a sprig of heather or a tranquil burn is present and the poor creatures are force-fed on a diet of animal offal and fermented barley spirit. I can't imagine anyone eating that. Instead we sought out the local butcher's shop in Stromness, where we had been told it was possible, with a nod and a wink, to acquire an Orcadian free range haggis. At least with one of these tasty specimens, we could be sure that it had breathed the fresh air of these isles and felt the fragrant touch of heather blooms on its scraggy hide. We were not disappointed and came away with a neatly-prepared half a kilogramme of Orkney's finest.
I should point out that the Scottish Minister for Environment and Climate Change has no plans to introduce a cull of the wild haggis to reduce the incidence and spread of tourist TB**.
Our evening meal was a splendid success. The neeps were just the correct side of lumpy, the tatties were mashed to within a buttery inch of their lives and the succulent, free range haggis was spicy, warm and filling.
* Haggis scoticus
** TB = total bo##ocks