Some smugglers drive it across the border from Canada. Others sneak it through airports or send it in the mail, wrapping the contraband in T-shirts and towels to deceive authorities. A few even make it at home.
But this is no international drug ring. It is the black market for Scottish haggis, a savory pudding of boiled sheep innards wrapped in a sheep’s stomach.
On Saturday, Scots across the world will dine on haggis to celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns, the 18th-century Scottish poet. But for haggis purists in the United States, celebrating Burns Night can be a challenge. Since the 1970s, the Department of Agriculture’s food safety division has banned the sale of sheep lungs, which give traditional haggis its distinctive crumbly texture.
Many of the millions of Americans with Scottish ancestry have happily settled for an increasingly wide array of lungless haggis (or, repulsed by the thought of eating sheep innards, avoided the dish entirely). For decades, however, a small but impassioned contingent has resorted to illicit methods to bring authentic haggis onto U.S. soil, motivated by a commitment to tradition and a fondness for the taste and texture of boiled lung.
“If people want something, they’re going to get it,” said Patrick Angus Carr, chairman of the New York branch of the Saint Andrew’s Society, a Scottish heritage group. “How much cocaine and fentanyl is smuggled into the country every day?”
Some of the haggis smugglers are ordinary expats nostalgic for a taste of home. Others are butchers or even famous chefs. Nick Nairn, a celebrity chef in Scotland, made his name in the 1990s as the youngest Scot to win a Michelin star, and once cooked birthday lunch for Queen Elizabeth. But he has also engaged in occasional freelance haggis smuggling. For three years in the mid-2000s, Nairn brought haggis into New York for a wealthy client’s Burns Night celebration, packing the sausage into a black, hard-shell suitcase.
Twice, he made it through the airport without a hitch. But even the best-laid schemes of haggis smugglers can quickly go awry. On his third trip, Nairn, groggy and hung over after a few too many glasses of wine on the plane, noticed an airport sniffer dog running toward his bag.
“You just kind of crap yourself because it’s officialdom, and obviously you’ve done something wrong,” Nairn said in a recent interview. “You don’t muck about in the U.S. when it comes to that sort of stuff.”
Nairn’s haggis was confiscated — and later incinerated, an airport official told him — but he avoided a fine.
Such incidents are common in the haggis black market. The full extent of the smuggling is unclear, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a fair number of Americans have crossed the border into Canada to buy haggis made with lungs. (While the use and importation of animal lungs are banned in Canada, some butchers there have been known to sell authentic haggis anyway.) Others have gone further: slaughtering a lamb themselves, then extracting the lungs and making haggis at home.
Over the last four years, U.S. customs officials have seized around 17,300 “ruminant byproducts” at airports across the country and land crossings along the Canadian border — a total that includes haggis as well as other types of animal imports, including certain goat and elk products, according to agency records.
That figure is a small fraction of the more than 1.4 million agricultural products confiscated at those same ports of entry since 2015. But at least some illicit haggis makes it past U.S. authorities. Paul Bradshaw, a Toronto butcher who learned his trade from a “haggis master” in Scotland, said he had sold authentic haggis to hundreds of Americans.
“You can kind of get away with it,” Bradshaw said. “I would just label it ‘lamb sausage’ if I knew they were crossing the border.”
Bradshaw stopped selling haggis in 2017 to focus on other parts of his business, but he said he planned to continue making it at home, mailing the sheep innards to his family in Florida in boxes labeled “clothing” or “gifts.”
A newcomer to the world of international haggis smuggling might be forgiven for wondering why anyone would consider breaking the law to obtain an animal lung. For some Burns Night devotees, however, the historical roots of haggis exert a strong emotional pull: Before Burns helped popularize it in his poem “Address to a Haggis,” the dish was typically consumed by peasants who had to use every part of the sheep to make the most of scarce resources.
“I wanted to do everything as authentic as possible,” said Blair Watkins, a teacher in Virginia who holds an annual Burns Night celebration for his friends. This month, after a butcher refused to sell him sheep lungs, Watkins went to a nearby farm and slaughtered a lamb himself.
“We should utilize everything that we can,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Other purists insist that no substitute can adequately replace the texture or taste of lung.
“It’s a bit dirty-tasting,” said Ben Reade, a Scottish chef who once smuggled a suitcase full of sheep innards into Denmark. “It probably tastes a little bit like a sheep’s breath smells.”
Haggis smugglers often complain of a single U.S. “import ban.” Really, though, haggis is subject to two prohibitions.
Since 1971, the Department of Agriculture has banned the production and importation of animal lungs because of the risk that gastrointestinal fluid might leak into them during the slaughtering process, raising the likelihood of foodborne illness. And in 1989, the government banned imports of beef and lamb from regions, including Britain, affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad-cow disease.
Scottish butchers have fought these bans for decades, arguing that the U.S. government’s food safety concerns are exaggerated. Now there is some hope that Brexit will revive the debate. Once it leaves the European Union, Britain will seek to negotiate a trade deal with the United States, which could open the door to renewed discussion of the haggis prohibitions.
“It is still the case that, you know, the United States of America, the people of the United States of America, don’t eat any British lamb or beef or haggis from Scotland,” the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, said at a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence in September. “We think we could free up the U.S. market.”
Still, not all haggis devotees believe that the sausage has to come from Scotland or even contain lung. Over the last two decades, several U.S. companies have developed alternatives to the traditional haggis recipe, replacing the lungs with ingredients like beef liver.
Scottish Gourmet USA, a North Carolina company that uses liver in its lungless haggis, supplies major Burns Night celebrations across the country, shipping thousands of boxes a year, said Anne Robinson, the company’s founder.
Still, Robinson said, she continues to get calls and emails every year from Scots whose haggis has been confiscated or who want advice on obtaining lung.
“They ask me, ‘What can I do? How can I do it?’” she explained. “And I say, ‘You’ll have to find your own local butcher who will actually sell you whatever parts you need. Or you’ll have to make it yourself and butcher your own lamb.’ ”
Either that, or take your chances at the airport. About 15 years ago, Matthew McAllister, a native Glaswegian working in Connecticut, wanted to take Scottish haggis to an office potluck.
Over Christmas vacation, he bought haggis from a butcher in Glasgow, Scotland, and carefully covered it with T-shirts. But when he landed at Newark, New Jersey, and retrieved his luggage, his suitcase was wrapped in tape with a notice explaining that items had been removed.
“It felt like a part of my home had been taken from me,” he said.
McAllister showed up at the potluck empty-handed. As the group munched on samosas, he explained that the boiled sheep innards he had tried to bring from Scotland had been confiscated.
“They all laughed,” he recalled, “and said this was probably the best thing that could’ve happened.”