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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Wild Haggis of Nevada
by Chester C. Buchanan


Two of the best-kept secrets in the western world are the existence of wild haggis populations in Nevada and the State's haggis hunting season. Now I shouldn't have told you that! Well, they're no longer the best kept secrets so I might as well get on with the story.

It seems that haggis were accidentally released in Nevada by a couple of young Scotsmen who came here in 1861 to claim what they believed to be their rightful share of silver and gold. Before departing the Highlands for the newly formed Territory of Nevada, the lads had a number of preparations to make. For one thing, they needed to scrape together their meager funds and pack their clothing and food items. Though these rough and tough lads would make excellent hard rock miners, they had a weakness - a mighty hunger for haggis. Roasted, boiled, fried, broiled, or stewed you name it; they would devour it faster than a kilt rising in a gust of air. Since haggis are not native to Nevada, the lads couldn't imagine going for more than a month, let alone a couple of years, without this tasty treat, so they crated up a "heap" of haggis (similar to a flock of chickens) for their voyage around the horn to San Francisco and then overland to Virginia City.

After a few months in Virginia City the lads started to remember that there was something else they were fond of, and it too was a rare commodity in mining camps - women! Besides the rarity of this delight, the few "ladies" in camp wouldn't look sideways at a miner unless there was a little metallic jingle in his poke. This created a serious problem for the lads because their funds had nearly run out and they hadn't found their share of "pay dirt" yet. Luck was on their side, however, because a couple of the "camp ladies" developed an exceptional liking for the haggis dish that the lads had taken to the recent Robert Burns Supper. Once their mutual desires and attributes were discovered, it didn't take long to strike a deal! A deal that quickly transferred the entire crated heap to the ladies.

The next day, not knowing the digging abilities of haggis, the ladies released the heap into an outdoor chicken pen. Well, as soon as the sun eased below the mountain ridge behind Virginia City, the heap was under the fence and gone.

Now that the heap was free, how were these timid little creatures to survive on their own in the territory's arid conditions and intense summer heat? There were a few lakes in the area with rocky shorelines similar to those in the Highlands, but little, if any, moss grew on the rocks for the haggis to graze. There was, however, a nearby spot that provided just the right conditions - cool air, dampness, and a ready food supply of moss and lichens - an abandoned mine. After sensing the hint of cool, moist air drifting up the gully behind the chicken pen, the heap dashed down the slope to quickly find the cave and the refuge it provided.

Over the years, haggis numbers increased and spread throughout the mountains as new mines opened, and later closed as the silver and gold played out. Due to their secretive nature and the isolation of abandoned mines, the presence of haggis went unnoticed until the winter of 1958. A couple of mule deer hunters had decided to camp overnight in the entrance of an abandoned mine because of an advancing snowstorm. To cut the evening cold, the hunters had a couple of nips from their prized bottle of well aged single malt Scotch whisky from the Isle of Skye before crawling into their sleeping bags. At this point, the hunters made a fortunate mistake for haggis lovers, they forgot re-cork the bottle.

Throughout the night, the faint, softly blended smell of seaweed, smoked peat, oak, and aged malt alcohol slowly filtered down to the cavernous lair of the heap. Almost simultaneously, at the first hint of the smell, every animal in the heap felt a great luring as they eased to their feet. Though they did not recognize the smell, it was familiar in a distant, ancient way - something to do with their ancestors. They were spellbound by the bait haggis hunters had used for centuries in the Highlands!

The next morning, as the two hunters collected their gear to break camp, they noticed the empty Scotch bottle lying on it side about 50 yards down the tunnel. Of course the two immediately accused one another of emptying the bottle, but then they noticed the multitude of small tracks around the bottle! At first they thought that pack rats had drunk the Scotch, but the unfamiliar tracks were too big for rats. Being curious hunters, they decided to stay another night, but this time they set a trap - more open Scotch. Mark Twain once observed about the shortage of water in the West, that "whisky's for drinking, and water's for fighting over." Well, Scotch whisky is for drinking and hunting haggis.

Sure enough, about two in the morning, a chicken sized brown animal cautiously scampered from one hiding place along the tunnel wall to another as he (or she - you can't tell the sex of a haggis) moved toward the Scotch. Dozens more were following close behind. The guys couldn't believe their eyes - the little boozers were haggis! They had read about these critters and seen old pictures of them, but they had never seen a live one because the species became extinct in the early 1900s when their Highland habitat was degraded and too many hunters were eager to eat them. Since the two hunters had read how tasty haggis were to eat and there were so many of them in the cave, they decided to harvest one. The next morning during breakfast, they fully appreciated Robert Burns' phrase, "great chieftain o the puddin'-race."

Once word got out about the presence of haggis in the state, the Nevada Department of Fish and Game quickly established hunting and environmental regulations to protect the haggis population. A hunting season was established for the week of Robert Burns' birthday and the bag limit was set at one haggis per person. In addition, hunters may only enter the first 5 feet of an abandoned cave and must use a full bottle of quality, single malt Scotch as bait. Once a haggis is caught, the remainder of the open Scotch bottle must be left in the cave's entrance for the heap to enjoy. Other than during haggis season, people are forbidden from entering abandoned caves, ostensibly for their safety, but the real reason is to protect haggis habitat. Such sound management provides residents and future generations the rare opportunity to sample the "warm-reekin, rich" taste of wild haggis.