The Yellowstone Haggis: An unlikely summer solstice celebration in the world’s first national park
At a gathering this past winter, conversation turned to Robert Burns Night celebrations, the traditional supper celebration of the birthday of Scotland’s national bard. It is well-nigh impossible to discuss Burns Night without touching on the subject of the haggis — a traditional meat dish that is both honored and reviled.
January’s conversation stirred vivid memories of the first haggis I ever encountered, which was, in fact, a faux haggis and was in a setting both a world and season away from the comfortable living room of this winter’s discussion.
The scene of the, uh, grime: The park service ranger housing area at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, at a picnic table behind a coworker’s government-issue double-wide trailer. The date: The evening of summer solstice, 1992. Me: A newly-minted ranger in my first season in Yellowstone National Park, and innocent thus far of the existence of haggae.
My coworker, Bill Millar, felt a ranger-like urge to salute the summer solstice, which he decided to do by coopting Robert Burns Night traditions. I walk over the crumbling pavement and dry pine needles from my quarters to find Bill already kilted-up — a real change from the park service garb I’ve grown used to seeing him wear. His cousin, imported from Tucson for the event and also resplendent in tartan, prepares his bagpipes. All of the rangers except the few on evening program or patrol duty are there, most in civvies but a couple still in uniform, gathering around the worn picnic table. Everybody’s ready for some fun, but not quite sure what to expect. More than one head jerks up in surprise when cousin Gary starts in with the piping; you can see people trying to reconcile the sound with the surroundings until Ann comments to Tom that it reminds her a bit of the sound of male elk bugling during rut in autumn.
At a signal from Bill, the pipes fall silent and the rangers follow suit. Reading from a tattered book, Bill starts in with some Burns, including his “Address to a Haggis.” Keep in mind, this is somebody who can make his voice heard over the roar of erupting geysers to a hundred visitors strung along a boardwalk in a crowded thermal basin; powered by Bill’s resonant baritone, Burns’ words roll and cascade, swelling to fill the forested housing area. Bill’s wife Margaret appears at the appointed moment in the door of their double-wide with something rather hand-shaped on a wooden tray: The Haggis.
Margaret puts the tray on the table in front of Bill, who, after roaring out more Burns, suddenly whips the traditional knife out of the top of his right sock and plunges it into the haggis.
Somebody gasps; there are giggles of surprise.
After the salute concludes, Bill explains that he couldn’t get a real haggis — though not for lack of trying throughout western Wyoming, eastern Idaho and central Montana — so in its place is, well, a latex glove filled with raw hamburger. Margaret explains to the ignorant (including me) what a real haggis is, and compared to ground-up sheep offal cooked and served in a sheep stomach, the latex-encased ground beef seems pretty tame. At least the Millars won’t expect us to eat this.
Actual, edible food now appears (in Yellowstone, the tag line for every get-together is, “Bring something to grill and something to share!”), and my fellow rangers, their families and I dig in. The meal is peppered with bursts of Gary playing the bagpipes, park service radio chatter from the receiver on somebody’s belt, and Bill occasionally roaring,
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm
punctuated by stabbing haggis stand-ins including a steak, a watermelon and, most satisfactorily, an overripe tomato.
The evening of this, the longest day of the year, here in the world’s first national park, slowly merges with night as conversation, piping, lingering diaphanous light and mountain wind weave through the boughs of the lodgepole pines in equal measure.