We have discovered that our new approach to planning our motorhome travel does not mean that we will miss making surprise discoveries that lead us to revise our plans. Our Caledonian Canal was to start with a scenic drive just south of Fort William, instead it started with a haggis supper and a dance.
In our search for tourist attractions, especially the less obvious, we discovered the Highland Haggis Festival was taking place in Spean Bridge on the Sunday, the first full day we had planned for our Canal tour. We made contact with organisers to get more detail and that resulted in us joining them for a haggis supper and ceilidh on the Saturday night, a lively community event at which we were made very welcome. We were able to park up for the weekend within easy walking distance of both Saturday evening's supper and Sunday afternoon's festival.
The Sunday morning was intermittently showery but we were lucky that our exploration of the village was not interrupted by the frequent showers throughout the rest of the day. We took the less direct, but much more interesting, walk through the still bare woods above the river to the Commando Memorial that looks out across Leanachan Forest. It was easy walking on well surfaced paths although they would be a too rough for wheelchairs.
The path took us to the ruins of the concrete High Bridge that took the now dismantled railway over the River Spean. The path continued through the woods of birch and oak along the route of the railway until it reached the historic High Bridge of General Wade's military road. The bridge had been built to facilitate the movement of the English Army during restless times. Of course it also enabled rapid movement of the Jacobite forces and it was here that the first shots were fired in the Jacobean Revolution of 1745.
The old military road then became the path to the Commando Memorial visible on the sky line. Erected after the Second World War to commemorate the officers and men who died during that war. Three nine foot (2.8m) bronze commandos in battle dress look out over the rugged countryside that was used for commando training. There is a small Garden of Remembrance where the living can remember those that were lost. It is just off the A82 and easily reached by car but it felt much more fitting to arrive as we did from the woods in which they would have trained.
To complete our steady 4-5 mile ramble it was then just a simple downhill walk of around a mile back to the village for a coffee and a homemade scone at the café of the Spean Bridge Woolen Mill. Then back to the motorhome for lunch and a breather before heading off to walk round to the Primary School for the Haggis Festival itself. Unfortunately the showers had returned and they were a frequent occurrence during the afternoon. Fortunately the weather was no great hindrance as most of the festival was taking place in the school and a large marquee on the playground. The only part of the event taking outside was the Haggis Flinging competition (with dummy haggises I am pleased to say) and a big blow up slide for the younger children.
The Festival was opened by Donald Cameron of Lochiel, with the support of Hector the festival mascot. The local press and television were there to cover the proceedings. It was soon apparent that our attendance at the haggis supper and ceilidh had not gone unnoticed and we were frequently greeted as old friends. For one of the few times since we started The Winding Way that we really appreciated the engagement aspect of slow travel.
Haggis was available, in all its forms and varieties, wild boar haggis anyone? So it was a good job we had not had a substantial lunch as we tasted everything from local whisky and beers to cakes, breads, charcuterie and, of course, haggis of various types and cooked in different ways. All the good things in life that attracted us to slow travel, slow food and the motorhome life.
The cookery demonstrations by local chefs were well attended and provided a range of interesting takes on using haggis and its traditional accompaniment of tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnip/swede). Yet another opportunity for more tasting of haggis; this time as fine dining dishes, everyday alternatives or as stuffing for interesting breads. Judging by the queues they were well received.
The Haggis Festival was not one dimensional as there was a much broader celebration of fine foods and crafts from the Highlands. It was not a huge event but probably better for it. There was sense of community and the stall holders had time, indeed were keen, to talk about the event, their produce and the area. One person likened the festival to the events that French communities are so keen organise We understood what he meant from our own travels in France, it certainly had the same sort of feel--a great excuse for a community party. All in all it did not feel like a new festival even though it was only its second year; they are already thinking about 2017.
There would have been plenty to do as day trips from a base in Spean Bridge but we needed to head off and rejoin our planned itinerary. So on the morning we set off for the start of the Caledonian Canal and other attractions around Fort William. We will come back to the area, and may well use a future Highland Haggis Festival as the starting point for a future trip. We will be heading back to Scotland, and the Highlands especially, as soon as we can.