Photograph by Jon Cancelino
What is it about a lone bagpiper, weeping out a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that can send chills down the spine of all who are lucky enough to be within earshot? “It might be my Scottish blood,” says Joe McGowan of Lake Forest, “but that always sends me over the edge.”
Cathy and Joe McGowan are the co-chairs of this year’s Bagpipes & Bonfire, an autumnal spectacle put on by the Lake Forest Open Lands Association, held this year on September 26. This Midwestern tradition, begun by famed architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, could easily be considered one of the North Shore’s most unique family events for fall. A Sunday afternoon filled with bagpipers, Scottish Highland games and athletes, a large bonfire, food, and drink—it’s the optimal way to say “so long to summer” for many along the lake.
All throughout the spring and summer, workers and summer interns from Lake Forest Open Lands gather brush removed from the preserves and haul it to a collective pile at Middlefork Farm Nature Preserve off Waukegan Road in northwest Lake Forest. “Watching the pile grow actually builds anticipation for the event,” says Cathy, who has been involved with Lake Forest Open Lands for 15 years, and is currently in her second year on the Board of Governors. “The kids like to see how high the brush pile can get.”
And as fast as that brush pile is built, it is burned down to nothing the night of event. Keeping in the tradition set by Shaw and his Scottish relative John McCutcheon, the giant brush pile is set ablaze at dusk, right after bagpipers march out of the woods, and a lone piper stands on top of the pile, recognizing all those who have passed in the previous year. Also turning into a perennial favorite are the skydiving pipers, who float down into Middlefork Savanna, much to the delight of old and young alike.
Bagpipes & Bonfire is on Sunday, September 26, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Lake Forest Open Lands’ Middlefork Farm Nature Preserve. Tickets can be purchased directly on the Lake Forest Open Lands website after August 16. For more information, visit lfola.org. — STACY FLANNERY