BATESVILLE — To untutored ears, the piercing notes that will echo this weekend across the Lyon College campus may sound like the wailing of stray cats. For enthusiastic visitors to the 42nd Arkansas Scottish Festival, those skirling bagpipes will evoke the ethnic heritage of a school celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Another facet of Lyon's sesquicentennial program will be the annual homecoming football game Saturday. Capping nine days of events beginning Friday in Batesville will be the Oct. 22 inauguration of the Presbyterian institution's first female president, Melissa Taverner.
Under the umbrella label of ScotsFest, the activities are forecast to draw as many as 10,000 visitors to the 136-acre campus in the Independence County seat. Founded in 1872, the Presbyterian-affiliated school with nearly 700 students marks its Celtic heritage in a variety of ways. That includes "Scots" as the nickname for its athletic teams.
The Arkansas Scottish Festival has grown into a lively celebration of Lyon's ethnic roots since debuting in 1979. Traditionally held in April, it was moved to October last year to coincide with homecoming.
"Many festival attendees are members of our campus community along with alumni and friends of the college," says David Hutchinson, Lyon's vice president for advancement. "But an even greater number of guests are outside visitors from the surrounding regions and more than a dozen other states."
The festival's opening ceremonies will feature several marching units playing such bagpipe classics as "Scotland the Brave" and "Amazing Grace." Playing the prime musical role will be the Lyon College Pipe Band, made up of students, faculty and staff as well as volunteers from the Batesville area. Directed by Pipe Major Jimmy Bell, the band performs across Arkansas and beyond.
Marching in their tartans will be American members of more than a dozen clans. Other events will include military re-enactments by MacLachlan's Jacobite Highlanders and Colonel Munro's 37th Regiment of Foot, playing the roles of Scottish units from long-ago battles with the English.
Athletic competitions include traditional Highland events like tossing the towering pole known as the caber. Sheepdog trials, pipe-band exhibitions, a British automobile show are also part of the ethnically focused fun. The jolliest event is the Bonniest Knees Contest. In this bare-bones dalliance, blindfolded women touch and rate the knees of kilted men.
"The massing and march of the bagpipe bands as well as the Highland games are typically the most popular attractions," Hutchinson says. "Of course, the most requested thing throughout the weekend is the traditional Scottish meat pie."
Homecoming's football game against Texas College, starts at 2 p.m. Saturday in Pioneer Stadium. A member of Division III of the NCAA, Lyon competes in 21 intercollegiate varsity sports. It's too bad for the college's athletes that the track and field events do not include the caber toss or the Scottish hammer throw.
Lyon College exists to celebrate its sesquicentennial in part because Batesville lost out to Fayetteville in 1871 when those two cities were the finalists to be the home of the new University of Arkansas.
So Presbyterian officials led by the Rev. Isaac J. Long decided to open their own college in a downtown block of Batesville. They did so in 1872, as Arkansas College of Batesville. The name was changed in 1994 to honor Frank Lyon Sr. and Frank Lyon Jr., both longtime board members and major donors.
Hutchinson observes that the strong alumni turnouts for the annual Arkansas Scottish Festival and the Homecoming stems from "the Lyon College experience of fostering incredibly strong bonds among our students from day one."
That is achieved, he says, "through small class sizes and a low student-to-faculty ratio, an intentional emphasis on faculty-driven advising and support, undergraduate research, and a host of other aspects that go far beyond the standard liberal-arts model. Other unifying factors are our beautiful campus, traditions like the baccalaureate torch ceremony and chapel walk — and, of course, the ever-present sound of bagpipes."
For more information on ScotsFest events, visit lyon.edu or call (870) 307-7000.