The Legend of the Kirkin' O' the Tartans

This Sunday at the eleven o’clock service, we will continue our Religious Arts Festival Celebration of Scotland with the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans. This will include an opening procession of bagpipes, choir and clergy and parishioners dressed in Scottish attire. There will be a table in the front to receive tartan items that represent families in our congregation. Everyone is invited bring a tartan item (blanket, scarf, shawl, patch, etc.) to place on the table before the service for the blessing. Those who come dressed in full Scottish attire may also participate in the procession. Be ready in the Narthex before the service. The pipes will end the service with a playing of Amazing Grace.

According to legend, the “kirkin’ o’ the tartans” began in Scotland after August 1746 when Highland chiefs and clan members hid bits of forbidden tartan cloth tucked in their boots, tied around their forearms beneath their shirts, and stuffed into their hats on their way to the “kirk,” or church (more specifically, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). At a secret cue from the priest during the service, each Highlander touched his bit o’ tartan, and the priest spoke an innocuous blessing, surreptitiously blessing the symbol of each Scotsman’s national pride and family identity. 

This furtive act of rebellion spited the Act of Proscription of 1746, in which the British Parliament attempted to control, suppress, and diffuse the power of the Scottish clans by forbidding them, among other things, from wearing “the Highland dress,” such as the kilt and any kind of tartan. Although these laws were repealed in 1782, the tradition, as legend says, of presenting the tartan during the church service for a special blessing has continued over the centuries.

The reality, of course, is less romantic, but has a pleasing ironic twist. For starters, the custom is not Scottish but Scottish-American. During the Second World War, Dr. Peter Marshall held prayer services at his church, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., to raise funds for war relief. At one of those services--usually identified as April 27, 1943, but sometimes May of 1943--Dr. Marshall gave a sermon entitled, “The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans,” and the custom began.  The funds raised went toward a mobile kitchen in--as you may have guessed--Britain. The very tradition that supposedly began as an act of rebellion against the British now supported their efforts two centuries later. After Dr. Marshall’s death, the kirkin’ moved from place to place and in 1954 was held at the Washington National Cathedral where it is still held today. Many thanks are due to Rosalynn Fairless for her research in this history of the Kirkin’.

I'll see you Sunday!