History of Kirking of the Tartans

TartanHISTORY OF KIRKING OF THE TARTANS

This Sunday all over the world many churches will observe the Kirkin’ o’ th’ Tartans, a celebration of Scottish heritage and culture.

What is The Kirking of the Tartans?

Etymologically it simply means:

  • Kirking, from the Scottish Gaelic word kirk which means church, in this usage means “blessing.”
  • Tartans are the traditional plaid emblems of Scottish clans represented in unevenly spaced colored lines and rectangles on woven wool cloth.

Historically, the story is a bit more varied. The popular legend goes as follows:

On July 25, 1745, the young Prince Charles Edward Stewart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” returned from exile in France and landed at Lochnanaugh in Scotland where he began to enlist the Highland Clans for an unsuccessful attempt to dethrone George II of England and to restore the Scottish throne to the Royal House of Stewart.

Following this defeat, the Act of Proscription — to subdue the vanquished Highlanders — banned the wearing of any sign of the Tartan, forbad any speaking in Gaelic, outlawed Scottish music, dancing, or the playing of the pipes. The Scottish Highlanders subsequently hid pieces of tartan under their clothing and brought them to church for a secret blessing or kirkin’ at a particular point in the service by the minister.

During the 36 years following the Disarming Act of 1746 when the Hanovarian English government strictly enforced this ban, during the Sunday service Highlanders would touch the hidden cloth when the minister gave the benediction, thus rededicating themselves to God and their Scottish heritage.

A curious wrinkle in this legend is that many people in Scotland don’t know this so-called “history” about the Kirkin’. It is difficult to find an unbroken line of history tracing the practice back specifically to this origin in the mid-18th century.

A more recent and better documented version of the story is that this began as a Scottish-American custom:

The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans service was created or “revived” during World War II by Reverend Peter Marshall, perhaps best known by the biographical book and film A Man Called Peter — who was originally from southwest Scotland and at one time pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In 1947 he served as Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. In order to encourage Scottish-Americans to sign up to fight on behalf of Great Britain, Peter Marshall recreated the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans ceremony to try to instill pride among Scottish-Americans in their Scottish homeland. The ceremony was at that time held in Presbyterian churches of Scottish heritage across the US. Today, the celebration is not limited to Presbyterian churches, but is found in Episcopalian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other denominations across the world. Now, in present day celebration, the Highlander patriotism, faithfulness, and strong independence are remembered by the displaying of tartans and public parade of the clans to the sound of the bagpipe.

While often celebrated on Reformation Sunday the last Sunday in October, Kirkin’s are also celebrated at other times of the year, as on St. Andrew’s Day — the patron saint of Scotland — on November 30, and Tartan Day on April 6. In 1954, the Kirkin‘ service was moved to the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington — home of the Episcopal diocese of Washington — where it is still held to the present day.

In churches, and even at Scottish Highland Games, the Kirkin’ is celebrated by Scots — and those who would be Scots — accompanied by prayer, scripture, preaching, blessing, bagpipe, and of course, the singing of Amazing Grace.

Bill MacPetro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

8 comments… add one
  • Alba Gu Bra! Scotland Forever…for the godly heroism of Sir William Wallace and John Knox! :)

    Reply
  • First, I wuld like to say to Melody Seppi, please do not mention the great Sir William Wallace in the same sentence as sucha weasel like John Knox!!!

    Secondly, I would just like to say that the “kirking o’ the Tartans never has been, nor never will be a Scottish tradition.

    It started in the U.S.A and is only practiced in North America and parts of Australia.

    It has nothing to do with Bonnie Prince Charlie or any Jacbite traditions.

    It all sounds ridiculous to me!!

    Reply
    • Còmhragair,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I guess you didn’t read far enough down to see that I mentioned:

      - People in Scotland don’t know this “history”

      - It was created during World War II by Reverend Peter Marshall

      Bill

      Reply
  • I only heard of ‘The Blessing of the Tartans’ a few days ago . I am an Elder in The Community Presbyterian Church in the town of Wasaga Beach, Ontario. Our Student minister asked if he could include this in his service. I was born and raised in Scotland into the ‘Old Church of Scotland’ rites and ceremonies.
    This was not a part of our Church traditions. Being a bit of a ‘Historian’ and having read about the English rule in the aftermath of Culloden I can understand where and more-so why this ceremony would be of such importance to the Scots.
    I am all in favour of promoting ‘The Blessingf of the Tartans’
    as part of the Presbyterian Church order of service.
    John Knox was the first to speak out against the Church of England. Were he here right now who knows what he would achieve. Billy Graham status …maybe ???

    Reply
  • Peter Marshall was NOT the 4th Chaplain of the Senate. he was the 58th Chaplain of the Senate—which in itself is misleading because you have ministers that served multiple times. The Chaplain of the US Senate goes back to 1789 in New York City, not 1941.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the correction Glenn, the article is now updated. Not only did I have the order incorrect, but the year. He served in 1947.

      -Bill

      Reply
  • My understanding is that ‘kirk’ is not a Gaelic word. ‘Kirk’ is the Scots for ‘church’ and is etymologically related to other Germanic words such as Dutch ‘kerk’ and German ‘Kirche.’ The Gaelic word for church is ‘eaglais.’ most likely from Latin/Greek ‘ecclesia.’

    Reply
    • Mark,

      Agreed, as corrected last year and noted in the previous comments.

      -Bill

      Reply

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