History of the Kirking of the Tartans: is it really Scottish?

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

  • Kirking, from the Scots word kirk which means church, in this usage it 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:

Legend

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 Prince Charlie’s defeat, the Act of Proscription — to subdue the vanquished Highlanders — banned the wearing of any sign of the Tartan, forbade any speaking in Gaelic, outlawed Scottish music, dancing, or the playing of the pipes.

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

History

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.

KirkThe Kirkin’ o’ th’ Tartans service was created or “revived” during World War II by Reverend Peter Marshall, perhaps best known for 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 1943 he was the first 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’ th’ 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 the public parade of the clans to the sound of the bagpipe.

Practice

While often celebrated on Reformation Sunday near the last Sunday in October — to connect it with the anniversary of Martin Luther‘s nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door on October 31, 1517 — 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.

Tweed

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

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15 comments… add one
  • A small point, but ‘kirk’ is not a Gaelic word, it’s a Scots word. They’re completely unrelated languages. Otherwise, a very interesting slice of history.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment.

      You’re right, it’s Scots, not Gaelic — fixed. I’m not sure how “unrelated” though, as the Gaelic kill (as in Killarney – Church of sloes) is a bit similar to kirk. All of these cognates seem to have come from the Koine Greek word kuriakon, like the root kurios, and meaning the Lord’s (house), with house being understood. The more familiar ecclesia that we usually associate with church, refers more to the assembly and congregational function of the church, and means (those) “called out.”

      Reply
  • this cannot be a coincidence there was in ancient times a king named Kir of the Dardans ‘kir-king of the tartans (dardans) wow

    Reply
    • Alban,

      Compelling idea, though I suspect it’s coincidence. The Dardans, or in Greek “Dardanoi” (Latin: Dardani) lived on the Greek peninsula in pre-Roman times. We hear of the Dardans of Troy in Homer… predating our story by about 2,000 years.

      -Bill

      Reply
      • yes but it is said that Brutus who came to Briton was of Troyan descent the Troyans were Dardanians and now they say there is Dardanian dna in Briton , there is a connection

        Reply
      • yes but you must consider the History of Brutus, or Brute of Troy founder and first king of Britain , the Dardanians build Troy so he was Dardic and must had some knowledge of Dardanian History , in albanian language Tartan means
        ‘T Art Tan’ eng ‘our golden ones’ (our elite) and Scotland was called Alban which is the corrupted form of ARban ,it is not like all say from latin albus ‘white’ because Scotland was not conquered by rome also Albion in our language means Arb (the name of our land/ppl) i on (ours) like the Ionian sea which means our sea

        Reply
  • Hi Bill,

    I hope you don’t mind that I have used your explanation on above on our website (reference included, of course). Here in Brisbane, Australia, we have been proudly upholding the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan ceremony for many years. It is one of the highlights of our Scottish Events calendar. Thanks again. Penny

    Reply
  • What is the date for the Kirking of the Tartan in Miami this year?

    Reply
    • It’s the same as the rest of the US.

      Reply
    • There is no official date, even across the US. In my local church it’s November 1, but it is usually before or after Reformation Day, October 31.

      -Bill

      Reply
  • Thank you for this article! Is there any truth in the legend itself? Were tartans used in this way during a time of persecution?

    Reply
    • Jen,

      We know historically that the persecutions did occur. We do not know of a hard connection with the tartans from that time.

      -Bill

      Reply
  • Bill-

    Re: Kirking of the Tartans.

    Good article. Makes me want to know more. Like, were tartans really invented by Polish cloth merchants?

    I believe the origin of the Scots language is Germanic, possibly old English from the Angles and/or Danish-Norwegian-Viking. The English word “church” is “Kirche” in German and “Kirke” in Danish. This is likely the origin of the Scots “kirk”. The Scots language is associated with the lowland Scots population. The Highland Scots region traditionally spoke a variant of Gaelic.

    Tartans always seemed to be associated with the Highland Clans, although there seems to be tartans for many other Scottish families and clans including Lowlanders. The Ellots, Elliott’s, Elliot’s and Eliott’s seem to be neither but are classified as “Border Reivers” along with about a dozen other families. There is even a couple of Elliot/Elliott tartans.

    John Elliott

    Reply
  • I’m Presbyterian and always wear the “country tartan” of my grandmother Annie McIntosh, when our church celebrates. My husband ordered it for me from Scotland several years ago. We observe Kirkin of the tartan in November each year. Interesting facts in your article. Thank you.

    Reply

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