HISTORY OF THE 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?
- Kirking, from the Scots 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:
Legend of Kirking of the Tartans
On July 25, 1745, the young Prince Charles Edward Stewart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” returned from exile in France and landed at Lochnanaugh in Scotland. There, he began to enlist the Highland Clans for an unsuccessful attempt to dethrone George II of England and restore the Scottish throne to the Royal House of Stewart.
Following Prince Charlie’s defeat, the Act of Proscription, intended to subdue the vanquished Highlanders – along with the Dress Act of 1746 – banned the wearing by men and boys of “highland dress,” namely:
… the Plaid (belted large piece of fabric), Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper coats.
During the 36 years following the earlier Disarming Act of 1746, when the Hanoverian English government starting with George I strictly enforced this ban, during the Sunday service, it was said that 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 of Kirking of the Tartans
A curious wrinkle in this legend is that none of my friends in Scotland know this so-called “history” about the Kirkin’. It isn’t easy to find an unbroken line of history tracing back the practice 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’ 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. Marshall was originally from southwest Scotland and, at one time, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
In 1943 he became the first Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. To encourage Scottish Americans to sign up to fight on behalf of Great Britain and as a fundraiser for British war relief, Peter Marshall – along with the Saint Andrew’s Society of Washington, D.C. – recreated in 1941 the Kirkin’ o’ th’ Tartans ceremony to instill pride among Scottish Americans and their Scottish homeland. The ceremony was at that time held in Presbyterian churches of Scottish heritage across the U.S.
Today, the celebration is not limited to Presbyterian churches but is found in Episcopalian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other denominations worldwide. In present-day celebrations, the Highlander patriotism, faithfulness, and strong independence are remembered by displaying tartans and the public parade of the clans to the sound of the bagpipe.
The Practice of Kirking of the Tartans
Kirkin’s are 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, such as on St. Andrew’s Day – the patron saint of Scotland – on November 30, and Tartan Day on April 6. In 1952, the Kirkin‘ service was moved to the National Cathedral 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