“KIRK” IS A SCOTTISH WORD MEANING “CHURCH”, and in Scotland it usually means the Church of Scotland—the Presbyterian Church. “Tartan” is the traditional pattern of unevenly spaced stripes crossing at right angles woven into a woolen fabric that distinguishes the various Scottish Clans. Thus, the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans is the traditional blessing of the tartans by the Clergy. Today we celebrate the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans, a service which seems so Scottish that many assume it was an ancient ritual brought to this country from Scotland. Apparently, this is not so.
The first Kirkin’ in the United States was held by Scottish-born Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Dr. Peter Marshall, who was minister of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
The date was April 27, 1941. Reverend Marshall introduced this special worship service celebrating the Scottish heritage of the Presbyterian church in hopes of promoting solidarity among American-born and native-born Scots who were once again involved in a European war – World War II. Funds raised during this Kirkin’ service sought to aid Scottish churches during the early days of World War II, as well as the British war effort, by providing a mobile kitchen, according to the church bulletin. This initial, simple Kirkin’ service, which was a huge success, later evolved into what is today the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans and is held in many churches across America.
For those of us who would prefer to think that the American Kirkin’ does have roots in Scottish history, there is some rather sketchy evidence. In 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scottish forces were defeated by the English in the Battle of Culloden on Drummossie moor in northern Scotland. To enforce English rule, tartans and the playing of bagpipes were banned. Wearing or displaying the tartan was punishable by death. Legend has it that Scots took to secretly wearing swatches of tartan, concealed within their clothing. When they gathered at the Kirk (church), there would be a secretive time for blessing of the clans and tartans, as members clutched their small swatches of fabric. Like many good legends, if this is not true, it should be.
During our Kirkin’ on January 29, which will incorporate some of the Scottish Church form of worship, a display of clan tartans will be presented for blessing. Special guests for the day include Mr. Jimmy Bell, director of the Scottish Heritage Program at Lyon College and The Pipes and Drums of Lyon College who will be present to help us celebrate our Scottish heritage during all three services.