The Kirkin' of the Tartan

by the Reverend Keith McKee
(London, Ontario, Canada, Source "The Kirkin' Of The Tartans" by Todd Wilkinson)

The Kirkin’ of the Tartan

What is this Kirkin’ of the Tartan service that St. George’s Presbyterian Church is having on Sunday, October 16, 2008? Why is your minister in a kilt? What are all these tartans doing in the sanctuary? What is that man saying? In answer to the latter, it is the Psalm 63 and it is being read by Elder John MacLeod in his native language of Gaelic.

The Kirkin’ of the Tartan service celebrates the Scottish heritage of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. It is truly a North American custom, but based on the history of the Scots in Scotland during the days of the Act of Proscription. The wearing of the Kilt was banned in the Highlands. Legend has it that the Highlanders hid pieces of tartan and brought them to church to be secretly blessed in the service. Such a practice would have been very dangerous. Alexander Carmichael does list a prayer for the “Consecration of the Cloth” in his collection of Highland folklore, prayers and charms, but it is difficult to conclude accurately that this is a reference to the blessing of the tartan.

Instead what we do know is that during the Second World War, before the Americans joined the war, the Reverend Peter Marshall, originally from Coatbridge, Scotland, was the minister at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He also served as Chaplain of the United States Senate before his premature death in 1949. Mr. Marshall’s life story was published by his wife Catherine under the title “A Man Called Peter.” The book eventually was turned into a popular film under the same title.

Desiring to draw attention to the threat that war brought to the British people, Marshall held the first Kirkin’ of the Tartan service on April 27, 1941. The sermon title was “The Kirkin of the Tartan” and in it, Marshall spoke about the oppression of the Scots during the days of the Act of Proscription and then drew his congregation’s attention to the global threat of cultural annihilation and genocide posed by the Nazi dictatorship. All funds raised from the service went directly to a mobile kitchen in Scotland.

The Kirkin of the Tartan services continued and are now an annual tradition at the National Cathedral in Washington. However, many Presbyterian Churches around Canada and the United States hold these services as do Scottish, Caledonian and St. Andrew’s Societies around North America – and even Scotland! Kirkin’ services are held year round, but popular dates remain St. Andrew’s Day and Tartan Day (April 6th).

Every Kirkin’ has its own particular characteristics. There is no set liturgy. However, usually, the pipes proceed a procession of banners, each depicting a special tartan. St. George’s has 14 tartan banners, borrowed from Knox Church, Stratford. During the service Scriptures are read in broad Scots and Gaelic. There is a traditional prayer offered to bless the tartans, to acknowledge the contributions of the Scots to our Presbyterian tradition, to celebrate the freedoms we so often take for granted, and to acknowledge the other traditions found in every North American congregation. We honour the places where we all have come from. To be a Canadian usually means to be an immigrant somewhere in our family history. We sing hymns Scottish in origin and we have special Scottish music.

Of course, it would not be a Presbyterian worship service without a time of celebration after the service. So everyone is welcome to the lower hall for some traditional Scottish fare.

Finally, there is a Clergy tartan. The Clergy are the only profession to have been given their own tartan and it is worn often by clergy in the Church of Scotland and by Presbyterians in Canada. So that’s why your minster is in a kilt today!

Thank you Keith for your submission, below you can find links to other pages on the site that relate to this one.


Scottish Tartan


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a pre WW2 origin?
by: Rev Peter Dunstan (Australia)

As the minister of the Church where the Scottish Australia Heritage Council currently holds its annual "Kirking of the Tartan" I was interested is seeking to verify the service origins, so I rang an elderly Glasgow born Presbyterian minister, the Rev James Reid, who assured me that he (now aged 91) remembered "Kirking of the tartan" prayers which had 1746 origins being used in services in the Glasgow area prior to World War 2, However not in the Church of Scotland but in the United Free Church.
This would seem to suggest that when Scottish minister the Rev Peter Marshall introduced the modern service in 1942/3 in Washington USA, he was drawing on a tradition he remembered from his youth and parish ministry in pre-war Scotland, a memory that my colleague the Rev James Reid shares. Proof? No, but evidence, Yes!

Peter Marshall
by: Jon

Peter Marshall was never the Pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of NYC. He was pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC.

History is alive!
by: Anonymous

It is a great thing to see that History is alive! While the world bemoans the loss of values and faith, some Churches are vibrant with wonderful people who revere history and tradition. These brave people also manage to encourage religious faith and stewardship of the world. Bravo Reverend McKee

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