Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan ~ Sunday, June 7 at 10 AM

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KirkincroppedwebHistory of Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan

The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan is basically North American as far as the tradition goes; yet its origins are deeply rooted in the history of the people of Scotland. In the year 563 AD, St. Columba discovered the tiny isle of Iona in Scotland and succeeded in converting the previously pagan Picts to Christianity. The resulting Church (Scottish: “kirk”) soon became a primal piece in the fabric of day-to-day Scottish life for centuries since.

Tartans, too, have long played a major role in Scotland’s history and culture. In the beginning, the various tartans of the Clansmen represented the people of certain districts in the Highlands; in later years, however, the tartans came to stand for all Scottish Clans, including their septs and families—regardless of whatever name they bore. More than a sign of Scottish identity, the tartan often stood as a symbol of the hard labor and diligence of the Scots, as the original dyes which were used to color the wool were usually made from the vegetables grown in each family’s garden, and the fabric from the wool of the sheep that they raised. Hence, just as Christianity and the Kirk were interwoven into the family lives and traditions of the Scots, their life and work were depicted in the composition of the tartan. How fitting, then, that the idea might come to pass that the tartan, a symbol of Scottish labor and family history, should be brought to the Kirk to be dedicated to the Lord’s service.

Over the years, Clansmen and their families began to observe an annual Sunday Tartan Service, during which would be worn the Sunday or dress kilt, a finer-quality woolen kilt with more white wool than that of the average everyday kilt. At this service, Clansfolk would rededicate themselves to their Heavenly Father and praise the Lord in eternal gratitude for having watched over them during the year just past.

By the 1700s, however, the British Empire was actively and forcibly suppressing all signs of Scottish nationalism. With the Proscription Act of 1746, wearing or even displaying the tartan had become illegal, as was the playing of the bagpipes and singing of Highland songs. As a result, the Rededication Service obviously could not be held. The Scotsfolk nevertheless remained determined to hold fast to their ancient identities and customs, and soon a sort of “underground” kirkin’ o’ the tartans was held. The Clansfolk would usually walk to their nearest Kirk in an orderly fashion, sometimes carrying upon their person swatches of the material, appropriately concealed, to be ‘kirked’. Then, at a time and pre-arranged signal known only to both clergy and parishioners, the Clansmen and Clanswomen would raise their tartan pieces, while the presiding minister blessed the cloth in fluent Scottish Gaelic.

In the mid-20th century, the kirkin’ o’ the tartan was brought to America. In 1941, Dr. Peter Marshall—himself a native Scotsman, from Glasgow—presided over the first Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans ceremony ever on American soil. It took place on April 27th in Washington, D.C., at what was then known as the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. As a result of his pioneering efforts as Presiding Minister for this first U.S. Kirkin’, Dr. Marshall was named the very first Chaplain of the United States Senate. Since 1954, the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans has been held at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral; with its sermon being delivered by the Presiding, or Senior Minister of the Washington, D.C. Catholic Archdiocese; or by a special guest speaker, primarily one of Scottish and/or Scottish-American background. There are similar Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans services held in cathedrals and churches across all 50 States, as well as throughout Canada. At the heart of every Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans service is the Presentation of the Tartans of the Clan, a constant symbol of the rededication of Scotsfolk everywhere to the service of our Heavenly Father. Here at Christ Church Cranbrook, the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans ceremony is intended to give thanks for the godly heritage of not just the Clans of Scotland, but of all the ‘Clans’ of the world.

- John Repulski


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