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The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans

SUNDAY, NOV 6 | 10:00 AM


The ceremony of Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan is of American origin, though based on Scottish history and legend. After Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scottish forces were defeated by the English at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Scotland once again came under British rule. To control the Scots, an Act was passed that forbade the carrying of arms and the wearing of kilts or tartan which represented Scottish heritage. Orders were given for British troops to kill any person dressed in or displaying the tartan.

As the Legend Goes…

This Act prompted the stubborn Scots to carry with them secretly a piece of their tartan as they went to the Kirk. The minister then slipped a blessing (a Kirkin’) into the service for the tartans. The prohibition against tartans lasted for nearly 50 years. When at last repealed, the Church of Scotland celebrated with a Service of Family Covenant, at which time the tartan of each family was offered as a covenant expression for the Lord’s blessing.

The First Kirkin’…

The Saint Andrew’s Society of Washington, DC held the first Kirkin’ during the early years of World War II. The late Dr. Peter Marshall, an eloquent Scot, then Chaplain of the US Senate as well as a Presbyterian pastor and graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, led the service in 1943, choosing “Kirkin O’ the Tartan” for the title of his sermon. He had preached many sermons in support of the British War Relief and the Scottish Clans Evacuation Plan. His sermons were so popular that a request was made for their publication, with the proceeds designated for war relief programs. As the war continued, the DC St. Andrew’s Society continued to hold prayer services for the British subjects. These became known as Kirkin’s.

The Service…

The worship service is of traditional content, using much of the Church of Scotland form. Central to its theme is the presentation of various tartans—through flags and the wearing of tartans—for a blessing. Clans were simply a gathering of peoples for their protection and for economic, political, and social support. Clansmen demonstrated a true brotherhood of man, and the tartan is a symbol of this love and togetherness. The Kirkin is intended to encourage all participants to reflect with thanksgiving on their own family and ethnic heritage, and to celebrate God’s grace poured out for all generations.

KIRK: Scottish for church. The ‘Kirkin O’ the Tartans was intended as a service of rededication to Scottish heritage and historical devotion to God and country.

TARTANS: Perhaps no symbol is more associated with Scotland and Scottish history than the colorful Highland dress. Ancient tartans were described as ’checquered’ or ’striped’ or ’sundrie colored.’ The basic pattern of the tartan is the ’sett.’ For centuries, tartans were part of the everyday attire of the Highland people, and it was there that its use continued and developed to become recognized as a symbol of clan kinship. Tartans are still being developed and registered with the Scottish Tartan Society. A specific tartan exists for those in the ministry.

BEADLE: During the Middle Ages and throughout the Reformation, ownership of a Bible was rare among the common people. Thus, the Bible of a Kirk was a treasured possession. The reverence toward sacred Scripture and the scarcity of Bibles led to the establishment of a special lay office within the Kirk, known as the Beadle. The Beadle, whose primary duty was to guard and protect the Bible, was usually elected by the Session of the Kirk. The beginning of Worship was marked by the reverent carrying of the Bible into the Kirk and its opening for the morning readings. As the Bible was carried by the Beadle into the Kirk, the people stood in respect for the Holy Book. At the conclusion of Worship, the Beadle removed the Bible for safekeeping.

BAGPIPES: Although bagpipes are ancient and derive from several international sources, the instrument is most frequently associated as the national instrument of Scotland. It has been used for centuries in folk and military music. Clans took great pride in their pipers and the reputation of a clan was based in some extent to the abilities of its pipers.

JOHN KNOX: Scottish Reformer who studied under John Calvin (the father of Presbyterianism) in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1550’s. Upon returning to Scotland, he wrote the first Book of Church Order and established the first Presbyterian church. The church spread to Ireland, and it was immigrants from Scotland and Ireland who brought the Presbyterian Church to America.

CELTIC CROSS: The Celtic Cross has long been established with Celtic Christians who trace their origins to the earliest centuries of the Church. Notable examples of this form of the cross are found in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The design focuses attention on the head of the cross (the junction between the shaft and the crosspiece), which is enclosed within a circle. It is this circle, which is the most distinctive and differentiating feature of the Celtic version. Although the significance is not known with certainty, it likely derives from a Constantinian symbol in which the Chi Rho monogram was surrounded by a golden crown. The circle as a representation of infinity is an emblem of eternal life in Christ’s victory over sin and death.

REFORMATION SUNDAY: In 1515-17, the Roman Catholic Church was collecting funds in Germany to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, stating that the benefits of good works could be obtained by donating money to the church. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote 95 theses, protesting this and other church practices, and posted them on the church door in Wittenberg, an event now seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation.

(Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Fred Strang and the Eastminster Presbyterian Church of Indialantic, FL, for permission to use this historic summary.)

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