by Todd Wilkinson
While the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan service celebrates Scotland and Scottish heritage, it is a truly a Scottish-American custom. If one searches the Internet for information, stories abound of the Kirkin’s roots being in days of the Act of Proscription, when the wearing of the kilt was banned in the Highlands – according to the legend, Highlanders hid pieces of tartan and brought them to church to be secretly blessed at a particular point in the service. Ask any Scot or Scottish expatriate about the Kirkin’, and chances are you will be met with a questioning look and an admission of ignorance of this supposedly centuries-old Scottish tradition.
In his famous collection of Highland folklore, prayers, charms and omens, the Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael does list a prayer for the “Consecration of the Cloth”, but no mention is made of it originating from the days following the ’45 or being associated with outlawed tartan. Whilst making for a rather romantic legend, there seems to be no credible source for such a tale. The real history of the Kirkin’ service is “All American”, with a Scottish “twist”.
The Rev. Peter Marshall, originally from Coatbridge, Scotland, was the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC, and served as Chaplain of the United States Senate before his untimely death in 1949. In 1955, Richard Todd played Dr. Marshall in the movie, “A Man Called Peter”.
Rev. Marshall is believed to be the originator of the Kirkin o’ the Tartan service. During the Second World War, Rev. Marshall held prayer services at New York Avenue to raise funds for British war relief. At one of the services on April 27, 1941 (although a May 1943 date is sometimes mentioned) Rev. Marshall gave a sermon entitled “the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans” -and thus a legend was born. According to an article on the Montreat (North Carolina) Scottish society’s web site, a service leaflet from the church mentioned that the funds raised from the kirkin’ would go towards a mobile kitchen.
Mr. David Pickens, President of the Clan Cunningham Society USA, confirms this theory of the Kirkin’s origin; Mr. Pickens’ aunt was a choir director under Rev. Marshall, and attended Agnes Scott College with his wife, Catherine Marshall. If that wasn’t enough, his parents were married by Rev. Marshall in 1942 before his father shipped out for Europe, according to an article on the Lordship & Barony of Kilmarnock’s web site.
Rev. Marshall was very proud of his home and was a member of the St. Andrew’s Society of Washington DC, who assisted Dr. Marhsall with the first Kirkin’ services. In 1954, the Kirkin’ was moved to National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington — Today, the Washington Kirkin’ service is held at the N
ational Cathedral, a fitting tribute to Dr. Marshall. In addition, many Scottish, Caledonian and St. Andrew’s Societies across the United States and Canada hold Kirkin’ of the Tartans. Whilst the majority seem to be in Presbyterian Churches, one may also find them in Episcopalian, Methodist, Roman Catholic and other denominations; in Fall, 2005, Holy Assumption Orthodox Church in Canton, Ohio, held a Kirkin’, which is believed to be the first held in an Orthodox Church.
Kirkin’s are held year-round, but St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th) and Tartan Day (April 6th ) tend to be very popular dates – Kirkin’s are also sometimes held at Scottish Games and Gatherings in an outdoor setting, ironically reminiscent of the secret outdoor services (conventicles) of the Covenanters in Lowland Scotland.