The Kirkin' o' the Tartan
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
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
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.