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The Kirkin’ o’ The Tartan

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, ©2008
First published on-line in the 1990s

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L Gallery and the Lowlands-L History presentations.]


F rankly, although born and raised in Scotland, I knew nothing of this ceremony until its practice in Brisbane, was brought to my attention. This led me to investigate it in detail, find its origins, and recoil in horror at the Brigadoonery and distortions of Scots history that have crept into what should be a wonderful day.

Much of my investigation was via the Internet, in particular a discussion group known as H-ALBION restricted to historians involved in the history of The British Isles, and the Arran- based DALRIADA, devoted to Celtic and particularly Scottish Highland.matters. Not one of the many historians involved in the ALBION discussions claimed the Ceremony had any Scottish connections whatsoever. Many American and Canadian contributors described the origins of the ceremony in 1943 and the manner in which their churches practised it, not one of those churches included the blessing of bits of tartan in their service. All Scots historians stated they’d never heard of the Kirkin’ until I described it and most expressed horror at the things that had crept in as ‘authentic Scottish’.

The Huntin Tartan of the Macrae Clan

The DALRIADA Group on the other hand had contributions from some naive Americans who made the most extravagant claims. For example The Kirkin’ allegedly arose when “THE CLANS” were called by the church bells to assemble to defend Scotland. (Must have been damned loud bells to ring all over The Highlands.) Well into the 18th century the Clans continued as laws unto themselves. While conceding the major contribution Clansmen in the British army made in the wars of the periods the only time a large Highland contingent assembled to fight for Scotland in later years was at King James IV’s ill-fated invasion of Northern England. When they saw how things were going at Flodden they had the sense to go home! With all the feuding among the Clans any such church assembly would have put the average Rangers/Celtic fitbaw match to shame.

Scots involved in the discussion once again confirmed the ceremony was NOT of Scottish origin. Some of the claims made by the Americas showed just how ignorant they were of their ancestors’ history. The best was a lady who claimed The Highland Clearances were started by John Knox! I wrote her personally recommending a few good history texts, she responded by calling me a “bird brain”. As to such texts there is none I know of that mentions The Kirkin’, nor does the multi-volume Dictionary of the Scottish Tongue that has a large section on tartans and all pertaining to them.

So what is the truth? The Chaplain to the U.S. Congress, a Scot named Peter Marshall, preached some really great sermons. At the request of his admirers he began publishing them when WW2 broke out, donating the proceeds to the British War Effort. One such sermon he called “The Kirkin’ of the Tartans” and from this he organised a special service in Washington DC for Scots, those of Scottish ancestry, and those who wished they were and encouraged folks attending to wear their clan tartans. A truly great idea and once again all proceeds went to the British War Effort. So popular was the Service that it quickly spread and representatives of each Clan began marching in with Clan banners. After the church service social events were often held making it a truly great day.

The custom spread to Canada then laterally to Australia and New Zealand but somewhere along the line, I suspect in Canada, it was claimed that the Kirkin’ originated in Scotland after the ’45. The tartan being banned, people slunk bits into the kirks on Sundays to be blessed by the Minister. As a result of this people started bringing bits of tartan to some Kirkin’ ceremonies.


F ace it: Presbyterian ministers then, as now, regard the blessing of inanimate objects as wrong and would certainly have never countenanced such a thing in the 1700s. The flummery associated with this aspect of the Kirkin is therefore not only un-Scottish but also an insult to the memory of Rev Peter Marshall.

I repeat: The Kirkin’ is not, and has never been, practised in Scotland. It is significant that it is in no way included in the huge Gathering of Clan Macrae in Scotland in 2000 although a special church service is part of the Proceedings. I brought the result of my researches to the attention of the Brisbane Clans Congress via our local Scottish Ethnic Radio Station. Initially there was a hostile reaction but in the end they stopped claiming the Ceremony was of ancient Scottish origin and proclaimed it as a Celebration of the Tartan, and so it is!

The Dress Tartan of the Macrae Clan

The excellent Bundanoon Gathering was also marred for a time by similar claims but when presented with my evidence, plus some gathered by their own organisers, they also reverted to a Celebration of the Tartan.

Over the last year I have received quite a lot of electronic mail on this topic, mainly from the U.S.A. and Canada. Many of those writing are Presbyterian clergy who unanimously endorsed my views. As usual any Scot writing agrees with me as do most others apart from a few naive Americans. I was confused by this correspondence, wondering where they found me, until one clergyman recently mentioned that Brittanica-on-Line had listed me as an expert on the subject.

From this info I was able to track it all down to a web site compiled by a friend in Nova Scotia where she’d given material I sent her a special section. I pray the day will soon done when the Brigadoonery associated with The Kirkin’ will succumb to Truth and the Ceremony as Rev Marshall envisaged it will prevail.

Beanach Leat

Tom Mc Rae
Brisbane, Australia

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