Kirkin of the Tartans

The Kirkin of the Tartan Tradition

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.

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 National Cathedral, a fitting tribute to Dr. Marshall.

Today, many Scottish, Caledonian and St. Andrew’s Societies across the United States and Canada hold Kirkin’ of the Tartans; while 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.

During the 1660’s and 1670’s, Scottish Presbyterians held secret outdoor meetings, known as conventicles, due to persecution by the government. The Covenanters posted armed look-outs at these conventicles to worn of approaching government forces coming to break-up the meeting and arrest the participants. Persons who attended the illegal gatherings, instead of services held by the State Church, in this case, Episcopalian, could be fine, jailed, tortured and in some cases, executed. In June, 1679, John Graham of Claverhouse, i.e. “Bonnie Dundee” or “Bluidy Clavers”, surprised a group of Covenanters at a conventicle near Drumclog. The Covenanters outnumbered Claverhouse’s dragoons, who were routed. Reportedly, The Rev. Thomas Douglas ended his sermon at the conventicle with these words, “Ye have got the theory, now for the practice!”

Many followers of the Covenanter leader Richard Cameron would later join a regiment being raised by the Earl of Angus, which would become known as The Cameronians, in 1689. It was the only regiment of the British Army with a “religious” reason for its raising, and the Cameronians became known for their pious attitude off the battlefield, as well as their courage on it.

The Cameronian Regiment remembered the days of the “Killing Time” by going to Church parade armed, and posting sentries on the four corners of the Church. The minister could not begin his sermon until an officer shouted “All Clear!” a reminder of the days when armed pickets watched for “Bluidy Clavers” dragoons.

Given Marshall’s Presbyterian background, and the fact that he came from Southwestern Scotland, the home to many Covenanters, one could argue that the Cameronian conventicles provided more of an inspiration for the origins of the Kirkin’ service than the Jacobite Rebellion and the Act of Proscription.

While each Kirkin’ service has its own particular characteristics, The Capitol Scot web site gives a very “typical” order of worship for a Kirkin’ that was held at the Virginia Highland Games in July, 2005:

Procession to Pipes
Hymn, God of Grace and Glory – All
Opening Prayer – Chaplain
Reading, Proverbs 3:1-6 – Designated Reader #1
Hymn Response, My Shepherd Will Supply – All
Epistle, 2 Timothy 3:14-17 – Designated Reader #2
Hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every blessing – All
Gospel, Matthew 9:9-13 – Chaplain
Message – Chaplain
Prayers – Chaplain
The Lord’s Prayer – All
Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans – Clan representatives carry lengths (or flags) of tartans forward to the altar rail and the Chaplain says a few words about the Scottish heritage and gives a blessing.
Necrology (deceased by organization/clan since the last such event) – Chaplain
Flowers of the Forest – Piper
Blessing – Chaplain
Hymn, O God Our Help in Ages past – All
Dismissal by Chaplain and Recession to pipes

So, while not necessarily an ancient Scottish ceremony per se, the Kirkin’, as a Scottish-American ceremony, celebrates not only the family heritage of the descendants of Scottish immigrants to the United States and Canada, but also the friendship of our three nations in peace and war.



Donaldson, Emily Ann. The Scottish Highland Games in America. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1986, 1998. 

Farwell, Byron. Mr. Kipling’s Army. New York: Norton, c1981. 

Henderson, Diana M. The Scottish Regiments. Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1993, 1996. 

Ray, Celeste. Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 

Turnbull, Michael T.R.B. Saint Andrew: Scotland’s Myth and Identity. Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1997. 

Web sites (St. Andrew’s Society of Washington, D.C.) (New York Avenue Presbyterian Church) (Montreat, North Carolina Scottish Society) (brief biography of Dr. Peter Marshall) (“The Consecration of the Cloth”) (Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association) (The Cameronians)