Kirkin o' the Tartans: Truth or Tale?

Posted on 25th May 2017 Categories: News

It’s amazing what you can find out from a simple Google search. Who’s heard of the custom ‘Kirkin o’ the Tartans’? I hadn’t until this morning and I’m now fascinated by this old tradition.

This custom is said to date back to the days after the battle of Culloden when the Duke of Cumberland suppressed the Scottish Highlanders. The 1746 Act of Proscription soon followed which forbade members of Scottish Clans to wear their tartans and play the bagpipes. Scotland without kilts and music – it’s unthinkable! The law remained in force for 36 years, effectively destroying a generation of Highlanders traditions.

During this period, Clans apparently hid their tartans at home or wore a small piece of it hidden on their person to remember their heritage. According to the legend, Highlanders took the pieces to church to be secretly blessed at a particular point in the service. There’s a big question mark surrounding this custom as there’s no proof it actually happened. Truth or tale? I can’t decide.

Unfortunately, kilts were never part of everyday wear in Scotland (a situation also impacted by the Highland Clearances at the beginning of the 18th century) until a renaissance in Highland culture started in the Victorian era. To commemorate this painful period in history, the Rev Peter Marshall (originally from Coatbridge, Scotland) who was pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. and the first chaplain to the US Senate, gave a sermon entitled ‘Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans’ – and thus a legend was born!

To this day, ceremonies are held year-round in the US and Canada predominantly. St Andrew’s Day and Tartan Day tend to be very popular dates. A piper will often play ‘Amazing Grace’, the pastor gives a short sermon recalling the events of Culloden and the Highland Clearances and those gathered remember their ancestors before a rousing rendition of ‘Scotland the Brave’.

So, it would appear that this custom is all-American, with a Scottish twist. It underlines the strong bond between the US and Scotland and although it’s a lovely symbol of remembrance for all those who faced such hardship throughout the exile, I can’t help but hope this custom started here in Scotland. It’s a rather romantic tale but it shows a great strength of character and an unrivalled passion for heritage.

Let’s be thankful we now live in a time where we can express our culture, views and thoughts without retribution.