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Kirkin o' the Tartan

History of the Service

“Kirk” is the Scottish word for “church.” Tartans, with their distinctive plaid, represent specific Scottish clans. The “Kirkin’ O’ The Tartans” is the presentation of a Scottish family’s symbol, its tartan, at church for blessing.

The western part of North Carolina saw several waves of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants beginning as early as the 1600s. Many who landed in Pennsylvania made their way down the Great Wagon Road and settled here in the late 18th century. Others landed in Charleston, SC, and Old Brunswicktown, NC, and made their way north and west coming up the Pee Dee and Cape Fear Rivers. Of the estimated 28 million folks around the world who claim Scots ancestry, North Carolina has the largest settlement of Scots, and large numbers are still right here today.


We celebrate clans and tartans because the clansmen demonstrated true brotherhood and the clan was the family. In early history, clans were simply a gathering of people for their protection and for economic, political, and social support. They were not necessarily related by blood. Scotland in the mid-18th century saw the English parliament and monarchy (The Disarming Act, 1746 - 1782) banning weapons, as well as the wearing of tartan or kilts by Highland clansmen (effective August 1747). A latter-day legend has it that clansmen would carry small pieces of the banned tartan cloth to the Church (Kirk) and the clergymen would slip a blessing into the service. Specific tartans developed simply because each area liked to weave a certain design using local herb dyes.

As a remembrance of early Scottish Presbyterianism, Kirkin' o' the Tartan worship services have spread across America. On Sunday evening, April 27, 1941, in Washington, D.C., at a special service was led by famed pastor Peter Marshall (1935 - 1949) of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Designed to raise funds, this Kirkin' service sought to aid Scottish churches during the early days of World War II, as well as the British war effort, by providing a mobile kitchen, according to the church bulletin. This initial, simple Kirkin' service later evolved into what is today the Kirkin' o' the Tartan. Since 1954, an annual Kirkin' o' the Tartan has been held at the National Cathedral in the nation's capital.

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