[Provincial Tartan of New Scotland (Nova Scotia)] Tartan of New Scotland (Nova Scotia); Click to enlarge [jpeg:10K]

Kirkin' o' the Tartan Legend Demystified

On a Sunday close to St Andrew's Day this ceremony is practised in at least Sydney and Brisbane, Australia. Organised by the local Clans Congress, it involves clan leaders marching into some Presbyterian or Uniting Church in strict order of precedence. (I neither know, nor care who follows who). They are led in by someone carrying a saltire flag, alongside another with the Australian flag. Clan tartans are worn and so-called clan banners are carried in the procession. The highlight of the ceremony is when wee bits of tartan are brought out and prayed over or blessed.

If people enjoy themselves marching up and down like this I've no objection. What concerns me is the mythos developed around the rite. It all started, so the story goes, when the tartan was banned after the fall of Bonnie Prince Charlie. To cherish its memory parishioners, took wee bits of the stuff to kirk every sabbath to have it blessed. The ceremony has persisted up until today.

Nice tale, but garbage!

First off, Charlie's army consisted largely of Roman Catholics and Scottish Episcopaleans. Had they won, the Kirk would probably have been oppressed yet again. Presbyterians of the time had no truck with the Jacobites, they'd suffered too much already at the hands of Stewart kings.

Second point. Blessing of bits of cloth, or anything else inanimate, was anathema to all good Calvinists. Any kirk goers practising such rites would have been severely dealt with.

Thirdly. No native born Scot I've discussed the matter with recalls such a ceremony in Scotland. Any group stupid enough to act out such a pantomime would have been laughed out of the church.

Fourth I've searched historical records but could find no mention of the ceremony. In desperation I consulted the encyclopaedic "Dictionary of the Scottish Language." There are dozens of entries on tartan and on kirk and kirking; not one makes mention of this rite. I then went to a dictionary of the older Scottish tongue, once again no records.

Finally. If this is true where are all those wee bits of tartan? Surely they' have become cherished family heirlooms. After the banning the tartan sticks used to mark out traditional weaves were destroyed, we don't know what pre '45 tartans looked like, apart from a few paintings. Those we use today are post 1780. Relics of the early tartans would be invaluable to Scottish history so where have they all gone to?

I wrote the whole thing up in the newsletter of our Scottish radio programme group here in Brisbane. In my article I promised that if anyone could give me proof of this ceremony's antiquity I would gladly recant. Six months later the sole response was a letter from the Secretary of our local Clans Congress complaining bitterly at my unfair attack. I answered his letter gently pointing out the questionable origins of the Kirking but never received reply.

My main objection is the ridiculous light in which this sort of Brigadoonery puts real Scots culture. Best example of this was some years back in Sydney, Australia. After the Kirking ceremony, all the clan leaders and their retinues marched from the kirk to New South Wales' Upper House of Parliament. In they marched, banners awave, up to the bar of the House. Members were discussing some legislation and totally ignored them, after standing like gallahs for 10 minutes or so all they could do was about turn and march out again.

I seem to have traced the origins of the thing to New York State, U.S.A. where a Presbyterian minister invented it as a war bond scheme. Any information from The United States, Canada, etc would be appreciated. Best of all can any Scots tell me I'm wrong and that the ceremony is a genuine hand me down from the days of The '45?

- Tom McRae, a native of Edinburgh now living in Brisbane, Australia

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