During the 1991 International Gathering of the Clans in Nova Scotia, Charles MacKay, President of the Clan Mackay Society in Scotland, was invited to present the MacKay tartan. This would be done during the Kirking of the Tartan Ceremony at the morning service in St. Matthews United Church, following the Metro Highland Games, which are traditionally held on the first Saturday of July.
President A. Wayne MacKay, of the Clan MacKay Society of New Scotland, and President Andy MacKay Betts, of the Clan MacKay Society of the United States, were to also present the MacKay tartan. This was a unique moment for Clan MacKay, with three Presidents at this Kirking of the Tartan Ceremony in St. Matthews United Church.
Somewhat perplexed, President Charles MacKay turned to Halifax Clan member, Mrs. Douglas Price. He explained that this ceremony is never done in Scotland, and asked what would be required of him.
Mrs. Price explained The Legend and offered President Charles MacKay a length of Clan MacKay tartan to take to the alter during the ceremony.
This incident was perhaps the first indication to us that we were following a custom that did not arise in Scotland. The Legend, as Scots in Nova Scotia understood it, is said to arise when the wearing of tartan was forbidden following the Battle of Culloden. Any person found wearing tartan could be shot at sight, or exiled to the colonies. But, according to The Legend, the Highlanders devised a plan whereby they hid a small piece of tartan in their clothing. At a special pre-arranged moment during the church service, they would each hold their little bit of tartan cloth and pray a blessing upon it.
Alasdair McKay, a native of Stirling, Scotland, with ancestry in Strathnaver, and for several years a resident of Nova Scotia, asks: "I first set foot in Nova Scotia around 1949 (the European bit located on the Castle Rock in Edinburgh) and have lived pretty well continuously in the North American bit for the last quarter century. I know that the North British Society of Halifax hold this ceremony each year now, but I had never come across it in either Scotland nor in Nova Scotia before all the tourism-promoting `Gathering of the Clans' stuff started up around 1979. Was there really ever a `Kirkin' o' the Tartan' held anywhere in Nova Scotia before about 1979, or maybe even 1983 ??"
Today, `Kirkin' o' the Tartan' ceremonies are held throughout Nova Scotia. They have become an integral part of most Scottish Festivals and Highland Games of which the programme includes the Sabbath day. Instead of the little bits of tartan cloth furtively hidden on one's person, a representative of each clan brings a piece of tartan forth to lay on the church alter at the established time during the service. These tartans are then blessed by the minister or other person designated for the task.
"The Legend" demystified by Tom McRae of Queensland, Australia
Origin of the Kirkin' o' Tartan Ceremony
The Kirkin' o' Tartan Ceremony
Notes re The Kirkin' o' Tartan Ceremony