Sunday, October 2, 2011


The Very Reverend Kevin Martin, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Matthew's in Dallas (Episcopal) being aware of my passion for all things Scottish asked me last Sunday about any “Celtic” service that might be appropriate for The Cathedral. That inquiry prompted this post.

Those that know me understand my enthusiasm for and involvement in the American Scottish Community for many years. Thanks and all credit go to an attentive Mother who always reminded Ned, John and Seabury of our Buxton/ Littlefield/ Seabury/ Gorham/ Armstrong/ Shreve ancestors and our revered Keith Scottish lineage. If anything, it has kept me occupied for lo those many years and was a good segue for my honestly earned anthropology degree. Scottish Highland athletics was a major focus for over thirty years thanks to the mentoring of Ross Morrison, Guy Soule and the Friendship of many more in that select community. I thank all of them for their contributions allowing my life to have meaning beyond my threshold.

My activity in and commitment to the re-raised 78th Fraser’s Highlanders, 2nd Battalion of Foot, America have allowed me to live and interpret history for all those so interested. Great thanks to Colonel Ross Oborne, Colonel J. Ralph Harper, Tex Dallas and my many other Canadian compatriots. God speed, Ross.

There is one other “Scottish” activity that captured my interest and commitment. Aside from the myriad Scottish Festivals and Highland Games held annually in the United States and Canada (even to Australia and New Zealand) there is another significant event that literally captures the spirit and essence of all that is Scottish, “Here and away from Home”. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans and while the ceremony didn’t originate in Scotland – the motivation and spirit surely emanated from the auld sod. I helped coordinate myriad Kirking services in many denominations across the country with the level of enthusiasm in each church equal to the level of influence of their Scottish members. They are legion…

I’ve seen some explanations (some absolutely absurd) that romanticize the so called history of this ceremony. I saw some recently that proclaimed the Kirking as, “commemorating the persecution of Scottish Protestant Christians”, “the remembrance, how the Christian faith was passed on to us through our Scottish ancestors” and “recognizing the authority of God as sovereign over the affairs of Scottish clans.” While some pious Scots and others may want to embrace those statements, they are not accurate.

One of the most embraced and widely accepted legends follows on the 1746 defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scots at Culloden (Drummossie Moor) by the English and a lot of other not so enamored Scots. This was the last pitched battle fought on British soil and occurred near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. Following that defeat and the flight of Charlie across the sea to France the Hanoverian English fully intended to weaken, indeed eliminate, the Gaelic culture, disembowel the Scottish clan system and remove once and for all this thorn in their side. What better way to accomplish that task by banning the iconic trappings of that culture. The English proscribed (banned) the wearing of the tartan (“Scottish war dress”) and the playing of the pipes (“instruments of war”) and the bearing of arms among other liberties. It has been related that Scots anxious to embrace and hold sacred their sense of intimate kinship with their homeland would secret small swatches of their tartans into church (kirk) services to be blessed and re-consecrated in anticipation of their ultimate release from bondage.

Whether the Kirking of the Tartans ceremony really ever took place/originated in Scotland remains hotly debated even among history and church scholars. There is some evidence that while it could have happened, there was absolutely no formal protocol, ceremony nor a specific Sunday or day (including St. Andrews, etc.) in the year when this occurred. Rather, this could have been a spontaneous expression of the Scots allegiance to Family, Clan and Country.

Somewhere between a, “silly bit o' Brigadoonery” and this speculation lies the truth. Had I been alive then and identified myself and my Clan/Family with a specific tartan, then I would have probably done it just out of spite and plain defiance. I know many native, highly educated Scots including a baker’s dozen of Scottish Chiefs who never heard of the ceremony until they came across the pond to the US or Canada. Could it have happened and then been lost in the mists of time? Perhaps, but in a culture that prides itself on such rich pomp and ceremony – I doubt it. In fact, we think it absolute poppycock. The irony is that much of the widely ballyhooed mythos that has enveloped the rite continues to drive and energize its acceptance and continued celebration. We’ll take it

Now this post isn’t about the history of Tartan, save its integral role in the contemporary Kirking Ceremony. We will relate to that work in progress in a later post. In the meantime we’ll just make a few points about Tartan and move on.

Tartan in Scotland originally was a woolen material woven in a distinctive, specific sett/pattern (warp & weft) that among other entities now has significance to and recognition by specific Families or Clans. The Scots took full advantage of the flora in their geographic areas and soon different patterns and colors innocently presented themselves. So, many tartans were created and evolved simply because each area liked to weave a certain design using local herb or plant dyes. That naïve though utilitarian approach was soon embraced by Clan and Family leaders who ultimately saw it as another way to establish their separate identities. If one knew what plants and flowers grew in a particular region (generally their badges) then you could probably surmise where someone came from by those colors.

The Wikipedia site does a pretty good job of calculating the history and origins of tartan. What we will say now is that some Scottish Family or Clan tartans are probably much older than speculated or validated by history. No doubt the widespread association with a specific Family or Clan is modern though would appear to have history in Scotland dating back as early as the 12th or 13th century CE. We have noted the recent evidence that the use of tartans or tartan like material was used in other parts of the world seemingly by the Celts.

Whatever the intrigue and impetus of the recognition and growth of Scottish tartans, they have become synonymous with Scotland and her Families and Clans.

Now comes along the Reverend Peter Marshall (A Man Called Peter), originally from Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, Scotland. Marshall was called to the ministry, immigrated to the United States, where he studied and eventually settled in as pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. in 1937. Marshall built an incredible influence and was twice appointed U.S. Senate Chaplain, serving from January 4, 1947 until his sudden death just over two years later at 46 years of age.

Marshall was a member of St. Andrews Society of Washington, D.C. and was primarily responsible for starting the Kirkin’ ceremony. During the early years of WWII the very eloquent and always inspired Dr. Marshall preached many sermons on behalf of British War Relief and the Scottish Clans Evacuation Plan. Marshall’s sermon delivered on Sunday, April 27, 1941 is generally credited as the first "Kirking" service though it was not yet called that at the time – more later. Need we say that Peter Marshall became one of America's greatest preachers. His messages still resonate with those of good faith, or not.

Marshall spoke about the oppression of the Scots during the days of the Act of Proscription drawing his congregation’s attention to the global threat of cultural annihilation and genocide posed by the Nazi dictatorship. All funds raised from the service went directly to a mobile kitchen in Scotland.

We need note now that Marshall was no doubt familiar with the term Kirking which had been used for several hundred years (still is) to describe annual church services aka the Kirking of the Council where councilors, officials of a town council along with other dignitaries with great pomp and circumstance are reminded of their responsibilities to the community. The Church blesses these public servants while noting their affirmation to faithfully serve God and their fellow citizens. Some of these services date back to the 1600’s, well after the Reformation reached Scotland. We have also seen Kirking of the Court ceremonies in Edinburgh. Marshall knew these Kirking ceremonies were historic and meaningful events witness the Kirking of the Scottish Parliament which has been held since its rebirth in 1999.

Dr. Marshall's sermons were so popular that requests were made for their publication with the proceeds designated for British War Relief. The term Kirkin’ o’ The Tartans was coined by Dr. Marshall after the fact when asked what to name his sermon of May 2, 1943. This was the sermon that recalled the years after 1746 and the defeat of the Scots at Culloden when the bagpipes and tartan were outlawed by the English who were literally trying to emasculate the Scots by depriving them of their heritage. We believe it was Dr. Marshall, who recounted in that sermon how the Scots would at their worship services, touch tartan swatches secretly at the signal of their pastor thus starting the controversy that continues to this day. Where he got that inspiration, nobody knows, though it certainly served its purpose.

Side Bar: Mary Wood, Peter Marshall's Secretary for many years recounted how Peter Marshall prepared his sermons. Seems his office was on the top floor of a two story annex adjoining the church proper. There was a spiral staircase that led down from his office to Mary's office below. Consistent with the day and time Marshall would draft his sermons by hand, page by page. When Marshall completed a page, he would drop it down the staircase. Mary would retrieve each sheet and type into a finished product. What Peter Marshall could have done with a computer…

The St. Andrew’s Society of Washington D.C. formally participated in these services of unified prayer for the many subjects of the British Isles with special emphasis given to the Citizenry of Scotland. This developed into an annual event at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C formally sponsored by the St. Andrew’s Society. it drew the attention of many including the, then, Bishop of Washington, D.C., The Rt. Rev. Angus Dun, D.D. who after becoming a member of The Society invited them to celebrate the annual ""Kirking" in the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul on Mount St. Alban (Yes, The National Cathedral).

Dr. Marshall died in 1949 and though no Kirking was held that year, it was resurrected in 1950 and has been held ever since.

The St. Andrew's Society of Washington, DC has formally sponsored the Service annually in The National Cathedral since 1954. Good Friend David McKenzie of the St. Andrew’s Society of Washington, D.C. has coordinated that event for many years. I take this opportunity to again thank David for his watchful eye while son Geb attended American University.

The worship service has a traditional content, using much of the Church of Scotland form. Central to its theme is the presentation of various tartans-through flags and the wearing of tartans-for a blessing (Kirkin’). Great Highland bagpipes, Scottish hymns galore and prayers and words that lift the human spirit abound. The Kirkin' is intended to encourage all participants to reflect with thanksgiving on their own Family and cultural heritage, and “to celebrate God's grace poured out for all generations.”

So, yes, the true Kirking ceremony while springing from the soul of a Scot is a uniquely American affectation and has only been held off Scottish soil as it has always been, “A celebration of Scots, away from home." It has been observed by many denominations especially including the Presbyterians along with the Methodists, Catholics and others.

Many Episcopalian and Anglican parishes celebrate the kirkin’ by offering their churches as a home for the service in grateful tribute to the Scottish Episcopalian bishops (Right Rev. Robert Kilgour, Bishop of Aberdeen, and Primus of Scotland; the Right Rev. Arthur Petrie, Bishop of Ross and Moray and the Right Rev. John Skinner, Rector of the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew and Coadjutor Bishop of Aberdeen) who on November 14, 1784 consecrated Samuel Seabury as the first American Episcopalian bishop following London’s refusal to do so. The consecration took place in Bishop Skinner's private chapel in Long Acre, in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland. The bad blood fomented by the successful American Revolution even to the See of Canterbury eventually cooled though the Episcopal Church in the United States essentially evolved independent of the Church of England.

In 1884 the Rev. William Tatlock, D.D., Rector of St. John's Church, Stamford, observing the Centenary of Bishop Seabury’s consecration appropriately validated the reverence held for the Scottish Church, "Wherever the American Episcopal Church shall be mentioned in the world, may this good deed, which the Scottish Church has done for us, be spoken of for a memorial of her!" That great bond of affection and mutual respect exists to this day.

The Kirkin’ service like so many other aspects of our society has evolved from the singular purpose of British War Relief (they don’t need it anymore) to a contemporary extension/continuation of ''The Scottish Experience'' to the extent that those of us with Scottish roots continue to push the envelope and influence of the Scottish Diaspora with the Kirkin’ tradition.

The Rev. Dr. John Mckay, head of the Princeton Theological Seminary, a native Scot and guest at the Kirkin’ at The National Cathedral in 1951, was heard to comment that he would like to export the ''Kirking'' tradition to Scotland because it would renew some lost pride and traditions and with the inclusion of the pipes in the service, ''...might draw people back into the churches where the sermons might not!''

The Right Hon. Sir James Ian Keith, the 12th Earl of Kintore, 2nd Viscount Stonehaven, Chief of the Name of Keith (25 July 1908 – 1 October 1989) and Friend to this writer commenting on the American Highland Games and Kirking experience told me at the 10th annual Stone Mountain Highland Games in 1979, ''You know, you Americans do this so much better than we do or ever did.''

To all our Scottish Ancestors: We remember that we are your children and you and those of your Ilk paved the way and provided the inspiration. We will say your names and invoke your memory until the end of time.

And to answer Dean Kevin’s query… the Scots and Irish community in north Texas would be very pleased and honored to celebrate our common heritage within the hallowed walls of St. Matthews Cathedral.


Ned Buxton, FSA Scot

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