Kilts aren’t standard Sunday dress at First Presbyterian Church, but for the Scottish ancestors of many of the Rock Hill church’s worshipers, they would have been.
To honor those ancestors, and the times when their religion and heritage were once under threat, First Presbyterian held its first-ever Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans ceremony as part of its “Scottish Heritage Sunday” service.
Members of the church – some Scottish, some not – waved the traditional tartans of the Scottish clans as parishioners filed into the church Sunday morning, accompanied by the strains of bagpipe music. Worshipers then carried the tartans through the sanctuary, led by members carrying the American and Scottish flags and a traditional “beadle” holding the Scriptures.
Sunday’s service was the idea of the Rev. Larry Duncan, First Presbyterian’s interim pastor. He’s held a Kirkin’ ceremony at every church he’s pastored, and wanted to host one in Rock Hill before he leaves the church later this month.
The tartan ceremony bolsters the ties the Presbyterian church and many of its members have to Scotland. Many Presbyterians in the U.S. descended from Scottish or Scots-Irish settlers, and many American churches to this day often maintain close ties to the Church of Scotland. “Kirk” is the old Scots word for “church.”
“At one time, the Scots weren’t allowed to wear the tartan at all,” Duncan said. “So what they would do is come into the church with a piece of the tartan under their clothes, and when the English were not around, the minister would ask them to hold up their tartan, and he would bless them and the clans represented by those tartans.”
The old ceremony was revived in the United States by the Rev. Peter Marshall. A pastor at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and a one-time chaplain to the U.S. Senate, Marshall began Kirkin’ his own tartans to increase his Scottish-American congregants’ sense of connection to Britain during World War II.
Besides the presence of the tartans, Duncan tried to make Sunday’s service as Scottish as possible. Wearing his own clan’s colors as a shawl, he based parts of the service on the Scottish Book of Order, and peppered the program with references to the Scottish Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. He also asked worshipers to hold high the tartans and bless the families present, even if they aren’t Scots.
Other elements of the ceremony seemed Scottish. Lifelong church member Joe Hardy led the procession while playing the bagpipes.
“I’ve been playing since I was a teenager, for about 45 years,” he said. “It was a family thing. My dad always wanted me to play.”
Even without a Kirkin’ ceremony, Hardy has had a chance to play his pipes for the church before. His grandfather came from Scotland, and he wore the Hardy family tartan in the procession. So did S.E. Murdoch, who acted as the beadle for Sunday’s service, a role he was not familiar with before this week.
“This is Joe’s kilt,” he admitted. “I was just the closest one in size.”
In Scotland, the beadle was tasked with unlocking the doors of the church for the service and carrying in the Bible, which in the days before the printing press, may have been the community’s only copy.
“In Scotland, the word of God was rare, so the beadle had to take the Bible home with him and keep it safe,” Duncan said.
This Sunday’s beadle believes the ceremony will do a lot to keep church members in touch with their history, even if its customs – and dress code – seem distant from today’s.
“The Murdochs are Scottish,” he said, “so I think the Kirkin’ will be a good experience for the church.”
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