Scottish-Americans who participate in the annual church rite known as the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan can thank a Henderson for the ceremony. The ceremony began not in Scotland but in Washington, D.C., during World War II. Thomas S.T. Henderson, a native of Scotland who received the Bronze Star from the U.S. Army for his services with American forces in France and Washington, and who was a member of the St. Andrews Society of Washington, D.C., helped to establish the rite in 1941.
Dr. Peter Marshall, the famed chaplain of the U.S. Senate and the president of the St. Andrews Society of Washington, D.C. introduced the original ceremony. At the time, the ceremony was probably an adaptation of a Scottish observation known as the “Kirkin’ o’ the Council.” Shortly after their election, the members of many, if not all, city and town councils in Scotland attend a civic service at their parish church. During the ceremony, the new council members are collectively recognized and publicly exhorted to perform their duties in accordance with Christian principles.
Record books from the St. Andrews Society of Washington, D.C., show that new officers for the organization always took office in April, followed by the Kirkin’ that month or in May.
Towards the end of a service in the Western Presbyterian Church on April 30, 1950, a friend of Thomas Henderson asked, “But when does the tartan get kirked?” The minister, the Rev. C. Stewart McKenzie, had delivered a fitting sermon and blessing for the ceremony, accompanied by the society’s pipes, but had made no mention of tartan. In fact, up to that time, no such reference, either formally or symbolically, had been made.
So Thomas Henderson suggested to the Chaplain at the time, Dr. Daniel C. Buchanan, that it might be fitting to including an actual presentation of tartans in the form of plaids, with a reference to them as symbols of Scottish values in an accompanying prayer.
With the exception of one, the Kirkin’ has been held at Washington National Cathedral since 1952. The Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., the dean of the cathedral many years ago, is responsible for introducing bagpipes into the ceremony. The exception to the cathedral as the site was in 1953, when the service was held at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, at its old site near Dupont Circle. Directly across from the front door of the church is a statue of Scottish-born John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Michael M.T. Henderson, Thomas Henderson’s son, recalled his experience in the church that day: “It was arranged that the recently inaugurated president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who usually worshipped there, would place a floral wreath on the statue just after arriving for the service. It was my job to carry the wreath, a rectangular St. Andrews Cross almost as tall as I was, in the parade and hand it to the president. The bagpipes, which made such a stirring sound in the Cathedral the year before, were extremely loud in little National Presbyterian, but I suppose Ike bore it stoically as the rest of us.”