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Skirling bagpipes, thundering drums and the blessing of the tartans at St. Anne's Church

The Baltimore Sun

The sounds of bagpipes and thundering drums rang throughout the streets of Annapolis.

An 11-member band marched with black and silver pipes and drums while playing "Scotland the Brave." The musicians trailed a group of men in kilts carrying the flags of the United States, Maryland and Scotland.

The Scots invaded Annapolis on Sunday in an explosion of plaid - ties, kilts, sashes - in St. Anne's Church on Church Circle.

Nearly all 112 pews were filled with parishioners and visitors to celebrate a Scottish-American tradition - the Kirkin' o' the Tartan, or blessing of the tartans.

"It's a fun service," said the Rev. Richardson A. Libby, who blessed the tartans. "We enjoy celebrating our heritage."

Libby, an adjunct clergyman at the church, wore a black shirt, white clerical collar and a red, blue and green plaid pleated kilt that fell just below his knees. Yellow and black ribbons dangled from the folds of his knee socks.

But Libby wasn't wearing just any old plaid. His kilt represented his family history.

Tartans are fabrics that are woven into a plaid pattern or "sett." The colors and stripes are arranged in a distinct pattern to represent a clan. In old Scotland, weavers used an exact number of threads for each plaid - in a particular order and woven around sticks - to record the sett for the clan tartans. These sticks were passed down throughout the generations.

According to Libby, the blessing of the tartans dates to 1746 when the English banned the Scottish from wearing tartans, so individuals would carry a scrap of their tartans under their clothes. In church, the pastor would give a special signal or code and say a prayer to bless the hidden tartans.

For families that did not attend church regularly, the annual blessing of the tartans was an opportunity to bless the family, said Bill Alcorn, a parishioner who wore a black and red plaid kilt with blue knee socks.

"It is a blessing of the family in its entirety," said Alcorn, who assisted with the service.

Alcorn's kilt was held up by a black belt with a silver buckle in the shape of a thistle, the national emblem of Scotland, he said.

On Sunday, Libby laid a hand over the tartans on a silver platter and offered a prayer to bless the tartans on the platter (and everyone wearing them) and to give thanks to the people of Scotland and Scottish immigrants.

Some parishioners credited the Rev. James F. Madison with starting the tradition at the parish of blessing tartans in 1957. Madison was a member of the St. Andrews Society, a social organization for Scottish men. The first blessing of the tartans in the region was given by Peter Marshall at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington in 1941, Libby said.

While many of the men at the blessing of the tartans wore kilts, several women wore their clan tartans as sashes.

Susan Cullison displayed Scottish pride by wearing her tartan, which represented the Gordon clan, fastened with a round, silver broach-like family crest with a thistle and a purple stone.

Katherine Hilton, an Edgewater resident and parishioner at St. Anne's, used a silver broach to hold her sash together. Her crest depicted two swords and was inscribed with "whether in peace or in war" in Latin. Hilton's family is part of the Gunn clan, she said, which is known for war skills.

"These swords were not for beauty. They were strictly for fighting," she said, referring to the Claymore swords on her broach.

The celebration was supposed to include a procession to the Naval Academy, with stops to place wreaths at the Battle of the Midway Memorial and the crypt of John Paul Jones. But that the portion was canceled because of academy officials' security concerns.

Even though the annual blessing of the tartans brings forth different plaids and families, it also brings about a sense of unity, Libby said.

"The nice thing is there is diversity in unity and unity in diversity," he said. "We all wear different tartans, but we're all Scots. We're all American."

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