‘Kirking of the Tartan’, 1997
Hobart, Tasmania


In the Celtic calendar the months May to July is called the season of Beltane.
Beltane celebrates the coming of summer’s warmth
and the return to outdoor gatherings and celebrations.

The bright half of the year...
the summer season when over-wintered animals
could be driven out into wider pasturing,
and when scattered households would meet together and travel forth.

There is pleasure, plenty and pastimes to be enjoyed.
It is a time of love and adventure,
inspired by the fledging birds which leave the nest at this time 
to find their own territory.

During this season, the growing cycle enters its mature stage
when the trees are in full leaf
and the many-coloured flowers are fully illuminated
by strong sunlight.

On Beltane Eve, fire was kindled afresh.
Two separate bonfires were made
and all people and domestic animals were driven between them,
to purge all life of winter diseases and any misfortunes
associated with the dark half of the year.

Brands kindled at the Beltane fires were taken to each house
to rekindle all household lights and fires.
These had been previously extinguished
in preparation for the coming of the new light.

The festival of Beltane 
encouraged people to fully engage in the projects and plans
which we have waited a long winter to fulfil.

And of all the Celtic festivals, I am assured Beltane - or May Day - 
is still the most enthusiastically celebrated 
throughout Britain and Ireland.


Celtic Christianity is an enormously vital and creative force.
It is full of transforming energy.

And it has great potential to unclog
the hardened arteries of our other-worldly ways of worshipping God,
and to release simpler, deeper and more meaningful
wells of prayer and praise
which have for too long been blocked up.

And how was this Christian thought and practise expressed?
It relates God to every part of life;
it rekindles a vivid awareness of God’s presence;
it restores rhythm;
it respects all of creation;
it includes the mundane within the sacred;
it invites us to worship ‘with the five-stringed harp’, that is, with all five senses.

And it has been continually shaped and nurtured and passed on
for more than 1 500 years.

At present there is an extraordinary revival of interest in things ‘Celtic’.

And while saints can be very much a part of ordinary life -
saints such as St Andrew, St George, St Margaret and others -
specific Celtic saints also abound:
St Aidan,
St Hilda,
St Brendan,
and as some would also claim, St Robbie (Burns).

Perhaps the most easily recognised as Celtic saints are:
St Patrick, the primary patron of Ireland,
St David, the primary saint of Wales, and
St Columba, the warrior, poet, song writer, abbot of Iona - 
and evangelist to Scotland and much of the British Isles.

For those of you who are interested tomorrow - June 9 - is St Columba Day.
So maybe Ron and Rebbeca, the organisers of this Celtic Winterfest,
really did have more going for them
than just an Australian long weekend!


Today we celebrate an event called ‘Kirking of the tartans’.
While it is a celebration which has a questionable religious heritage,
it does have a significance in political history.

Following the Jacobite rebellions in Scotland of 1715 and 1745,
the wearing of the tartan was outlawed by the Disarming Act of 1746.

It not only banned the carrying of arms, but made it an offence 
“to put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes”.

The punishment for anyone convicted on the evidence of
“one or more credible witness or witnesses”
was six months in jail for the first offence,
and transportation for seven years for the second.

During those 35 years the skills of dyeing and weaving the intricate tartan,
if not wholly forgotten, had ceased to be a way of life.

And the clan system itself,
and the clan spirit on which it largely depended, had foundered.
Land was forfeited,
and the rights of chiefs over their clans people were abolished.

That which shaped Highland society was altered for ever.

The Act against Highland dress was repealed 35 years later - on 30 June 1782.
Since then, 1 July has been special for Highland people.

Now it is celebrated as World Tartans Day,
and is symbolised in the event we have celebrated today.

People remember the human rights abuses of those 35 years
and ‘bring out the tartan’, and once again
seek a blessing on the people of the tartan...

For they have survived.


We don’t have to go back too far in time to tell other stories
of human rights abuses, and of people who have survived...
The Palestinians.
South Africa.
The stolen children of the Australian Aborigines.

Or the remembrance this past week of the eighth anniversary of Tinimein Square.

Perhaps we all need to rediscover
some of the traditions of both the young carpenter from Nazareth
and the Celtic spirit.

Both advocated a tradition of ‘hospitality’.

For Jesus of Nazareth hospitality and kinship 
went beyond class or race or religious group. 
For the Celt it was considered to be a primary virtue.

Whoever ate bread at a Celt table was as a kinsman, their life inviolate.
To receive a guest was a sacred trust.

And whoever ate bread at your table - both fresh or stale -
would be blessed... and in turn, so too would you.

If such a sense of hospitality was to again become a virtue today:
• then may be we wouldn’t have the racist comments
of some politicians making headline news...
• and may be we wouldn’t have the idol of greed
which religiously permeates so much of our culture...


The Celtic spirit was holistic.  It was able to weave together the sacred and the secular.
On this day when we ‘kirk the tartans’,
this weaving is best summed up in the Scots Grace,
traditionally said on 25 January, Burns Night:
Some hae meat that canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

And is concluded by:
O Lord, since we hae feasted thus,
Whilk we sae little merit,
Let Meg noo tak awa the flesh,
And Jock bring in the spirit.