"I sing the plaid and sing with all my skill
Mount then, o fancy, standard to my will;
Be strong each thought, run soft each happy line."
-excerpt of the poem "Tartans, Or the Plaid" by Allan Ramsay 1780
Muriel Pearson grew up curious about her Scottish roots.
Cut her and she would bleed McPherson plaid, she'll tell you.
"As a little girl, I wore the tartans my mother made me. It's in my blood," she said. "I always felt so special when I wore that because I felt it was a connection to my family and ancestors."
And for the last 22 years, Pearson has been sharing her passion for the tartan as the processional coordinator and tartan maker for the yearly Kirkin O' The Tartan service at First Presbyterian Church at 11 a.m. Sunday (Oct. 28) on the corner of Third and Orange streets.
The service attracts about 500 people each year, close to the attendance of an Easter or Christmas service, she said.
The tartan is a heavy plaid fabric used to identify Scottish families and clans. Pearson said ancient Scots wore a fabric that was six feet wide and 20 feet long. A man or woman would spread the cloth out on the ground, wrap it around themselves and pin it over their shoulder with a brooch or stick and wear a belt around their middle.
It's closely linked to the roots of Presbyterianism in the Scottish Reformation. Kirkin services began in the U.S. though, in the early 1940s. Kirk is the Scottish word for church so to "kirk the tartans" is to bless them, and by extension, their families.
Her family's McPherson tartan is red with green stripes and thin yellow and white lines.
"I am really into geneaology and I've done a lot of family research," she said. The Kirkin "is just a part of my every day conversation and wanting everyone to be involved. And wanting our young people to have a connection to their heritage."
When the service first started, Pearson would invite the women of the church to First Presbyterian's ladies parlor to help them research their family's Scottish history. She matched surnames to tartan patterns and helped sew many tartan flags, kilts and skirts for the families each year. Over the years, she's amassed about 200 tartan reference books.
"I always say if you want to wear a tartan, I can find you one. . .Us diehards will do most anything to move a tartan around," Pearson said with a chuckle.
During the processional this year, more than 50 families will carry banners down the center aisle as bagpipers play. Pearson has coordinated up to 90 families with banners.
In fact, in the weeks leading up to the Kirkin,' she is a one-woman whirlwind, balancing her work as services manager for the Wilmington Convention and Visitor's Bureau with ordering tartan cloths and sewing banners into the wee hours. And there's usually at least one cloth that comes in on Saturday to be ready by Sunday morning.
As families line up to carry their tartan banners into the church on 8-foot poles, Pearson counsels them to: "walk with dignity so you're very proud, and you're representing the family surname. I know sometimes I sound like a first grade teacher!"
Pearson has become the church's tartan historian as well, updating a list of all of the church's Scottish families, their tartans and any new tartans that are added each year. This year's Kirkin will see eight new tartan banners.
And believe it or not, there are tartan wearing dos and don'ts.
Don't wear more than one tartan design at a time.
Do wear your tartan sash over your right shoulder unless you are a drum major, Highland dancer or the chief of the clan.
When asked if she thinks of herself as the church's tartan fashionista, Pearson pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and sighed: "I feel like Ralph Lauren should hire me!"