As a common noun, kirk (meaning 'church') is found in Scots, Scottish English and some English dialects,1 attested as a noun from the 14th century onwards, but as an element in placenames much earlier. Both words, kirk and church, derive from the Koine Greek κυριακόν (δωμα) (kyriakon (dōma)) meaning Lord's (house), which was borrowed into the Germanic languages in late antiquity, possibly in the course of the Gothic missions. (Only a connection with the idiosyncrasies of Gothic explains how a Greek neuter noun became a Germanic feminine.) Whereas church displays Old English palatalisation, kirk is a loanword from Old Norse and thus has the original mainland Germanic consonants. Compare cognates: Icelandic & Faroese kirkja; Swedish kyrka; Norwegian (Nynorsk) kyrkje; Norwegian (Bokmål) & Danish kirke; German Kirche; Dutch kerk; West Frisian tsjerke; and borrowed into non-Germanic languages: Estonian kirik and Finnish kirkko.
As a proper noun, The Kirk is an informal name for the Church of Scotland, the country's national church. The Kirk of Scotland was in official use as the name of the Church of Scotland until the 17th century, and still today the term is frequently used in the press and everyday speech, though seldom in the Church's own literature. However, Kirk Session is still the standard term in church law for the court of elders in the local congregation, both in the Church of Scotland and in any of the other Scottish Presbyterian denominations.
Even more commonly, The Free Kirk is heard as an informal name for the Free Church of Scotland, the remnant of an evangelical presbyterian church formed in 1843 when its founders withdrew from the Church of Scotland. See:
High Kirk is the term sometimes used to describe a congregation of the Church of Scotland which uses a building which was a cathedral prior to the Reformation. As the Church of Scotland is not governed by bishops, it has no cathedrals in the episcopal sense of the word. In more recent times, the traditional names have been revived, so that in many cases both forms can be heard: Glasgow Cathedral, as well as the High Kirk of Glasgow, and St. Giles' Cathedral, as well as the High Kirk of Edinburgh.
The term High Kirk should, however, be used with some caution. Several towns have a congregation known as the High Kirk which were never pre-Reformation cathedrals. Examples include:
- Dundee, where the High Kirk is not the historic Dundee Parish Church known as St Mary's;
- Paisley where there were former congregations and parishes surrounding three churches: the High Kirk (now formally Oakshaw Trinity Church, but still retaining the High Kirk name), the Middle Kirk and the Laigh Kirk, the Middle Kirk no longer existing as a religious institution and none of the three names referred to Paisley's historic Abbey;2
- Stevenston High Kirk in Ayrshire.
The verb to kirk, meaning 'to present in church', was probably first used for the annual church services of some Scottish town councils, known as the Kirking of the Council. Since the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1999, the Kirking of the Parliament has become a fixed ceremony at the beginning of a session.3 Historically a newly married couple would attend public worship as man and wife for the first time at their Kirking. In Nova Scotia, Kirking of the Tartan ceremonies have become an integral part of most Scottish Festivals and Highland Games.4
Like words meaning "church" in other languages, kirk is found as an element in many placenames in Scotland and England, and in countries with large British expatriate communities.5 Examples include Falkirk, Kirkwall or numerous Kirkhills in Scotland, and Kirkstall, Ormskirk, Kirkby, Kirklees, and so forth in England, and Newkirk, Oklahoma in the United States. What may be slightly surprising is that this element is found not only in place names of Anglo-Saxon origin, but also in some Southern Scottish names of Gaelic origin such as Kirkcudbright (where the second element is the Gaelic form of the English name Cuthbert). Here, the Gaelic element cil- (church, monk's cell) might be expected. The reason appears to be that kirk was borrowed into Galwegian Gaelic, though it was never part of standard Scottish Gaelic.
When the element appears in placenames in the former British empire, a distinction can be made between those where the element is productive (the place is named because of the presence of a church) and those where it is merely transferred (the place is named after a place in Britain). Kirkland, Washington is an exception, being named after English settler Peter Kirk.
The element kirk is also used in anglicisations of continental European place names originally formed from one of the continental Germanic cognates. Thus Dunkirk (French Flanders) is a rendering of an original standard Dutch form, Duinkerke (Dutch dialect of West Flemish Duunkerke).
Kirk is also in use as both a surname and a male forename. For lists of these, see Kirkby surname and Kirk (surname) and Kirk (given name). Parallels in other languages are far rarer than with placenames, but English Church can also be a surname.
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- Millar, Robert McColl (2007). Northern and Insular Scots. Edinburgh University Press. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-7486-2317-4.
"There is a considerable amount of Scandinavian lexis in all Scots dialects. Because it is a secondary contact dialect in relation to the large-scale Scandinavian settlement in northern England in the early Middle Ages (Samuels 1989), a large part of this lexical material - words which appear typically 'Scots', such as brigg, 'bridge', and kirk, 'church' - is shared with the dialects of northern England, however."
- David Dorward, Scotland's Place-names, 1995, p.82f. ISBN 1-873644-50-7