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The history of Sgian Dubh – Gaelic Themes

Sgian dubh


Never has one piece of weaponry evoked so many different spellings – some variations are Skene du, Skein dubh, skean dhu, sgian dubh and Skhian dubh. Phonetically it is pronounced scheeeian doo and everyone has a favourite spelling. The most commonly used, however, is Sgian Dubh. The meaning however is clear: Sgian means knife or dagger or blade and “dubh” means black. I believe Skyelander has touched upon “Dubh” being black in his poem, ‘Dubh Water.’

Also there is in Celtic Mythology the black natured God “Dubh” and there is a discussion about the meaning of black in this connotation. The word Dubh (black) also covers the usual colour of the handle of the little knife, but the great majority of pundits believe that it means secret, or hidden, as in ‘hidden away’. Also, some give credence to the story that because it was secreted away, – it was a dark weapon. There is also a theory which suggests that the Sgian dubh evolved from the sgian achlais (ochles), the “armpit dagger” mentioned in connection with the Scots in the 17th and 18th century.

This was a knife slightly larger than the Sgian Dubh and was carried in the upper sleeve of the jacket, under the left arm. It is believed that this is the same knife, Scottish women carried under the apron of her wraparound “kilted” skirt, along with her purse. Just as with men, they would have to carry their own eating utensil, and many a Scots woman had need for a weapon. I don’t believe that it was carried under the apron of her kilted skirt, because research has shown me, that Scottish women, ‘never’ wore kilted skirts, thus no apron front on their skirts. They wore softly gathered skirts. The new aproned long (floor length and regular length) kilted skirt is somewhat a new phenomena. Most Scots do not believe the kilt is the correct dress for a woman, except for Highland Dancers. Therefore, let us remember, if a Scots woman carried a dagger (little knife) for eating or her own defence, it would probably be hidden in the folds of her gathered skirt. A pocket deep enough to accommodate the sheathed knife; (so as not to fall out) and well hidden from view; thus protecting her from search, a Scottish woman would avoid being searched at all cost.

No knife still exists that can be identified as a sgian achlais (armpit knife)**, so that is of very little good to us as information. However, it does fit the description of a secret, or “black” knife thus – Dubh. Courtesy of the times required that when entering the home of a friend or casual acquaintance, no weapons should remain concealed. Some say that when the armpit dagger was removed, the top of the mens hose was a convenient place to display it, securely held by the garter (or flashes). Displaying it thus, showed that the Scot had no dark intentions at the gathering. However, this writer doubts that any woman retrieved her weapon from it’s hiding place, as it was not intended for friends anyway and to give away the hiding place, would have given the enemy an idea where to search on their person, and no woman would have wanted that. History shows that women did not often follow the same rules as men for weaponry. Another theory is that the sgian dubh evolved from the small skinning knife, that was a part of the typical set of Gralloch (or hunting) knifes. Some of these do exist. They include a butchering knife with a blade of nine or ten inches and a skinning knife with a blade of only three to four inches. The Gralloch knifes usually have antler handles, and do not fit the term black in either carry or colour. However, we do know, there are still today, Sgian Dubh made with antler horn handles. This theory does have two facts in it’s favour: (1) Many early sgian dubhs are fitted with antler or horn handles, and (2) the skinning and butchering of wild game after the successful hunt was a duty of the upper class hunter’s ghillie, literally “boy” in Gaelic. The well-to-do huntsman would not stoop to such work. The attitude of officers in the military regiments suggest they resisted carrying of sgian dubhs, as they were initially considered fit only for “ghillies and serving rascals.” The lower – – medium class clansmen had no such qualms as they did their own butchering and skinning and never depended on ghillies or servants. Much of the research on this subject is just conjecture, because no written records were kept on the subject. However, I tend to believe the theory that states, it was “black” in the sense, it was a “secret knife.”

When the sgian dubh first began to be worn full time in the stocking top, it is shown in oil paintings of the early to mid 1800’s. Most nobility had their pictures painted in full dress and show the sgian dubh. In these painting, around 1805 – 1812 the nobility and the chieftains both had sgian dubh in their stockings and were easily seen in the paintings because of the kilts. There is a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland showing the 15th Chief of MacDonells of Glengarry, wearing what appears to be a sheath that holds two nested knives. The National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland has a similar sgian dubh in it’s collection. Colonel MacDonell was the last of the great clan chiefs, in the sense that he always dressed in Highland attire, and never went anywhere without his suite of attendants. He was the inventor of the Glengarry bonnet, and became notorious for killing the famous Flora MacDonald’s grandson in a duel, and for spending his clan into poverty. He was acquainted, perhaps friends with Sir Walter Scott, and was the model for the character Fergus MacIvor in Scott’s novel “Waverly.*” In Waverly there is a passage dealing with the sgian achlais. That little knife was not fully accepted by the upper classes is hinted at by the fact it is not worn by “that wee German Laddie,” King George IV, when he was painted in full Highland regalia during his “jaunt” to Scotland in 1822. However, by the 1850’s the sgian dubh was universally worn. The early sgian dubhs were often crudely made by local Scottish smiths, they were made with antler horn handles and were mounted in brass, with a simple leather sheath. They were longer than today’s sgian dubh, by an inch or so. The handles were full round, with little consideration given to how the knife would fit the anatomy of the wearer. As time went by the sgian dubh was accepted as a full partner to the dirk; it then began to be decorated in the same way as the dirk, and frequently made to match each other, sometimes made ‘en suite’ with it, and kept time, they were made, like the dirk, with carved ebony and occasionally, ivory handles. The carving was normally of the simple basket weave pattern that had become popular on the dirk, with silver pins at the corners of the carved panels. The handles were almost invariably black, flattened to lay against the leg, and some had the owner’s crest or coat of arms mounted on them. Some had cairngorms in the topmost point of the handle. Also some were black handle, Celtic carved, decorative motif.

Military sgian dubhs frequently had some form of Celtic knot work that had been popular on the dirk in the sixteen or seventeen hundreds, only when custom made ‘en suite’ with a dirk with that early style carving. The pommels held mounts and stones to match the dirk, and the occasional matching sporrans and plaid* brooch. The earlier blades frequently had a clipped point, a style that is now associated with the bowie knife. Some had scalloped filework on the back of the blade that is common on all Scottish knives. As time proceeded, the blades were shortened slightly. The shape was altered to a spear point, and filework became universal. At least one sgian dubh is known that had a solid silver blade, useless for most chores due to its softness. Strictly for show. Some regimental sgian dubhs had blades etched with regimental symbols. The early leather sheath, like those on the early dirks, evolved into highly decorative pieces of art. Reinforced with wood and fitted with silver throats and tips, pierced and engraved. While this makes for great bragging rights, there was no practical purpose, as the sheath is hidden in the stocking while the sgian dubh is worn. Queen Victoria became Queen of England in 1837, and the Scottish romantic period began. (See my article “Queen Victoria’s influence on Scottish Dress, parts 1 and 2). She had Balmoral Castle in the Highlands, renovated with many changes including tartan carpets, tartan covered furniture, tartan cloths everywhere. Lavish dirks and sgian dubhs reached their peak around the end of her reign in 1901, and continued until World War 1, which ended that romantic period. However, her influence on the dress and the Clans of the Highlanders was immense. She brought Highland Dress and weaponry into fashion in the Lowlands where it had always been looked down on as the “strange Highland Dress”. After Victoria arrived, every noble and large castle or mansion owner got his very own tartan and had made for his family; the “strange Highland Dress” he so despised prior to Victoria. Victoria made it the fashionable thing to do.

Sgian Dubhs found themselves buried in the mud of the Somme and Neuve Chapelle. After the war the gaudy military dirks and sgian dubhs were largely gone, but the flamboyant period saw some very extravagant civilian sets made. On the other hand, the tradition of the antler handled and sgian dubh returned in the 1800s. Usually mounted in brass, they were and still are, worn for informal day wear. Most have some type of brass or silver pommel decoration, and some have stones mounted. Over time, legends have grown around the sgian dubh. One is that the stone mounted in its pommel is carefully weighed and placed to properly balance the knife for throwing…ridiculous, to anyone who has ever thrown a knife. It was ‘not’ a throwing knife, it is a stabbing knife. Another; – that like the dirk and the Gurkha Kukri; the sgian dubh is never to be drawn for trivial or mundane purposes and must taste blood before it can be re-sheathed, even if the user must nick his own finger…not true, but it makes an excellent tale.

Acknowledgement and copyright: – Nancy A. MacCorkill. F.S.A. Scot

** We have been kindly informed by Steve Atkinson that a mattucashlass/sgian ochil (achlais) can be seen on display in the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle. The blade is narrow and two and a half inches long.