Many people who visit Scotland love discovering more about the traditional Highland dress and part of that is the Sgian Dubh.
Today the Sgian Dubh (pronounced ‘skian doo) is a small single edged blade worn at the calf, tucked into your sock. The Gaelic roughly translates as ‘black dagger’, sgian meaning dagger or knife and dubh meaning black. The reason for the term black has had some theories over the years. Some feel it represents the most common colour of the hilt of the blade whereas others feel it has a meaning of secrecy and symbolises that the blade was hidden away as a secret weapon.
It is not entirely clear where the blade originated from. Some believe it was developed from an old dagger that men used to conceal in the upper sleeves of their jacket, known as the ‘armpit dagger’ or sgian achlais. Women may also have kept a similar blade tucked in the folds of their skirt. Others believe it evolved from a simple small skinning knife that was then utilised as a hidden weapon.
Regardless the sgian dubh as we know it was probably around from the early to mid 18th Century and there are some great portraits in the national Portrait gallery of clan chiefs with the sgian dubh being worn. Early blades were quite simple with hilts made from antler and simple leather sheaths. However, as time moved on and they became more widely used, along side the highland dirk, the work became more elaborate, especially for those wealthy enough to afford quality weapons. The handles were, as we said, often black and shaped to rest beside the leg, they became more intricately carved with celtic designs or clan motifs and some even had stones set into the top of the handle.
Today the sgian dubh are typically shorter than they would have been during the 18th Century, maybe an inch or so less on the blade. Also the modern blades made today are unsurprisingly used for ceremonial purposes rather than skinning animals and threatening enemies. Many are made with blunted edges and there are even ‘safe’ sgian dubh made from plastic so that children can wear them and for travelling.
We hope you enjoyed the insight into part of the Scottish dress and as always please share, like, comment and tweet and feel free to share your stories with us.
All the best, K & D