Sgian Dubh and the Dirk
Both the sgian dubh and the dirk have become important weapons in Scottish tradition. You will see both used in ceremonies carried by soldiers or men in kilts. They are also popular knives crafted from sterling silver. Variations are seen in cutlery sets, such as the famed Stone set.
As with many knives that are now commonly used in cutlery, their origins came from military use. The dirk is a common utility knife while the sgian dubh was a hidden weapon for use in hand-to-hand combat. This would be when the primary weapon was lost, unavailable, or impractical for what needed to be accomplished.
The history and use of both weapons is a fascinating part of Scottish history. Both are still in use today. This speaks volumes for their role in the history of Scotland albeit now primarily for ceremonial purposes.
Daggers have been a part of world history for thousands of years. Virtually every culture that arose before the invention of gunpowder developed daggers along with swords and other weapons of war. Scotland was no different in that regard and created the sgian dubh.
There is no exact translation, but the name comes from the Scottish Gaelic to mean “ceremonial or hidden knife”. The weapon itself is believed to have originated back in the 16th century. Although not proven, it is believed that the sgian dubh is an offshoot of the sgian-achlais, a dagger that was concealed under the armpit. The sgian-achais was larger and deemed a hidden weapon to be used when the primary weapon was not available.
The sgian-achais gave way to the sgian dubh not because the dagger was impractical, but rather because of the etiquette and courtesy of Scottish life.
During the 16th and 17the centuries it was deemed inappropriate for anyone to carry a concealed weapon inside the home of a friend. All weapons of such type needed to be revealed. Since the sgian-achais was somewhat larger and awkward to carry openly, the sgian dubh was created as a smaller knife that could be worn in the sock or on the exposed leg.
A typical sgian dubh is quite similar to the standard hunting knives of the time. Most early sgian dubh knives feature an antler handle, although that gave way to the wooden, ebony, and metal handles of today. The early versions of this knife also varied in their shape with some even featuring a clipped end, much like the famed Bowie knife that was developed centuries later.
Today, all sgian dubh knives have a spear-point tip, are double-sided, and feature a short blade that is roughly 3” to 3 1/2” long. For ceremonial purposes, they are carried in a leather scabbard and often feature designs on the handle, such as a crest, Celtic knotwork, or the famed Scottish thistle. The blade itself is usually crafted from stainless steel, although sterling silver is often used for the fittings. Some sgian dubh blades are made from Damascus steel.
The dirk is a dagger with a long blade and can trace its origins back to around the turn of the 19th century. Evolving from previous versions of the dagger, the dirk was the personal sidearm or weapon of Highlanders. It was often carried by officers in the field along with drummers and pipers in Scottish Highland regiments because their instruments did not allow for larger weapons to be carried.
There is no agreement on where the name “dirk” came from, but the name is the equivalent of the dagger. There are two types of dirks, the Highland and naval. The naval dirk has been around for roughly 500 years with little change in its design. The naval version of the dirk grew in popularity around the world with naval and civilian officers in Russian empire and later the Soviet navy carrying them when on duty.
One interesting note of the naval dirk was that it became popular with Japanese naval officers. It was often carried by them when onboard their vessels during World War II. The design is still being used today both in navies and by some police officers in certain countries.
The Highland dirk has now become a ceremonial part of the military history of Scotland. Worn mostly by officers, drummers, and pipers, the Highland dirk can trace its origins back to the 16th century. The dirk was too small to be a primary weapon. However, it did become the everyday knife that was used by soldiers for all sorts of endeavours. This included being used for eating.
What makes the dirk so popular is that virtually every Highland Scot carried one as they were often too poor to purchase a proper sword. It was not long before it became the dagger that oaths were sworn to much like swords in other cultures. When the Highland regiments were incorporated into the British Army, they were equipped with muskets and broadswords, but the soldiers added the dirk at their own expense.
By the end of the 19th century, the dirk was regulated to mostly ceremonial functions. So common was its appearance that it became a part of Highland tradition in the military. When combined with the sgian dubh, they became an iconic part of Scottish history.
Although the dirk is no longer the fixture it once was, the dagger does still have a ceremonial place in Scottish culture. The unique shape and appearance of the knife has made it an iconic symbol of the unique history of Scotland and the Highland military service.
Both the sgian dubh and the dirk are firmly Scottish traditions that you’ll find mostly for ceremonial use. The weapons have been a strong part of Scottish military history. They date back to the 16th century, having evolved from earlier versions. They may have fittings cast from sterling silver and are carried in leather scabbards. You can even see versions of these weapons used as part of the famed Stone set.