The Scottish Sgian Dubh

Sgian Dubh

My apologies to all you Gaelic speakers and Scots alike for mis-spelling “sgian dubh” in the last newsletter. I do at least know most of the history of it – or at least the most popular version, but thought our other members may be interested – if they didn’t know already. There are many sites on the web one can look into but I quote from Unknown Scottish History: The Sgian Dubh – a great site on the web.

The sgian dubh we see today is a mixture of history, myth and misinterpretation. Sgian in Gaelic means knife, the dubh part means black. Thus you get black knife. The black refers to the fact it was a hidden knife or a concealed weapon.

Today we see extremely ornate handles, scabbards covered in silver, pewter or gold. Check closely as the handle may be plain old plastic! The blades have no edge, some I have seen lately would not spread butter as they are stamped, blunt pointed, blunt edged metal and you can’t be sure what the metal is. Why the ornate scabbards? Once you tuck it into the hose top you can’t see any of it but the hilt or handle.

The knife we see today is not the sgian achiais of olden days. The term sgian achiais means ‘arm pit dagger’ or sleeve dagger which was also called ‘Mattucashlass’. In 1810 a man by the name of William Duane wrote a military dictionary. In it he describes the mattucashlass as an ancient Scottish weapon hidden in the sleeve, used for close combat when a dagger is most useful. In the year 1802 George Alexander in his work ‘A topography of Great Britain’ describes this same sleeve dagger.

In 1881 Thomas Wilhelm in his work ‘A Military Dictionary and Gazetteer’ describes the sleeve dagger. In the ‘History of Highland Dress’ written by John Telfer Dunbar in 1962, he also describes the sleeve dagger. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott became famous as an author with his book ‘Waverley’. In his work Scott also mentions the sgian achiais or armpit dagger. As stated before, the work sgian is Gaelic for knife, the word in Gaelic for dagger is Blodag, pronounced Beedak. So we should have a Blodag dubh. All old accounts called the weapon a dagger not a knife. A dagger is described as a double edged weapon for stabbing or thrusting in close combat. A knife is described as a single edged utility tool for skinning game, cutting bread, etc., etc. The knife can also be used as a weapon if worst comes to worst.

The sgian dubh is said to have been part of a set of knives used by servants to clean, skin, dress the meat aftert the Lord of the manor and his party had killed the game. One knife was long and heavy bladed for butchering the game, the other had a blade from 3 to 4 inches in length, this was for skinning the game. This skinning knife had a handle of stag antler or wood. Sometimes bog oak was used on the handle of these skinning knives. Bog oak is dark brown to black in colour.

The history of taking the hidden weapon out of concealment and placing in the hose top or boot top to show your host you meant no ill will is correct. But it has a hidden dagger not the present sgian dubh. The present sgian dubh is most likely a Victorian idea. During this time many ideas of what was correct Scottish dress came into being.

Note: The skinning knife mentioned above would have straight single edged blade, or a clipped pointed blade like a small bowie knife.

My own note – Not sure if the McKay whisky Company mentioned above is the same as the Whyte & MacKay Company of today – different spelling.