The Story of the Sgian Dubh

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The spelling can be Sgian Dubh, skein dubh, sgian dhub, skene du, skean dhu, skean dubh and skhian dubh however it is pronounced skein or skeen doo. The meaning, however, is clear: sgian means knife and dubh means black.  Some feel that black comes from the colour of the handle others suggest that it means secret, or hidden. The sgian dubh may have evolved from the sgian achlais (ochles), the armpit dagger.  This was a knife slightly larger than today’s sgian dubh that was carried in the upper sleeve of the jacket and drawn from the inside through the armhole A second theory holds that the sgian dubh evolved from the small skinning knife that was part of the typical set of hunting or gralloch knives. Some of these do exist. There is usually a butchering knife with a blade of 9-10 inches and a skinner with a blade of only 3 1/2-4 inches. These gralloch knives usually had antler handles, and so do not fit the term black in colour, however this theory does have two points in its favour. Firstly, many early sgian dubhs were fitted with antler or horn handles. Secondly, the skinning and butchering of wild game after the successful hunt was usually undertaken by the upper-class hunter’s ghillie, literally “boy” in Gaelic, as in serving boy. When the sgian dubh first began to be worn full-time in the stocking top is best revealed in portraits of men in kilts painted in the early to mid 1800’s. When the Highlander visited a house on his travels having deposited all his other weapons at the front door he did not divest himself of his concealed dagger, since in these far off days it was unsafe to be ever totally unarmed, not because he feared his host but rather because he feared intrusions from outside. Accordingly although retaining the dagger; out of courtesy to his host he removed it from its place of concealment and put it somewhere where his host could see it, invariably in his stocking on the side of his hand (right or left-handed).

 

 

 

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