What is a Skiaghn Dubh?

What is a Skiaghn Dubh?

That little ornamental knife tucked into the top of the hose on a man’s leg just below the kilt rather personifies the Highlander character. Historically sturdy, tucked away and unobtrusive, yet decidedly handy when needed – whether in defense or at dinner-table, this knife today almost defies definition, although the 2010 Knife Dealers Legislation in Scotland does specify that a skiaghn dubh blade is less than 3.5 inches long.

We Know So Little…

Historically, we know little of its origins. In modern times, we can’t even agree how to spell its name. Consistently pronounced loosely like ‘skee’n doo,’ you’ll find almost no consistency at all in how it’s spelled. For example, you’re likely to see it referred in writing as skain, skian, skiaghn, skean, skian,skein, or sgian dubh,dhu or even du. Regardless of spelling, most agree that ‘skiaghn’ is Gaelic for ‘knife’ and while ‘dhub’ means ‘black’, common usage translates it as ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ in many Gaelic phrases – much like our word ‘blackmail’.

Most knife historians agree that however it’s spelled, it refers to a ‘hidden knife’, probably a nod of courtesy in recognition of the peaceful custom of leaving one’s weapons at the door when entering a house. Most also agree that it originally accompanied a skiaghn achlais, achles, acklass, occles, or ochles, another – or perhaps the same – knife tucked out of sight under the non-dominant arm by 17th and 18th century Scots. Unfortunately, little is actually known about this knife,beyond a few mentions in writings of the time, as none of the knives remain today.

But we have theories…

Because we know so little, many theories abound about the actual origin of the skiagn dubh. It may have actually been the skiaghn achlais knife, removed from its hiding place and worn in the stocking in plain site as a matter of courtesy or in a situation where a concealed weapon would be considered more threatening than a mere faux pas.

Or… it could be that our ornamental little friend began its life as a small skinning knife, commonly found in sets of antler-handled hunting or ‘gralloch’ knives, some of which still exist. While the main butchering knife in the set would have a long blade (typically 9- or 10-inches long), the little skinnner only sported a short blade (usually less than 4-inches long). Granted, antler handles are not black, but we know that many early skiaghn dubhs had antler or horn handles. There is also the idea that regimental officers deigned to carry skiaghn dubhs, as being fit only for ‘ghillies and serving rascals’.  Ghillies (Gaelic for ‘boys’) were servants that did the skinning after a successful hunt by a nobleman.

How did it come to importance?

So, how did a little knife that we know so little about grow to become so important to us? How did it come to take its place in Scottish regalia? Now, as it happens, we do have a somewhat clearer idea of the answer to that one: it was an early nineteenth-century social media phenomenon.

In the nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott’s very popular novels described the Scots as remote people in a desolate landscape of the Highlands, old-fashioned individuals full of courage, nobility, and loyalty. He described their traditional clothes of tartan, including kilt, sporran and ghillie brogues. People did not actually dress in this way, but its prevalance of this romantic vision was evidenced when Scott was called upon to organise the festivities for King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. It was for this visit that the king and nobles wore the ceremonial ‘Highlander’ dress. We see this in paintings of the time, such as with Henry Raeburn’s 1813 portrait of Francis MacNab, the first to depict knives as part of the ceremonial dress.