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Sgian dubh and dirk making

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Sgian dubh and dirk making

 

The hand making of the small, single-edged ‘black knife’ worn as part of traditional Scottish Highland dress along with the kilt. See also bladesmithing, kilt making and sporran making.

 

Status Endangered
Group or community to which this craft is culturally important e.g. geographical, religious community, cultural identity, cultural practice, traditional industry or occupation The Scottish and Scottish diaspora communities
Group or community where this craft is currently practised Scotland
Origin in the UK 17th Century
Current number of makers and/or people who hold the knowledge of this craft within the community 6-11 professional makers who can make the dress Sgian Dubh & Dirk (blackwood/bog oak with silver mounts etc.)

11-20 serious amateur makers

Current number of trainees and/or people who are learning the craft
Other makers There will be other knife makers making simple horn and wooden handled sgian dubh. These are also traditional knives that would have been worn as working knives during the day.

 

History

A sgian dubh is a ceremonial stabbing knife typically worn with full Scottish highland dress. Its cutting edge is generally under three inches and it is worn tucked into the top of the kilt hose (stocking).

The name means “black knife” or “black dagger”. There are differences in opinion on the origins of this name; it could be because of the black wood used in the handle, or it could refer to its original use as a concealed weapon. It is seen worn tucked into socks in paintings from the early 1800s onwards.

The Scottish romantic period was at its height in the reign of Victoria and elaborate dirks and sgian dubhs reached their peak around the end of her reign in 1901. Their popularity as part of highland dress continues to this day, with antique dress sgian dubh fetching high prices.

  • Horn Sgian Dubh – would have been worn during the day as a working knife.
  • Dress Sgian Dubh – worn as part of Scottish national dress.
  • Dirks – a long bladed dagger that is now a symbolic traditional and ceremonial weapon worn by officers, pipers and drummers of Scottish Highland regiments.

 

Cultural significance

 

 

Techniques

  • Bladesmithing – As sgian dubh are no longer used for self-defence or for food use, the blades are often of a simple construction. They are often deliberately left blunt edged. They are short bladed, usually around 3 inches long.
  • Scabbard making – Traditionally made of leather reinforced with wood and fitted with mounts of silver or some other metal which may be cast or engraved with designs ranging from Scottish thistles, Celtic knotwork, or heraldic elements such as a crest.
  • Hilt making – The most highly prized knives have hand-carved ebony or bog wood hilts (hence black knives), sterling silver fittings and may have pommels set with precious or semi-precious stones. Some have antler or bone handles.

 

Local forms

 

 

Sub-crafts

  • Bladesmithing
  • Scabbard making
  • Hilt making

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Cheap imports: Many sgian dubh are now made overseas for the mass market and are significantly cheaper than the handmade knives.
  • Mass production: Plastic and cheaper components are now often used in the mass production of knives and, again, are significantly cheaper than handmade versions.
  • Restrictions on carrying knives: In the UK it is lawful to carry a knife in public only with “good reason”. In most circumstances the police would interpret wanting to wear a sgian dubh as part of a highland dress outfit as good reason, especially in Scotland or as part of an appropriate event.

 

Support organisations

  • Craft Scotland

 

Craftspeople currently known

Dress Sgian Dubh makers

 

Training providers

 

 

Other information

 

 

References

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sgian-dubh
  • The Sgian Dubh, By Joe D. Huddleston