A sgian dubh is the knife traditionally worn with a kilt, tucked into the sock, as part of the Scottish national dress. The name means ‘black knife’ or ‘dark knife’ in Gaelic.
There are different theories about why the knife is worn. One is that in Scotland’s wild past, people visiting others would be unwise to completely unarmed at any time. To show goodwill to their hosts, they would remove this knife and tuck it into their sock. They could still defend themselves if necessary, but their weapons were clearly on display. Another is that the knife was originally a ‘gralloching‘ knife, used to butcher deer. A dead deer was too big to haul off the moors and the stomach contents would immediately start to taint the meat after death, so it was best to cut it up there and then.
The blade of my sgian dubh is damascus steel and was bought, as I do not have the equipment or skills to make a good blade of this type. As a carver, I didn’t want to wear a substandard blunt knife either! The silver work was done by a talented local silversmith for the same reason. She kindly sent the silver ferrules to Edinburgh to be given a Scottish assay office stamp as well.
The materials used meant a lot to me personally. The timber used in the handle and sheath of the knife is laburnum, from a tree which grew in the garden of the house where I grew up and which was cut down long ago. When my mother was pregnant with me, she would rest in a hammock slung from this tree.
The stone at the end is from a pebble collected on a beach at the Isle of Man many years ago, which originally came from an island off the coast of Scotland called Ailsa Craig. It has another name, which I found out after making the knife: Carreg Alasdair or ‘Alistair’s Rock’. Very appropriate!
You can find out a lot more about this, the timber and the process of making of the sgian dubh on my blog. There is also more about the law concerning carrying such a blade in public in the UK.
The kilt pin is worn on the outermost part of the kilt apron, mainly as an ornament but also to apply a little weight and stop the kilt raising. I was very happy with the first version, which was made using boxwood and the same laburnum and microgranite stone used in the sgian dubh. However, when my kilt arrived I realised that the colour and size just weren’t right!
It was time to have another go. The second kilt pin is carved from the same laburnum wood used in the sgian dubh and uses a design taken from the Book of Kells, with inlaid silver, plum timber and reclaimed ebony. If you look carefully it isn’t actually a continuous knot, as such designs are often supposed to be, but is in fact two dragons interlacing with an infinity loop.
By this point, you may be wondering what this kilt actually looks like! It looks like this. The tartan sett is muted MacDonald of Clan Ranald, for those interested in these things: