Sgian Dubh
The sgian-dubh is a small, singled-edged knife
A knife is a cutting tool with an exposed cutting edge or blade, hand-held or otherwise, with or without a handle. Knives were used at least two-and-a-half million years ago, as evidenced by the Oldowan tools...

 (Gaelic sgian) worn as part of traditional Scottish
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 Highland dress
Scottish apparel
The term Highland dress describes the traditional dress of Scotland. It is often characterised by tartan patterns in some form....

 along with the kilt
The kilt is a knee-length garment with pleats at the rear, originating in the traditional dress of men and boys in the Scottish Highlands of the 16th century. Since the 19th century it has become associated with the wider culture of Scotland in general, or with Celtic heritage even more broadly...

. It is worn tucked into the top of the kilt hose with only the upper portion of the hilt
The hilt of a sword is its handle, consisting of a guard,grip and pommel. The guard may contain a crossguard or quillons. A ricasso may also be present, but this is rarely the case...

 visible. The sgian-dubh is normally worn on the right leg, but can also be worn on the left, depending on whether the wearer is right or left-handed.

Etymology and spelling

The name comes from the Gaelic
Scottish Gaelic language
Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language native to Scotland. A member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic, like Modern Irish and Manx, developed out of Middle Irish, and thus descends ultimately from Primitive Irish....

 sgian-dubh. Although the primary meaning of dubh is "black", the secondary meaning of "hidden" is at the root of sgian-dubh, based on the stories and theories surrounding the knife's origin, in particular those associated with the Highland custom of depositing weapons at the entrance to a house prior to entering as a guest. Compare also other Gaelic word-formations such as dubh-sgeir "underwater skerry" (lit. black skerry), dubh-fhacal "riddle" (lit. hidden word), dubh-cheist "enigma" (lit. hidden question).

Despite this practice, a small twin edged-dagger, (a mattucashlass, Gaelic sgian-achlais), concealed under the armpit, combined with a smaller knife, ('sgian-dubh'), concealed in the hose
Hose (clothing)
Hose are any of various styles of men's clothing for the legs and lower body, worn from the Middle Ages through the 17th century, when the term fell out of use in favor of breeches and stockings. The old plural form of "hose" was hosen...

 or boot, would offer an element of defence or of surprise if employed in attack.

Various alternative spellings are found in English, including "skene-dhu" and "skean-dhu".


The sgian-dubh may have evolved from the sgian-achlais, a dagger that could be concealed under the armpit. Used by the Scots of the 17th and 18th centuries, this knife was slightly larger than the average modern sgian-dubh and was carried in the upper sleeve or lining of the body of the jacket.

Courtesy and etiquette
Etiquette is a code of behavior that delineates expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group...

 would demand that when entering the home of a friend, any concealed weapons would be revealed. It follows that the sgian-achlais would be removed from its hiding-place and displayed in the stocking top held securely by the garters.

The sgian-dubh also resembles the small skinning knife that is part of the typical set of hunting knives. These sets contain a butchering knife with a 9 to 10 in (228.6 to 254 mm) blade, and a skinner with a blade of about 4 inches (101.6 mm). These knives usually had antler handles, as do many early sgian-dubhs. The larger knife is likely the ancestor of the modern dirk
A dirk is a short thrusting dagger, sometimes a cut-down sword blade mounted on a dagger hilt rather than a knife blade. It was historically used as a personal weapon for officers engaged in naval hand-to-hand combat during the Age of Sail.-Etymology:...


The bog oak, jet black in appearance, was a very hard wood suitable for the purpose. The handles on the stag knives simulate horn which was also traditionally used. Any ornamentation is merely a reflection of the Highlander's lack of confidence in paper money which resulted in him embellishing much of his personal wearing apparel with silver and cairngorm stones which are of value. Thus he carried on his person most of his worldly wealth. The black dagger (sgian-dubh) was usually carried in a place of concealment very often under his armpit (or oxter). This gives support to the view that 'black' does not refer only to the colour of the handle but implies 'covert' - as in (as stated previously) blackmail or black market. 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).

The sgian-dubh can be seen in portraits of kilted men of the mid-19th century. A portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn of Colonel Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry
Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry
Colonel Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry , sometimes called by the Gaelic version of his name, Alastair or Alasdair, was a personality well known to Walter Scott, a haughty and flamboyant man whose character and behaviour gave Scott the model for the wild Highland clan chieftain Fergus...

 hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland
National Gallery of Scotland
The National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh, is the national art gallery of Scotland. An elaborate neoclassical edifice, it stands on The Mound, between the two sections of Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens...

; it shows hanging from his belt on his right hand side a Highland Scottish dirk
A dirk is a short thrusting dagger, sometimes a cut-down sword blade mounted on a dagger hilt rather than a knife blade. It was historically used as a personal weapon for officers engaged in naval hand-to-hand combat during the Age of Sail.-Etymology:...

, and visible at the top of his right stocking what appears to be a nested set of two sgian-dubhs. A similar sgian-dubh is in the collection of The National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland.


The early blades varied in construction, some having a "clipped" (famously found on the Bowie knife
Bowie knife
A Bowie knife is a pattern of fixed-blade fighting knife first popularized by Colonel James "Jim" Bowie in the early 19th Century. Since the first incarnation was created by James Black, the Bowie knife has come to incorporate several recognizable and characteristic design features, although its...

) or "drop" point. The "spear-point" tip has now become universal. Scalloped filework on the back of the blade is common on all Scottish knives. A short blade of 3 to 3.5 in (76.2 to 88.9 mm) is typical.

Since the modern sgian-dubh is worn mainly as a ceremonial item of dress and is usually not employed for cutting food or self-defence
Self-defense, self-defence or private defense is a countermeasure that involves defending oneself, one's property or the well-being of another from physical harm. The use of the right of self-defense as a legal justification for the use of force in times of danger is available in many...

, blades are often of a simple (but not unglamorous) construction. These are typically made from stainless steel
Stainless steel
In metallurgy, stainless steel, also known as inox steel or inox from French "inoxydable", is defined as a steel alloy with a minimum of 10.5 or 11% chromium content by mass....

. The hilts used on many modern sgian-dubhs are made of plastic
A plastic material is any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids used in the manufacture of industrial products. Plastics are typically polymers of high molecular mass, and may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce production costs...

 that has been molded to resemble carved wood and fitted with cast metal mounts and synthetic decorative stones. Some are not even knives at all, but a plastic handle and sheath cast as one piece. Other examples are luxurious and expensive art
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect....

 pieces, with hand-carved ebony
Ebony is a dense black wood, most commonly yielded by several species in the genus Diospyros, but ebony may also refer to other heavy, black woods from unrelated species. Ebony is dense enough to sink in water. Its fine texture, and very smooth finish when polished, make it valuable as an...

 or bog wood hilts, sterling silver
Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal...

 fittings and may have pommels set with genuine cairngorm
Smoky quartz
Smoky or smokey quartz is a brown to black variety of quartz. Like other quartz gems, it is a silicon dioxide crystal. The smoky colour results from free silicon, formed from the silicon dioxide by natural irradiation.-Morion:...

 stones. Blades may be made of Damascus steel
Damascus steel
Damascus steel was a term used by several Western cultures from the Medieval period onward to describe a type of steel used in swordmaking from about 300 BCE to 1700 CE. These swords are characterized by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water...

 or etched with Celtic designs or heraldic motifs. The earliest known blades some of which are housed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh are made from German or Scandinavian steel which was highly prized by the Highlanders.

Traditionally the scabbard
A scabbard is a sheath for holding a sword, knife, or other large blade. Scabbards have been made of many materials over the millennia, including leather, wood, and metals such as brass or steel.-Types of scabbards:...

 is 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. While this makes for more popular and expensive knives, the sheath is hidden from view in the stocking while the sgian-dubh is worn. The sheaths of many modern sgian-dubhs are made of plastic mounted with less expensive metal fittings.


In areas with "zero tolerance" weapons policies, or heightened security concerns, the wearing of the sgian-dubh as part of traditional Scottish dress has sometimes created controversy. One such incident was the banning of sgian-dubhs from a school dance in Scotland.

As with many other knives and cutting tools, air travellers
Airport security
Airport security refers to the techniques and methods used in protecting airports and aircraft from crime.Large numbers of people pass through airports. This presents potential targets for terrorism and other forms of crime due to the number of people located in a particular location...

 have to put their sgian-dubh in checked baggage.

In Scotland, it is legal under the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995
Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995
The Criminal Law Act 1995 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed to consolidate certain enactments creating offences and relating to the criminal law of Scotland.-Incest and related offences:...

 Sec. 49, Sub-sec. 5(c) to wear a sgian-dubh, or other weapon, as part of any national costume.

In England and Wales, it is legal under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (section 139) and the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 (section 3 and 4) for someone wearing the national costume of Scotland to carry a sgian-dubh - see knife legislation
Knife legislation
Knife legislation is defined as the body of statutory law and/or case law promulgated or enacted by a government or other governing jurisdiction that prohibits, criminalizes, or restricts the otherwise legal manufacture, importation, sale, transfer, possession, transport, and/or use of knives.The...


External links

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