Ethnographic Arms & Armour

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corrado26 4th October 2016 07:23 PM

Scottish Skean Dhu
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This morning the postman brought me a small package the content of which was very welcome: A Scottish Scean Dhu with a very sharp blade. Grip is ebony and the crown with a orange jewel (?) on top and the other mountings are made of silver. Total length is 205mm, blade is 97mm. Comments are invited.

Shakethetrees 4th October 2016 08:00 PM

Beautiful piece!
The orange jewel is called a cairngorm. I'm not sure of the origin of the word, probably old Scottish.

I believe it is topaz or sometime smoky quartz if it's a more brownish color.

kronckew 4th October 2016 08:41 PM

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nice old sgian duhb (black knife), the cairngorm stone comes from : wait for it....

the cairngorm mountains area of scotland.

some traditional stones: cairngorm ones vary from a clear-ish yellow-brown to smokey quartz. there are other variants, gemstones, glass, crystals, plastic...

Battara 5th October 2016 12:55 AM

Nice late 19th - early 20th century piece. It is in the same style as the Gordon Highlanders' Regiment.

The stone may also be glass - very common in these.

Sajen 5th October 2016 02:03 AM


Originally Posted by Battara
The stone may also be glass - very common in these.

I think that it is like Krockew write a cairngorm, some sort of smoky quartz found in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland, see here:

But of course it could be very well glass, to be sure I would show it to a jeweler.

corrado26 5th October 2016 08:26 AM

Thanks for the many comments. To make sure I'll show the skean dhu to a jeweller. Very interesting is that this piece might be from a member of the Gordon Highlanders.

Royston 6th October 2016 08:31 PM

Is there a hallmark hidden anywhere ?

corrado26 7th October 2016 01:20 PM

No, there are no hallmarks but as the jeweller said it is good silver and the stone on top is a topas

Battara 12th October 2016 05:02 AM

Glad you got this to a jeweler. :)

Topaz - a little more expensive but not unheard of........

rickystl 15th October 2016 04:29 PM

Hi Corado.

That's a beauty. And very well detailed. I've read that these smaller ones were often referred to as Sock Knives. As in foot sock. Congrats.


kronckew 15th October 2016 04:57 PM

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Originally Posted by rickystl
Hi Corado.

That's a beauty. And very well detailed. I've read that these smaller ones were often referred to as Sock Knives. As in foot sock. Congrats.


yup as they are worn tucke into the top of the sock folded over, knife on outside on your strong/dominant hand side. longer ones are dirks and worn suspened from the belt.

like this:

rickystl 15th October 2016 10:40 PM

Yes. That's it. Good illistration.

Pukka Bundook 16th October 2016 06:30 AM

Good illustration, but only the top half of the hilt should show (at the most)
Wearing it as illustrated above would likely get it lost when walking..

Norman McCormick 16th October 2016 08:20 PM

Probably it should not show at all as it is a Black Knife (hidden knife) and would only be on show in the stocking top when in company as a show of good faith i.e. you can see my knife so I'm not about to do anything with it I shouldn't while in your company!
This is one interpretation of the origins of the Sgian Dhu when a small utility knife was the only 'weapon' allowed during the English banning of wearing and bearing arms in some parts of Scotland and how it came to be worn in the stocking top.

fernando 16th October 2016 08:39 PM

Learning :cool: .

Jim McDougall 16th October 2016 08:48 PM

Actually I believe that traditionally, the skean dubh would have been entirely concealed in the stocking. As told in the familiar lore of Scotland, or as I was told, these hidden knives came about with the Scottish practice of always being well armed even in the most everyday situations. It was customary however to put down your arms in visits or meeting situations as a sign of truce or peaceful interaction.

That was until the fateful events at Glencoe, when clansmen in a weeklong visit and trustingly disarmed, were cruelly massacred by their hosts in a well planned and deceitful act.

After this, while giving up the bulk of his arms, the clansman kept a sort of back up weapon in his stocking, the small but deadly knife, skean dubh,
In Gaelic, the term skean =knife and dubh, has often been taken to mean black.
However in its more common simile, it actually means 'dark' or more directly, hidden. Therefore it is a 'hidden' knife.
By the same token, in Gaelic, the famed "Black Watch" regiment actually began as a covert 'undercover' unit used by the British to patrol Highland regions and maintain control. Therefore the eventual sobriquet for the regiment when formalized was not for black or somber toned apparel but the 'hidden' purpose of its formation.

In my own surname, in Gaelic, MacDhubghaill, means, son of the 'dark' foreigner, therefore unclear origins :) or so family lore goes .

Norman.....we crossed posts!!!!

I remain curious on the 'jimping' or notching along the blade at the back, often I think on dirks as well. I think this was for the utility purposes in many cases....scaling fish?

Norman McCormick 16th October 2016 09:18 PM

Hi Jim,
Hope you are well these days and still travelling. On the subject of the Black Watch, my mother always called the distinctive Black Watch tartan "A Government Tartan" and always with sarcasm and disdain in her voice. I'm not sure exactly why as on her side of the family we were/are Lowland Scots/Ulster Irish and therefore probably on the side of the Govt., but possibly not always with the expected degree of commitment. Way back the regiment, I believe, was used to implement Govt policy and naturally this would have given rise to a certain dislike and I presume this dislike was passed down the generations.
My Regards,

Jim McDougall 16th October 2016 11:19 PM

Just got back from Arizona and 4 months on the road as we traded in the old bookmobile for a new one (still not enough room for all these books!).
Will sit tight through winter then off again.
Thank you for the insight on this stuff, always great to share this intriguing history.
My great grandparents were Highlanders as you know, and things I read from them spoke disdainfully as well on 'the govt' .
From all I have found most of the tartans were pretty contrived during the 1850s and the Sobieski's and Highland fad.
Despite the 'shady' beginnings , the 42nd established stellar record and traditions.......proud Scots.

Norman McCormick 17th October 2016 12:31 AM

Hi Jim,
Yes the tartan itself seemed to promote a prickly response and I suspect it was also the fact that it wasn't a 'true clan tartan' but contrived for a Govt force. Her own tartan, MacLaine of Lochbuie, is one of the more ancient and traditional tartans of which she was rightly proud. Her ire of course did not extend to the brave lads of the 42nd who were/are a formidable regiment with many of the recruits historically coming from our extended local area.

Battara 17th October 2016 01:46 AM


Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
I remain curious on the 'jimping' or notching along the blade at the back, often I think on dirks as well. I think this was for the utility purposes in many cases....scaling fish?

I thought this notching was for thumb placement, even on dirks starting from the early 19th century. Makes a better grip for the thumb so it won't slip as easily.

Pukka Bundook 17th October 2016 05:02 AM


I think in the days of proscription, the sgian dubh was still carried inside the waistcoat as a hidden weapon. (Black= hidden as you suggest) After all, anything inside the hose is going to show!
I gather it was later, in the Highland revival that it began to be worn in the hose top, and showing.

Norman McCormick 17th October 2016 02:53 PM


Originally Posted by Pukka Bundook

I gather it was later, in the Highland revival that it began to be worn in the hose top, and showing.

These days almost all "Scottishness" re dress etc can be traced back to Victorian embellishments and ideas made popular by Victoria and Albert and their fascination with Scotland. Even earlier Sir Walter Scott in his novels romanticised the idea of Scotland and all things Scottish but then again they were novels and a lot of them are still a good read today.

corrado26 17th October 2016 03:47 PM


Originally Posted by Norman McCormick
a lot of them are still a good read today.

This I must really agree with - I love these novels and have red them more than once

Battara 17th October 2016 06:10 PM

Yeah anything truly Scottish before Victorian influence is from the
Battle of Culloden and back.

However, when it comes to sgian dubhs, I have found that the later mid-19th century showed more Celtic knotwork (which I dearly love! :D). Yet I favor dirks from the 1780s back.

Strange, I know................ :shrug:

Jim McDougall 17th October 2016 09:40 PM

It is good to see that true romantics abound here!!!
ere's to ye lads!!!

blue lander 26th October 2016 08:31 PM

Is there a significance to the hilt being black? I ask because I've been reading through the Irish "National Folklore Collection", and several stories involve using a "black handled knife" to break a curse or other "magic". It makes me wonder if there's some cultural significance to black handled knives in Celtic cultures.

Here are some examples of stories featuring a black handled knife:

Norman McCormick 26th October 2016 08:52 PM

Traditionally, and I use the term in its broadest sense, Sgian Dhu and sometimes Dirk hilts are made with bog oak which as the name suggests is oak that has been in a bog for a very long time, hard and durable takes carving well and dark brown or black. As in all cultures that relied heavily on nature and its vagaries Celtic, Nordic etc., most things had a 'supernatural' significance as well as a day to day significance so I suspect a well known wood such as oak that came from a bog, which in itself had a supernatural aspect e.g. possible ritual human sacrifice, hence the Scandinavian and Irish bog bodies, could well have a special ritualistic significance but I don't think there is a definitive answer to your question there just isn't the archeological evidence as far as I'm aware. I've most definitely been wrong before so who knows.

blue lander 26th October 2016 10:59 PM

That makes sense, thank you. If I find a more specific explanation in these Irish folktales I'll be sure to post it. So far two stories have used them for breaking curses, two for scaring off fairies, and a handful say they need to be used when operating on sick livestock.

mariusgmioc 29th October 2016 11:26 PM


The reason why the handle is black is because it was supposed to be a concealed knife, hence the name "knife black/concealed."

But you can find a quite complete and well written explanation on Wikipedia:

blue lander 1st November 2016 10:27 PM

This site has some information about black handled knives in Cretan folklore

It seems very poorly researched though, to put it gently.

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