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Wearing a Sgian Dubh - all you need to know

Wearing a Sgian Dubh - all you need to know
By Nick Fiddes

Ever wondered about the fancy wee knife you see sticking out of the sock below a kilt? Wonder no further!

What is a Sgian Dubh?

Clan Crest sgian dubh

A Sgian Dubh (pronounced ski-an doo) is a ceremonial stabbing knife with a fixed blade (not a folding blade) typically worn with full Scottish highland dress. Its cutting edge is generally under three inches (7.6cm).

With alternative spellings like Skene du, Skein dhu, skean dhu, or Skhian dhubh, the plural is usually sgian-dubh or sometimes sgians-dubh.

The name means "black knife" or "black dagger". This is said to be because its history was of being secretly concealed, worn hidden away in the armpit. Secreted away, it was therefore a dark weapon - against the Highland custom of guests depositing weapons at the house door before entering. It is seen worn tucked into socks in paintings from the early 1800s on.

How to Wear a Sgian Dubh

The Sgian Dubh is normally tucked into the outside top of your kilt hose (sock). You'd keep it on the side of your dominant hand (for example, right sock if you're right-handed.) Only the hilt (handle) sticks up visibly from the top of your hose. The blade, inside its safety sheaf, is down inside the stocking.

If your Sgian Dubh has a functional blade (see below) it's fine to use it any time it might be useful, such as cutting bread and cheese, fruit or meat. They're great for peeling oranges!

Sharp or safe?

A proper Sgian Dubh made in Scotland almost always has a good carbon steel blade that can actually be sharpened. But beware imported copycat versions sold by high street tourist shops and less reputable internet retailers may be of cheaper materials that are less functional or more breakable and therefore less safe.

If you are concerned about safety (e.g. for children) or perceived safety (e.g. for security) you can also purchase a dummy sgian dubh. This looks superficially similar from the handle upwards, but will generally come with a plastic blade.

Air travel with a Sgian Dubh

We recommend that you pack your Sgian Dubh as checked baggage in the hold when flying in an airplane (or send it ahead) or you will most likely not have it after your journey. Airline regulations are clear and airport security typically doesn't recognise customary dress as a reason to let you carry your Sgian Dubh in hand luggage when travelling on a plane.

Wearing a Sgian Dubh in public

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, and especially travelling to or from an appropriate event. But check with local laws or event organisers before ordering a Sgian Dubh to wear socially, and perhaps make special arrangements to avoid misunderstandings.

Stag Antler sgian dubh with tweed kiltWhat to wear your Sgian Dubh with

The Sgian Dubh is generally worn only with a full highlandwear outfit. But of course it's your choice exactly how that's interpreted. It's a part of traditional Scottish dress, but like modern dress there are infinite ways to create a traditional outfit. Only you can decide whether a Sgian Dubh should be part of that.

The Sgian Dubh is available in all kinds of styles, including Celtic designs, or Clan Crest badges, or traditional emblems like thistles and stags. Handles are most commonly made in black resin reflecting their historic origins, but also come in stag antler which can particularly suit a reproduction tartan or tweed look, or real wood.

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