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Sgian Dubh Research

Mike Thompson

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    A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to make a Sgian Dubh (Skeen Doo), and began trying to find info on them. I know from a message from an archaeologist at the National Museum of Scotland that the basic blade shape dates back to the bronze age, but the only information I've been able to find is from merchants trying to sell Sgian Dubh. As I don't typically trust people trying to sell me things are giving accurate information I was wondering if any of you have any information of advice for finding historical examples or specifications about this culturally significant blade. 

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Go up to Show and Tell above and there's an entry from someone who makes Sqian Dobhs that shows several examples of his work.



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HELP...I'm a twenty year old trapped in the body of an old man!!!

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Are you interested in the Victorian style or an older style?  I have not come across a lot of documentation of older sgian dubhs, but I think of it as "what would a simple, useful knife look like?"  My reading of the history is that this evolved into the Victorian style of putting the knife in your hose and therefore making the hilt (what people see) the focus of the knife.  But if you look in some of the sources like John Wallace's Scottish Swords and Dirks or James Drummond's  Ancient Scottish Weapons there really is no mention of a "sgian dubh" at all and just one or two pictures of knives that are not dirks.

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Jake Cleland is the guy, he does more in the style than anyone else here.  The basic form is a short (3-4 inch) blade with a triangular shape, generally single edged, with no guard and simple handle (sometimes antler, more often wood).  Into the Victorian era they got fancy carved handles often with silver mounts and gem stone pommels.  Sometimes you see a bit of file work (called gimping, or jimping) on the spine.

Although this is not a Sgian Dubh as such, it fills the same niche.  This is one of mine that Jake said nice things about last week.

Flat on the back, double edged with just a hint of a finger stop.  It's a nasty thing, bit me 4 or 5 times while I was getting it together

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In the movie Rob Roy he has one in his hat at about 1:50

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"The worst day smithing is better than the best day working for someone else."


I said that.


If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

- - -G. K. Chesterton


So, just for the record: the fact that it does work still should not be taken as definitive proof that you are not crazy.


Grant Sarver

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Not sure how "culturally significant" they are , as far as having ancient roots, but weapons evolve. Just as the classic Scottish dirk  was once a ballock style dagger.  Which had no national identity attached until the Highlanders began putting their own characteristic stamp on it.  Then it becomes roughly standardized  until it reaches maturity at the point of being more an article of dress than  purely a weapon.   I'd assume the same path for the skeen.   I'd  say Geoff   has  the basic form  shown here. having all the features that would make it unique .  A small EDC type knife that was modified in design for being in a sock top or some other secure place.   I enjoy the far end of the spectrum myself...


skeen 2.jpg


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Isa 54:16 Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.Lu 22:36 Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. Mr 8:36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
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I think a good way to go about it is to search them in museum archives online. They'll usually have some information on time period and size etc, could be helpful in deciding what you do and don't like. I find once you've decided what sort you want to make its a lot easier to search out pieces from that period or in that particular style. 


Here's one I made a while back after researching how the ferrule and sheath worked together. It's finicky but really satisfying to put together. 



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This is kinda' a no wrong answers situation. Generally a blade between 3" and 4", single edged, spear point or clip point, but much slimmer and pointier than Americans tend to make them Flat handle no more than 1/2" thick, preferably thinner, Basically as slim and sleek as possible.



Here's an excerpt from an email I wrote to a customer a few weeks back:


'the idea of what constitutes a 'traditional' sgian dubh is a bit complicated. Prior to the 18th century it was just a small, plain knife. In the first half of the 18th C. These started to get decorated with carving in a similar style to dirk handles, but after the '45 any such distinctively 'Highland' forms were banned, outside of the British regiments, which is when the regimental sgians developed - straight, flat handles suitable for wearing in the Kilt Hose, usually with carving, plain ferrule at the blade end and closed ferrule for the top. After the prohibition was lifted, the civilian sgian developed from this regimental form, with the top ferrule being set with a stone, which became more elaborate over time, with larger stones, claw and cage settings etc, and more elaborate handle shapes, and carving styles that diverged widely from the traditional Highland dirk carvings. The thing is, these developments occurred in the context of a Victorian British culture which was completely alien and indeed openly hostile to the Highland/Gaidhlig culture that the sgian dubh came from. Being born and raised in the West Highlands, I tend to try and take my design cues from the original Highlland traditional forms as much as possible, rather than the later forms which developed in Edinburgh, Sheffield and Birmingham, outside of that cultural context.


The thing is, a lot of this is fairly subjective - there was no continuing tradition of Highland sgian dubhs out-with the broader British context - so I just try to make things that feel authentic to me and my understanding of the culture I was raised in, while steering away from things that feel like Tartanism or pastiche.'


Basically, form follows function, so early sgians, the function was to be just a small edc, usually with straight or coffin shaped handles, and spear point, or more often clip point blades. Handles were wood, horn, antler, even dried kelp in the islands and costal areas. For later sgians, the function became decorative, and being able to be worn in the sock. Flat, slim, light, and more and more decorative.



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Jake Cleland - Skye Knives


"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe."


Albert Einstein

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