Gaelic: Sgian, or knife; and Dubh, or black.
Commonly translated as “hidden knife”.
Alternate spellings: Skene du, Skein dubh, skean dhu, Skhian dubh, Sgian-dubh
Pronunciation: skee n doo
The sgian dubh is an integral part of your Scottish Highlandwear, along with your kilt and sporran. Yet, the sgian dubh has only really been a part of a traditional kilt outfit since the 1800’s. Earlier, it may have been common to carry a sgian achlais (armpit knife) in the coat sleeve. This could potentially be used for self-defence, but more likely for cutting up and eating your food. In any case, when entering someone’s home, it would be common courtesy to reveal all hidden weapons, generally giving them to your host for safekeeping. Not wanting to be left completely unprotected, nor offend their host, many would place their sgian achlais in the top of the sock, close to their dominant hand, hence today’s placement. This partially hidden placement, or perhaps the use of bog oak for a handle (a black coloured wood) led to today's name.
An alternate origin story could come from the sgian dubh’s similarity to a particular hunting knife. This small knife, used for skinning, is found in a typical set of Gralloch, or hunting knives. These knives generally have handles made of stag horn, like that of early sgian dubhs.
Decorative hilts on a sgian dubh, too, do not have a very long history. In military wear in the 18th century, Celtic knots may have been common to represent courage, intelligence, and strength. Many other decorative marks, including a pommel on the hilt, may have been added to match a dirk, and provide a matching set of knives. This is contrary to the belief that the pommel is there to balance the knife for throwing - these knives would, if anything, be used for stabbing, not throwing. A decorative sgian dubh scabbard is just for show, as it will not be seen while the knife is tucked into a kilt wearer’s stocking.
Like the earliest known sgian dubhs, an informal blade used in a day outfit can have a handle made of stag antler, or simple wood among other things. A dress sgian dubh will be fancier, having a hilt of wood, plastic, or even ebony, and decorative carvings or stones.
Though you could potentially eat with your blade, or use it for self-defence in a pinch, today’s sgian dubhs are just for decoration, especially the safety blades. Sgian dubhs can be modified several ways. As suggested above, decorative hilts are made with different aesthetics, and they can be engraved for your own personalisation. You can choose your sgian dubhs to match your kilt accessories for a completely matching Scottish kilt outfit. If you are interested in a sgian dubh for your Scottish kilt outfit, there are many different desgins you can choose from. You can even choose to have one with your clan crest emblazoned on the sgian achlais.