The skean dhu is an essential part of any man’s Scottish highland outfit and, in common with the rest of the dress, there is a proper way to wear this accessory. It is easier if each item of the costume is taken in turn, ensuring the socks and garters are in place before the skean dhu is added. The word itself, or sgian dubh as it is more correctly named, comes from the Gaelic for black dagger. It is now worn inside the sock for decoration purposes only and not for defence or attack, as it was commonly used amongst highlanders in the past.
Traditionally, the skean dhu is worn tucked inside the knee-high sock on the opposite side to your writing hand, although most men now wear it on the right leg. According to Gilt Edged, if a man is right-handed, the dagger used to be placed next to the skin inside the sock on the left leg, and on the right leg if left-handed. The head of the skean dhu should be visible outside the top of the stocking so it is not considered a weapon and, these days, the knife should be no longer than 8.9 cm (3.5 inches) long.
The Rainnea Studio near Loch Ness suggests that the Gaelic name for black knife, sgian dhub, was so called because of the dark appearance of the original knives. Often made from dark bog wood, the blade itself became dark through years of use. Another theory suggests it was the dark nature of such a concealed weapon that gave it the name, as a slightly longer type of knife was originally hidden in the inside arm of the jacket, under the left armpit. As an everyday working knife for highlanders in the past, it was kept ready to use at a moment’s notice.
No highland outfit is complete without the skean dhu and most highland outfitters can provide an ornate replica dagger for use with the kilt socks. The knife is normally encased in a sheath for safety and held in place by the garter band around the sock, and the sock is then turned over at the top. According to Skye Knives, the tradition of placing the knife inside the stocking came about due to highland hospitality. Rather than hand over his weapon when visiting, as was customary, the highlander removed his skean dhu from concealment and placed it in full view to signify his friendly intent.
A skean dhu normally consists of a steel blade and an ornate handle custom-made from some type of wood or horn. According to MacGregor and MacDuff, Celtic and thistle themes are popular for the carved decoration on the top half of the dagger, and they often contain a coloured stone to match a particular tartan. Popular materials used for the handle include deer antler, which is made of bone, blackwood, rosewood and oak.
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