As anyone who reads my Magic books knows, my characters are far more likely to wield a tarot card or a beaker of chemicals than a knife. But I’m researching a series I want to set in Victorian Edinburgh, and one cannot ignore the history of the sgian dubh, the traditional Scots weapon. If nothing else, my heroes would use it to whittle firewood, although I have a suspicion before I get too far, they’ll find better uses.
But as one does, my dip into one small knife led to a bunny trail of other knives, and I saw no reason to let all that lovely armory go to waste. The Gaelic spelling of sgian dubh is often translated into English as skean-dhu, meaning black knife or possibly hidden knife. Originally, courtesy required disarming when entering a friend’s house. The theory is that the knives traditionally hidden in the armpit (owwww–even in a sheath, that can't be comfortable) were transferred to the garter where they could be seen. The old daggers were often heavily adorned with silver and jewels, mainly because the owners didn’t trust paper money. (A whole ‘nuther topic—the Scots were the first to go to paper banknotes rather than coinage)
The sgian dubh is only 3-4 inches long and is single-edged, scarcely more than a pocketknife. Which, of course, led to a look into pocket knives, just in case my hero might prefer a folding knife in his pocket rather than a sgian dubh under his trouser leg (this is the Victorian era I'm researching and kilts were ceremonial by then). It really didn’t occur to me that a pocket knife was a possibility until I dug into them and discovered the first jackknife—a blade with a handle— dates back to around 600 BC. More amazing yet, the Romans had a version of the Swiss Army knife with a spoon, fork, blade, spatula, and other useful tools. The knives didn’t have springs to hold them closed but required pressure to open. In the 1600s Sheffield, England produced a penny folding knife that became important to farmers and workers, if only because it was cheap. The switchblade was also invented by the skilled Sheffield manufacturers in the mid-1700s. I think my favorite pocketknife, though, is the butterfly knife that became popular in the Philippines in the early 1700s. Pulling on the two handles reveals a hidden blade. (I couldn't get a copyright free photo of the switchblade or butterfly knife but the one on the right is a Sheffield knife from about 1850)
And since this is Scotland we’re talking about, I had to dig into the history of dirks, because in my dense head, dirks ought to be in the same category as small knives carried by guys. Shame on me. The original dirk dates back to 16th century Highlands, where the people were too poor to own full-fledged swords. A thrusting weapon, sometimes as long as three feet, a dirk was an essential tool that every Highlander carried on him. It became a badge of honor by which they’d swear oaths, possibly right before running someone through with it. After the ’45, dirks were banned along with tartans.
The ceremonial Highland dirks currently worn were developed during the early 1800s. Like the sgian dubh, the hilt is often bog oak or ebony and lavishly decorated. Unlike the sgian dubh, the ceremonial blade is a hefty 12” and is usually hung by a strap from the waist above the kilt.
The ceremonial short swords worn by the Navy are a different tradition, a boarding weapon and fighting dagger usually worn by officers and midshipmen, unchanged in 500 years of sailing and now worn as a badge of office.
I’d like to see the faces of the TSA if we all started walking through airports armed with knives in our socks and dirks in our belts! One can see the appeal of time traveling romance when the armed Highlander walks through that gate. . .
Do you enjoy Scottish romances? Do you have a favorite?