Perhaps you are attending a Highland wedding, or are playing a part in a reenactment. You think you are fully prepared, but you scan the list one last time to make sure. Kilt, check. Clan brooch, check. Underwear…that’s another story. Sgian dubh…hang on, what?

If there is one thing you can say about the Scots, they are undoubtedly resourceful. From designing the kilt as the perfect uniform for a battle to distinguishing friend from foe thanks to clan tartan designs, the nation is the brainchild behind a range of innovations in style and practicality.

The sgian dubh is yet another example of combining fashion with function, but it is so often overlooked when we explore Scottish history. Once you have got past the pronunciation (skien – doo if you were curious), you then get to the nitty-gritty. 

Fortunately for you, we have the ultimate guide to this must-have accessory. Read on for everything you didn’t know you needed to know!


What Is A Sgian Dubh?

In the simplest terms, the sgian dubh is a small dagger, often worn as part of the traditional Scottish Highland dress alongside a classic kilt. 

The design is thought to have evolved from a sgian-achlais, which was a dagger designed to be concealed beneath the armpit. These were popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were often carried in a jacket lining or upper sleeve, before being revealed when entering the home as a friend, as etiquette demanded. 

At this point, the sgian-achlais was removed from the upper body. The dagger was then displayed in the stocking top, held in place by garters. This gesture helped to set hosts and guests at ease. It was also a sign of good manners and respect. 

The sgian dubh is similar in design to its predecessor but likely served a very different purpose. The dagger was thought to have been part of a set of hunting knives. It may have predominantly been used for protection. Eating and preparing food are also likely options; this tool was perfect for cutting bread, cheese meats, and fruits.

How Are They Made?

A sgian dubh is instantly recognizable by its ‘spear-point’ tip. These daggers would typically have been made from steel and have a blade of around three or three and a half inches.

Early examples housed in the National Museum of Scotland show fine German and Scandanavian steel being used; both materials highly prized by Highlanders. As with many Scottish ceremonial knives, many models include scalloped file work on the rear.

The blade would have resided in a scabbard, and traditional models consisted of hide or leather. Wood was used to reinforce this base for extra strength and then fitted with a silver mount. 

The mount was where the real decoration happened; it could be engraved with a particular design. Heraldic elements such as family crests and coat of arms were popular and acted as both identifiers and status symbols. 

The Scottish thistle or Celtic knotwork were also popular options, and many of these designs could be very elaborate. An intricate, detailed scabbard was considered a luxury and a sign of wealth; generally, this would be hidden from view while the sgian dubh was being worn. For more disadvantaged families, cheaper metal substitutes would often be used.

In the modern world, you will likely find yourself equipped with a sgian dubh for purely ceremonial reasons. Some classic collectors pieces will still go to town on luxury, and employ stunning, hand-carved ebony or bogwood for the hilt, real jewels and gems for decoration, and Damascus steel blades. 

Engravings and carvings often form a big part of the design, and family motifs or heralds may be included, alongside traditional Celtic designs and images. These are usually considered artworks and will be reserved for display by collectors or specialist institutions. Such signs can reach eye-watering prices, and offer a real throwback to the designs of times gone by.

For the most part, however, the sgian dubh of today is more for appearance than survival. As a result, designs tend to be simpler, with stainless steel blades and plastic hilts designed to resemble carved wood or leather. 

Others may be a pure imitation, and consist of a single piece of molded plastic, designed to emulate the real thing. This change makes the tools cheaper, but it also helps keep everyone safe when you find yourself trapped at a stressful family wedding with no end in sight…


How To Wear A Sgian Dubh

So the time has come. You are looking snazzy in a kilt, your sporran is secure, and you need to attach this scary-looking weapon to your person. So how do you do it?

As a rule, the sgian dubh is worn as part of a full Highland outfit, so it tends to be a common sight at festivals, reenactments, and even weddings. Ultimately, the choice is personal and will depend mainly on those around you and your own comfort levels.

Following the traditional method, the sgian dubh is worn partially concealed, echoing the Highland travelers of long ago. They would remove all of their weapons upon visiting a residence, with the exception of a concealed dagger. This was retained as a form of protection, but as a compromise, it would be worn at the top of the kilt hose, visible but accessible.

This tradition continues to this day. Only the upper part of the hilt should be displayed, and it tends to be worn on the same side as whichever hand is dominant. It is placed midway between the outside and front of your lower leg.

Get Your Sgian Dubh at The Celtic Croft

We have a variety of sgian dubhs for you to choose from to wear with your kilt.

Modern Concerns

You may be replicating an authentic Highlander, but it is essential to follow the law. Make sure that you check with any local laws, regulations, and requirements. As a general rule, the police will grant permission if you have good reason; many officers will allow the accessory at an organized event. 

Always check carefully to avoid any unwanted confrontations, and remember that if you are planning to travel, the sgian dubh will need to travel in the hold, never in your cabin baggage. 

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