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First and foremost, a sgian dubh is not a weapon and never was. Of course, it could be used as a weapon, and no doubt often was when the desperate need occurred, but that would be in the same way a hammer might be used as a weapon – primarily these were tools. Keep in mind that prior to the nineteenth century, men often carried around swords and dirks on a daily basis, so a little knife would be pathetically useless against those.
Call that a knife? Although in fairness, this sort of huge battle sword would *not* have been carried round day to day.
Although the origins of the Sgian Dubh probably lie with the handy tool-knife, the modern practice also carries over some traditions from the armpit carried ‘sgian-achlais’, as well as the dirk, but we’ll talk more about this another time. The modern sock-borne Sgian dubh as we know it comes from the end of the eighteenth century, the earliest depictions being from the portrait of Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonnell of Glengarry of 1812.
It might be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when knifes were essential items that almost everyone carried round – men, women and even children. They were primarily for eating, cutting and preparing food, especially fruit, bread and cheese, but would also be applied to handiwork, skinning, and other odd jobs. School children (and keep in mind that from the Reformation Scotland had one of the best education systems in Europe) carried knives in order to sharpen their quills. This sort of domestic knives are the most likely origin for the little Sgian Dubh.
So where does this leave us today? Well, the bladed Sgian Dubh is usually just carried as a ceremonial ornament as part of the tradition of the highland wear, and we offer these in several varieties. But on top of this, we have tried to update this tradition in two ways, to make versions of the Sgian Dubh that can be useful, as it originally was. First, we have the Sgian Brew. Instead of a sharp blade, we have a bottle opener, but otherwise entirely in the form of a traditional Sgian dubh.
Second, we have the ‘Officer’ multi-tool sgian dubh. Taking a lead from the officers of the Highland Regiments during the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 up to the First World War of 1914-1918, this bladed sgian dubh fits a corkscrew, bottle opener and screwdriver into the handle.
In both cases we wanted to get back to the essential origins of the Sgian Dubh: as something useful.