The seed germinates

Nepali Kukuri

5 years after my conversation with Sheila Fleet I found myself in the beautiful country of Nepal, working for a Christian mission that serves poor people and communities through health and community development. It wasn’t long until I found myself in a ‘Kukuri’ shop, admiring the traditional knives of Nepal; worn by Gurkha soldiers as part of their uniform and a vital every-day tool for millions of Nepalis living in the village.

Of course I bought one. And there in the corner of the shop were a pile of miniature kukuris. Instantly I knew that this was to be my Nepali sgian dubh, to complement my Ugandan one. That evening I proudly reviewed my new knives. As I turned them over in my hands, they were everything that my long-lost plastic sgian dubh wasn’t. Real. Crafted from honest materials by skilled artisans. Beautiful and functional.

A thought flashed through my mind. Surely the guys who made these could make me a real sgian dubh. The seed that was sown by Sheila Fleet in Orkney 5 years previously germinated into life.

In the beginning

My Ugandan Sgian Dubh

I’d just turned 18 and like many Scotsmen was getting a full highland outfit to mark my “coming of age”. My younger sisters clubbed together to buy my sgian dubh and, having always been fascinated by knives and craft, I was really excited to finally get my hands on this symbol of Scottish manhood.

With apologies to my wonderful sisters, I remember trying to hide my disappointment as I held the machine-produced plasticky thing in my hands, with a blade that I could have bent with my teeth and its fake ‘Cairngorm’ stone.

It was no sadness to loose the dubh within a year.

After uni  I spent a gap year in the north west of Uganda working on Church-run agricultural project. On a visit to the nearby River Nile, I purchased a lovely locally made knife, fashioned from an old lorry spring. I learned later that when the British colonised Uganda, they banned local blacksmiths, partly to dismantle local weapon making but also to create a market for British-produced ironmongery.

My new knife was nothing special to look at – but it was real; made by a real craftsman from honest wood and steel. It was a half-decent knife and it had a story. I wrapped the blade in bit of cardboard and wore it with pride as my sgian duhh for over a decade (including at my wedding).

The week after my wedding I was in the wonderful Orkney Isles on my honeymoon. My love of natural materials and real craft took me to visit several Orkney artisans, including to the workshop of the famous silver jeweller Sheila Fleet. The place was so quiet that we were able to chat to Sheila – and as our conversation developed she asked me what kind of craft I was interested in and what I liked making.

I confessed to having minimal craft skills myself – but in a throwaway comment mentioned that perhaps in my retirement I might have a go at making a couple of sgian dubhs. ‘I think you should’ she said. A seed was sown.