As of today, Nepal has still been largely spared the nightmare of Covid. But it has come at a high price. The country is in lockdown and without a welfare state, the poorest who are commonly casual labourers, have no income and are struggling to eat. Our skilled sgian dubh craftsman isn’t able to access his workshop so we’ve send funds to keep him and his family going. If you’d like to support life-giving health work in Nepal then you can give tax effectively from the US, Austrlia, UK and Canada here.
No need to brandish your sgian dubh in self-defence if approached by an ‘upkilter’ – you now have full legal protection :-)
More on this story from the bbc here.
Well that’s how you pronounce it. But what is the origin of this term for the famous Scottish ankle knife, and how do you spell it?
Sgian dubh literally means ‘dark (dubh) knife (sgian)’ in Scots Gaelic. The ‘dubh’ refers to its secretive, hidden nature, rather than its physical colour. The idea was to have a small, hidden knife that could be used if you’d been disarmed, or had surrendered your arms at a meeting.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of wrong alternative spellings out there. Here’s a collection of the one’s we’ve found but let us know if you have another one!
Sgian dhu – probably the most common mis-spelling
Skene dhu – is also common
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.
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.