Scottish Weapons – The Highland Dirk

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The dirk (Gaelic: Biodag) is a long-standing personal sidearm…

…as well as a useful thing to have on a picnic. That is, it was a practical knife for the field as well as a weapon. The dirk was a hunting knife as much as anything else. People unfamiliar with Scottish armaments sometimes confuse the dirk with the Sgian Dubh. Though quite useful and symbolic, the latter is a much smaller utility knife. 

The traditional form of the Highland dirk evolved from a popular Renaissance-era knife known as the Bollock (or Ballock) Dagger. Some early dirks were double-edged, but the single edge design prevailed. On average a dirk blade was 12″ in length. The dull side often featured a fuller (groove) and decorative file work called “jimping”. The single-edge design allowed for a thicker, heavier blade — more resistant to the stress of Highland-style combat. As with Highland swords, the blades were usually made in Germany, in either Solingen or Passau. “Solingen steel” became a by-word for quality with almost mystical reverence attached to it. 

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Hilts were carved from a hard wood such as oak (the blackwood we are used to now was a later period import). Not merely decorative, the swirling knotwork carvings and studs improved the grip. Over the centuries, the hilt design changed from the ballock type to a bulbous cylindrical form with a flat pommel. This element was borrowed from another dagger style called the Rondel. These features offered a surer grip. The flat pommel was also an advantage when holding the knife blade-down in combat while also carrying a targe (the Scottish buckler shield).

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Repro of a common Dirk design for the 17th through 18th centuries.

As the knife became more of a ceremonial item, the hilts became more and more decorative. It was in the 19th century that the familiar thistle bloom form took hold along with the jewel pommel which was originally Cairngorm quartz crystal. The dirk had evolved into a symbol of Scotland itself. 

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Officer’s Dirk, circa 1850.

It was also around this time that the dirk was paired with matching smaller knives or even a fork (see image below). This last touch was probably a result of Victorian estate stag hunting culture. Despite their primitive appearance, stag handle dirks are also a development of this 19th century culture, as opposed to combat dirks. 

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Scottish Hunting Dirk — quite dissimilar from a combat dirk. It’s rather German.

 

Weapons - Jacobite-dirks-and-sporrans.jpgBallock daggers, not surprisingly, were worn in the front of the body, either directly at center or slightly off-side. You can see why looking at the design of the hilt! The dirk was the same way until the late 18th century — off to the side near the sporran on a relatively thin belt. As the wider kilt belt evolved, the placement of the dirk shifted to the hip. In fact, the kilt belt was often referred to as a “dirk belt” or “weapons belt.” The wider design of the 18th and 19th century kilt belt helped in supporting the weight of accessorized dirks, larger sporrans (before the separate sporran strap became common) and other equipment such as pistols. The sword was usually carried by means of a baldric.

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By the time of George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822, the part-practical, part-ceremonial officer’s rig had been well established.

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Kissing the “holy steel”.

The highland dirk was always associated with a man’s personal honor. While swords were relatively expensive, everyone had a knife.

The Highlanders preserved an ancient Celto-norse tradition of swearing oaths upon the blades of weapons. This was probably rooted in the ancient belief that the forging of steel was a sort of magic and weapons possessed a sort of spirit or connection to the divine. (For more on this, look up the Celtic goddess Brigid, the mythical Volund the Smith, and the chivalric custom of swearing on the cruciform sword, just for a start!).

Since everyone had a dirk, everyone could use it for personal oaths and these were taken absolutely seriously. An oath was charged with what Irish Gaelic calls Geas (geis, géis, deas; plural geasa) — a personal taboo of obligation or prohibition. Swearing on steel basically meant that supernatural forces were witnessing the oath and would hold you to it with horrible consequences for you, and even your family, if you failed.

Enforcement of The Acts of Proscription, imposed by the British Crown in 1747, show a perfect example of this. Literate men were made to sign pledges, but illiterates were forced to repeat a specific oath giving up possession of their guns, swords and pistols as well as the use of tartan. The oath ended with:

“… and if I do so may I be cursed in my undertakings, family and property, may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without burial in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred; may all this come across me if I break my oath.”

The dirk was, and still is, a way to show off wealth, status and style and to this day is worn as ceremonial ornamentation. Today the dirk is only regularly worn by officers, bagpipers and drummers of Scottish Highland regiments. However, many men add it as an accessory for fraternal meetings, weddings or any time they may be the center of attention, such as delivering the Address to a Haggis at a Burns Supper.

 

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Ceremonial Victorian Officer’s Dirk with accessories.

 

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