And the birds of the air shall be gorged with their prey, When the Chief of Glengarry comes down to the fray, With his war-cry, The Rock of the Raven.
—Ancient Highland bardic lyric
It was late afternoon in the Scottish Highlands, July 27, 1689. General Hugh Mackay was nervously organizing his 4,400 Lowland Scots and English soldiers as they emerged from the gorge that formed the pass of Killiecrankie. It was bad ground for a fight. With his back to the river, Mackay faced an uphill slope— where some 2,400 Highlanders stood.
Most were barefoot, and they had shed their heavy woolen great-kilts and stood in silence with their long shirttails whipping loose about their thighs. It was easy to see why the English and the Lowland Scots called the Highlander a savage and a barbarian.
On his left forearm, each man wore a round leather-covered shield called a targe. A 10-inch steel spike jutted from the center of each targe, making even the shield an offensive weapon. In his left hand, which was thrust through the targe’s leather straps, he gripped a knife known as a dirk. Its blade was long enough that 4 or 5 inches protruded below the edge of the targe. In his right hand, each man held the Highlander’s yard-long, basket-hilt broadsword.
The Highlanders began to move down the slope, at a hard run, screaming their clan war cries. The Battle of Killiecrankie was over in 30 minutes. Some 3,800- 4,000 English troops lay slaughtered on the field, as the Highlanders retrieved their own slain—about 800. Along with its deadly kin, the broadsword, the Scottish dirk had again done its work.
In all the rich variety of the world of knives, few are as distinctive as the Scottish dirk. It is still around today, but in its current form, the dirk is a massive piece of male jewelry worn as part of formal evening dress. Like many a Scot who wore it, however, the dirk had both humble and violent beginnings.
The first true dirks appeared in the early 1600s, evolving from the medieval ballock dagger. The ballock dagger was a stabbing weapon designed to pierce armor, with a heavy, sharply pointed blade and a handle in the form of an erect penis with the testicles—the “ballocks”—forming protective bulges between the handle and blade. In polite company, the weapon was sometimes called a kidney dagger.
The first Scottish dirks retained the ballocks between the handle and blade but developed a wide, flaring pommel capped by a circular brass disk. Although the flared pommel may have looked awkward, it helped to prevent the dirk from being knocked from a clansman’s hand when his targe was receiving blows. The dirk’s handle was carved of ivy root or boxwood root, usually cylindrical in shape, with grooves or one or two bands of Celtic knotwork carved around it. The blade was about 12 inches long, thick, heavy and triangular in both profile and cross-section.
This early dirk was carried in a leather sheath, usually worn in the front center, with the point dangling between the wearer’s legs. It frequently had a single “by-knife,” or utility knife with a 5- or 6- inch blade, carried in a pocket on the outside of the sheath. Along with a spoon, the by-knife was the Highlander’s primary eating utensil.
As the dirk continued to evolve, it became what today we would call a camp knife. Firearms made body armor obsolete, so there was no longer any need for the heavy, sharply tapered point. By 1700 a broader but thinner spear point more suited for general-purpose cutting became the norm. The single by-knife was reduced in size to around a 4-inch blade, and a matching two-tined fork was incorporated into the sheath.
The form of the dirk also changed over the years. The thinner blade allowed dirks to be made from ground-down sword blades, which meant that for the first time the average dirk blade had one or more fullers, the grooves sometimes called “blood grooves.” The ballocks lost their bulbous character and became gently tapered haunches. The cylindrical handle took on a more curved shape, better to fill the hand. The large disk pommel cap was slowly reduced in size and began to be formed over the edges of the wooden pommel, further protecting its edge from damage.
The battle tactics in which the dirk played a role worked well, even against great odds, until the fateful Battle of Culloden in 1746. There, Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart, 1720-88) mismanaged the Highlanders, leaving the clans shattered, along with Scotland’s hope for independence. Following the Battle of Culloden, all weapons were forbidden to the Highlanders. Even bagpipes were classed as a weapon of war. To be caught wearing a kilt or tartan in any form brought a harsh and automatic sentence. The English nevertheless bowed to the obvious because the Scots were a tough, combative people and good fighters. So the dirk, kilt and targe lived on in the Highland regiments that began to be formed in the British army.
In the American colonies, Scots and dirks were still in plentiful supply. During the Revolutionary War, they fought in large numbers on both sides. By now the dirk had taken on a characteristic form. It had a single-edge, spear-point blade 10 to 13 inches long and a knotwork-carved handle, sometimes with decorative metal pins carefully placed in the interlacing of the carving. The thin brass disk on the pommel had developed into a full pommel cap, still circular in design; but since the targe was no longer used, the disk was now reduced to a proportion more in keeping with the size of the handle. To properly support the by-knife and fork, the sheath was reinforced with a wooden lining.
In 1782 the English proscription against Highland weapons and dress was repealed. In the early 1800s, Sir Walter Scott’s novels, such as Ivanhoe, romanticized the age of chivalry. A Scot himself, Scott wrote a series of novels based on the Highlander, in which he contrasted the simple code of honor of the Highlander with the political deviousness of the Lowland Scot and the English. By the dawn of the Victorian age, he and other less well-known writers had transformed the poverty-stricken Highland clansman into a romantic figure in the same way the dime novelist transformed the American cowboy into a hero. Even today, males of the British royal family often wear kilts while in Scotland at Holyrood Palace or Balmoral Castle.
It was during this period that the dirk became an item of jewelry. Beginning about 1800, the dirk began a transformation. The blade retained its traditional size and shape, but the hilt started to assume some totally impractical forms. Some looked like three balls stacked one upon the other; others took an extreme thistle shape, with the handle at the base of the pommel ridiculously small in diameter. Others retained more traditional and practical shapes. However, almost all began to be highly decorated. The bold knotwork carving degenerated into a shallow basket-weave pattern, with the emphasis now on the large metal pins at the corners of each panel. Pommels remained large and became highly decorated both with engraving and three-dimensional castings. Some were hollow to hold snuff, and many were mounted with agates or “cairn” stones, smoky quartz or citrines from the Cairn Mountains of Scotland. They were no longer made by clan smiths in the Highlands alone, but by prominent cutlers in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and ultimately by famous English companies such as Wilkinson Sword.
As the Scottish revival grew, some of the ostentatious wealth that had Britons building replica 1400s castles in the Highlands and huge country manor houses in England began to be applied to the dirk. Most became mounted in coin or sterling silver, and some in gold. Handles were now carved from ebony or ivory, and although the carving had lost its vitality, it was still studded with gold or silver pins. Semiprecious stones, citrine or amethyst, were inserted in the pommels of dirk, knife and fork. To show off the stones to better advantage, they began to be tilted outward. For those who could not afford real stones, fakes were made of colored glass or cut crystal backed by various colored metal foils. Toward the end of this period, from 1890 until World War I, some dirks had the entire handle formed from a single faceted citrine crystal, with mounts and sheaths of solid silver.
A businessman dressed in a kilt in Edinburgh today is wearing much the same clothing that was worn in 1700. The dirk is still manufactured and worn, along with the sgian dubh, or stocking knife. However, the modern dirk seems to be of two classes. One is sold in Scottish shops for prices ranging from $200 to $800. The cheapest of these have handles and stones cast in plastic, and the mounts are pewter castings plated with nickel or gold. The better ones are rather plain, usually without by-knife or fork. Their mounts are undecorated sheet sterling silver, and the handles are blackwood carved in nontraditional floral patterns by craftsmen in India. The pommel stones are often paste.
The other class of modern dirk is crafted by a custom maker. They are almost never seen in stores, even in Scotland. There are a wide variety of styles, but even the cheapest is expensive. Depending on the complexity of the pattern, the layout and carving of the handle can take one to four days; and even making, polishing and installing the pins in the carving can take a full day. This is multiplied by the fact that there are usually four components: the dirk, the by-knife and fork, and a complex, wood-lined sheath. Frequently there are six components, when the sgian dubh and its sheath are added; these are often ordered “en suite” with the dirk. The entire set invariably becomes a family heirloom and is rarely resold.
A great deal of work goes into shaping and engraving the mounts, whether of brass or sterling silver. If stones are desired, the costs go even higher. A faceted round citrine or amethyst 11⁄8 inch in diameter, about minimum for a dirk pommel, will run about 100 carats, and one of average size, about 13⁄8 inches, will weigh 130 carats. Depending on the quality, these stones will cost from $9 to $15 per carat, and they are hard to find in large, round shapes.
Like the kilt, the dirk is unique to Western culture. Although it comes in an infinite variety, it has always been instantly recognizable as a Scottish knife. It differs from other large sheath knives in that it has been in continuous use since the early 1600s. Where else in Western society is it considered high fashion to stroll into a formal dinner dance wearing a knife with a 13-inch blade?
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.