Spotlight: The Scottish Dirk
An article by Chad Arnow
Daggers and knives have been part of civilian wear and military dress since the first knives were crafted from stone. A few cultures throughout history, though, have taken this utilitarian tool and really turned it into an item of great cultural significance. The dirk, as developed by the Scots, is one of these weapons.
Dirks were effective weapons in war as well as a useful tool for everyday tasks, including eating. They were also more affordable than a sword. Taking these things into account, it is easy to see why it was hard to find a Highlander without such a weapon.
What is a dirk? At its most basic a dirk can be defined as a "long dagger with a straight blade." This loose definition of course encompasses many different kinds of knives; in fact, most daggers will fit within this definition. The Scottish dirk, though, has unique features that set it apart from other straight-bladed sidearms.
The Scottish dirk is a direct descendant of the medieval ballock dagger. Looking at the late stylized versions of the dirk, it may be difficult to see a relation to its earlier cousin. The early versions, though, show its lineage more clearly.
A popular dagger of the high Middle Ages with military men and civilians alike was the ballock dagger. This dagger is named for the rather phallic shape of its hilt: two round protuberances are surmounted by a cylindrical grip. Added to this is the fact that it was often worn front-and-center on the belt, with the grip pointing straight up. It is easy to see why people in more prudish times have preferred to call it a "kidney dagger." These knives began to appear on the continent in the early 14th century; their first appearance in the British Isles on effigial monuments, notably those of Sir William de Aldeburgh and Robert Parys, came within a half century of their continental appearance.
Most ballock daggers were hilted simply with carved wood, though examples hilted with metal, bone, or ivory have been found, along with occasional examples hilted with exotic materials like agate. As they developed and flourished the "pommel" end of the grip began to swell slightly, giving the grip a more conical shape. Reinforcing plates also began to appear on both ends of the grip: as a bolster or reinforcement between blade and grip and as a plate on the butt end of the grip.
These daggers had blades most suitable for "stabbing," according to James D. Forman's book The Scottish Dirk. These blades, however, varied greatly in form. Single-edged blades with wedge cross-sections have been found as well as double-edged blades with thick diamond cross-sections. Examples have also been found with blades of triangular or, more rarely, square cross-sections.
Sheaths for ballock daggers were of heavy leather. Later examples were known to have metal fittings and places to store auxiliary knives and other implements.
The ballock took on its own distinctive flair in the British Isles beginning in the early seventeenth century with makers in Edinburgh's Canongate. Often hilted in native boxwood (known as dudgeon), they were fittingly called dudgeon daggers. Dudgeon daggers were hilted in a similar fashion to ballock daggers: most often with a grip of wood whose haft was cylindrical or octagonal in shape. The protuberances which gave the ballock dagger its name remained in place. Some examples showed bands of interlace carving on the grip.
A key difference, though, was in the blade. Dudgeon dagger blades were almost exclusively two-edged with either a thick diamond cross-section or a hollow-ground one. These blades also often possessed a prominent ricasso section and were frequently etched and gilded. Crests and mottoes were known to adorn these blades, features that carried through into later dirks.
Dudgeon daggers were usually housed in sheaths of hardened leather, often cylindrical and tooled according to Forman. Metal scabbard mounts seem to have been uncommon, though they are known to have existed.
"Dirks, dorks, durckes are frequently mentioned during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually in the Burgh and Court records of towns on or near the Highland Line," according to John Wallace. Some writers consider these references to encompass ballock daggers, dudgeon daggers and dirks. One account, though, seems to specifically refer to what we think of as a dirk. Richard James (1592-1638) describes a highlander's arms like this in his account of Shetland, Orkney, and the Highlands (as quoted by Wallace): "the weapons which they use are a longe basket hilt sworde, and long kind of dagger broad in the back and sharp at ye pointe which they call a durcke."
Researchers such as Ewart Oakeshott, James Forman, and John Wallace agree on the earliest dateable appearance of the dirk: an effigy dated to 1502 in Ardchattan Priory shows a knight girded with a dagger clearly identifiable as a dirk. It is larger than the average ballock dagger of the time and possesses a blade that is wide at the hilt and tapers to a strong point. Its sheath contains a by-knife.
Wallace groups early dirks into two categories which overlap in date. The first group "is akin to the dudgeon dagger, and to its medieval ancestor the ballock-knife, because of its small, well rounded haunches. It has a wide, flat pommel, and a cylindrical grip, with little or no decoration in the way of carvingperhaps a simple band of interlace at the top and bottom of the grip. The National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland has a specimen of this type inscribed and dated FEAR GOD AND DO NOT KIL 1680. It is unlikely that this type survived the first decade of the eighteenth century, as it was somewhat archaic even then."
The second group "also has a large flat pommel, and a cylindrical grip. But the haunches are parallel-sided, though they have a round-ness which marks them out from the later, fully-developed dirk... This second group could have been manufactured at any time in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century."
Early dirks shared common characteristics, according to Wallace. The lower edge of the hilt was curved and without metal reinforcement. The blades were long and single-edged with the tang peened over "a large burr or button." Some examples show "gimping" of the blade spine, an effect that makes the spine of the blade look like it has dull saw teeth.
The leather sheaths extended upward to cover the haunches and often contained pockets for by-knives and forks. The hilts were normally of wood, though Wallace puts most of the non-wooden-hilted dirks (those hilted with materials such as horn or brass) into this early category.
The early dirks seem to have suffered from basic design flaws. The pommel plate did not offer full protection to the pommel end of the grip. Also unprotected were the wooden haunches. This is most likely why many examples of early dirks show damage to those areas.
The earliest "traditional" dirks seem to appear shortly after the oppression, reign, and life of Oliver Cromwell ended in 1658, according to James Forman. The fully developed dirk seems to address these weaknesses more effectively. Dirks of traditional form featured an evolved pommel; the pommel plate laps over the edges of the wooden pommel, forming a pommel cap. The curve at the bottom of the haunches remained, though it was now reinforced with a plate of metal and sometimes additionally with strips of metal up the sides of the haunches. The haunches, too, underwent development, becoming less rounded with "sides flattened in the same plane as the blade," according to Wallace. The knotwork carving on the grips became more intricate, usually covering the entire grip and extending down onto the haunches. Small studs appeared in the gaps of the knotwork.
Blades of the old single-edge tapered form made solely for dirks still existed, though cut-down sword blades (often imported from the blade-making centers of Solingen and Passau) became increasingly common. This could be an early example of recycling for cost purposes, though most experts agree it was done more because the imported blades were better tempered than those of local manufacture. Disarming acts such as the one issued in 1716 "seems only to have encouraged the cutting down of worn-out sword blades to be remounted as dirks" according to Forman.
The older sheaths of leather were increasingly reinforced with metal as well, though their tops no longer covered the haunches. Instead, the tops of the sheaths were curved to nestle within the curve of the haunches. When present, pockets for by-knives and forks were also metal bound. Rather than being carried side-by-side, the by-knife/fork pair began to be carried one beneath the other, though examples have been found in the old configuration.
Dirks of this form enjoyed their heyday for less than a century. The disaster at Culloden in 1745 led to prohibitions of wearing highland dress and accoutrements by those not in the army. These conditions caused the dirk to be worn less frequently unless you had connections with authorities willing to look the other way. Dirks up to this point had shown a preference for function over form. The carving, while complex and often beautifully executed, did not detract from the usability of the dirk. In fact, the interlaced knots on the grips (whose origins can be traced to the Celts and the Norse) may have added needed traction in the heat of battle when sweat and blood had made the hands slick.
Fancier fittings for both grip and scabbard, often of silver, became even more common after 1800 and the decorations showed direct correlations to silverware of the day. By-knives and forks were similarly decorated. These extra implements began to feature cairngorms and other precious stones on their pommels, a feature that found its way to the pommel of the dirk itself. Late examples have the pommel of the dirk canted forward to better show off the stone.
Dirks of this late form were issued to Highland regiments after the '45. The musket and bayonet grew in popularity in military and circles while many regimental budgets became stretched thin. The dirk was dropped from the gear of the rank and file soldier, though officers still carried them, more as status symbols than weapons of war. Each regiment adopted its own pattern, many which can still be positively linked to a particular unit and time.
The Scottish dirk when used alone seems to have been used in much the same manner as its progenitors: held point-down in a grip know today as the "ice pick grip." This made the most effective use of the pointed blade with its wedge cross section. The haunches of all the daggers discussed here seem perfect for keeping the hand from sliding down onto the blade during thrusting.
At least one contemporary illustration, though, shows dirks being held in the left hand along with the targe; the dirks' points face down. C. E. Whitelaw stated that "The Scottish Highlander, if his target was not furnished with a spike, held his dirk in his left hand point down to prevent his adversary from closing in on him." Rolland's research, though, shows this to be only possible on targes possessing a specific kind of handle. Some targes possess grips of iron, while others have thick leather grips. These iron grips are shaped like a "C" in cross-section, with the curved portion against the palm. Targes so equipped would enable the dirk's grip to fit into the open end of the "C" shape and the user's fingers to still wrap around both the targe's grip and the dirk's. The thick leather grips on many targes would prevent a dirk from being gripped this way.
Many have speculated that a dirk held in this fashion could be used for backhanded slashes when an opponent closes in. Rolland considers it "highly unlikely" that the dirk and targe were used that way, since the weight of the targe would slow the left arm in a strike. He concludes that it is much more likely that some highlanders used this configuration to simply keep the dirk close at hand in the press of battle: "should he [the highland soldier] have lost or have had to discard his sword, he would be at a momentary disadvantage while drawing his dirk, this normally requiring both hands." Another more remote possibility is that the use of the dirk in this way allowed the highlander to parry more effectively, "so as to lock the opponent's weapon between the dirk blade and the edge of the target [targe], thus unbalancing the adversary and exposing him to a swift counterattack."
A Sampling of Reproductions
One might think that the complexity and time-consuming nature of carving a wooden dirk grip would cause makers to shy away from reproducing them. Not so. Many production companies have produced dirks of varying quality.
Deepeeka also offers three Scottish dirks. Two are later thistle-headed dirks. The other is of the early style, with a plain wooden grip and a by-knife and fork.
Jas. Townsend and Son, Inc., a supplier of 18th century reenactment goods, offers an early dirk with with a by-knife and fork.
ArmArt, of the Czech Republic, also lists three dirks on their Web site. Their model D3 is a fairly close copy of a famous early dirk. The other two are more freely "inspired" by dirks.
Armour Class of Glasgow, Scotland also produces dirks. Theirs feature more richly carved grips than many production pieces.
Many custom makers have produced dirks, including Erik Stevenson of Phoenix Metal Creations, James Taylor, Michael McRae of Scotia Metalwork, Arms & Armor, and Michael "Tinker" Pearce.
One of the most popular custom makers of Scottish dirks is Vince Evans. Vince and his wife Grace constantly research antique weapons, making regular trips to museums to further study original examples. Their attention to detail has yielded dirks in high demand in the collecting community.
Men no longer swear "on the holy iron" of their dirks as highlanders of old did, but the allure of the Scottish dirk remains. The dirk is an important weapon though its area of popularity was limited to that area north of Hadrian's Wall known as Scotland. Its popularity, though, is obvious through its large presence in today's market.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
James D. Forman: The Scottish Dirk
Ewart Oakeshott: European Weapons and Armour From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution
Colin R. Rolland: The Dirk and TargeTheir Use Together
John Wallace: Scottish Swords and Dirks
Illustrations created by Nathan Robinson
Targe photograph by Thomas McDonald
The list of available reproductions contained in this article is not meant to be all-encompassing. It is, however, a good representation of what was available at the time of this article being published.