On The Trail of Dirks and Haggis In Bonnie Scotland


by PT

In April, fellow HHAA member and knifemaker extraordinaire Vince, his wife Grace, and yours truly went on a long-awaited trip to Scotland. For Vince, it was an opportunity to study Scottish edged weapons, dating from the Middle Ages until the mid­ 18 century. For me, it was the chance to immerse myself in things medieval, and to consume copious amounts of my favorite sheep innards and strong drink, of which more, later.

One of the things that I love most about both shores of the Atlantic is how history surrounds you at every turn. The United Kingdom is fertile ground for the history buff because so much is commemorated and preserved. You can hardly enter a post office or railway station without seeing a placque or memorial to employees who gave their lives for the British Empire in the fields of Flanders, at Normandy, or on the South African veldt. And many of the stations in the provinces are virtually unchanged since they were built before “the Kaiser’s War”: you’d half expect to see a steam powered train pull up, with a contingent of khaki-clad men carrying “Smellies”, headed for the Western Front.

Edinburgh, in particular, is a city that fascinates the visitor by being so conscious of its “darker side”. There are all sorts of sites in the old city at which famous and infamous people were hanged in public, where religious dissenters were burned or put to the sword, where so-and-so was betrayed and imprisoned. The medieval architecture adds to the sense of “Gothic gloom”, and in the National Museum of Scotland is displayed “the Maiden”, predecessor to the more-sophisticated and better-known guillotine.

What Vince and I found in our sword research is that the edged weapons used by the Scots prior to the final defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden (1746) differ a great deal from the later British “regimental” versions and Victorian-era “revival” pieces in their styling, and how the way they feel in the hand. Simply put, these earlier pieces have hilts of smaller dimensions, grips of more ergonomic design, and have a much “livelier” balance. By comparison, the Victorian and later versions (made principally as parade weapons) are ornate and well-finished, but have “chunkier” proportions and a rather clumsy feel.

For instance, the Highland dagger, or dirk, was intended to be grasped in the left hand, the blade protruding from beyond the edge of the farge or circular buckler. Since the warrior also held the rope handle ofthe targe with his left hand, the dirk’s grip had to be slim enough to give a comfortable hold. The pineapple-shaped grips on most later “show” dirks would have been too large to allow this.

We were fortunate to be able to see (and handle, thanks to some very obliging museum curators) some fine examples of late medieval Highland and Lowland swords (including a claymore with a hand-and-a-half grip), along with many o f the famous “basket hilted” broadswords and backswords. The two-handed weapons such as the claymore did not, in fact weight pounds or more as popularly believed. They are actually light enough, with sufficient balance, to be managed with one hand if necessary. The basket-hilted “claybegs” are likewise balanced for fast yet keen cutting strokes due to their pronounced distal (thickness) taper from hilt to point. The best blades were imported from the Continent. Those bearing the name of the almost-legendary Italian smith Andrea Ferrara were the most prized, though in actuality most were made in Germany.

A surprising thing that we found is that although today’s Scots love to dress up in their kilts for all sorts of occasions, lots ofthem aren’t sticklers for authenticity (or quality) as to the sidearms they wear. For most guys, a Victorian regimental or a later copy (now, the majority of “affordable” ones are made in India and Pakistan) will do. Better-quality ones made locally are of inferior styling. Their proportions. design, and materials are often a far cry from the ones which drew English blood at the hands of the Iacobites of yesteryear. Why is this so? For one thing, nobody expects to fight with these things anymore. The Scots are now almost 300 years removed from the warrior clan society of old. And lastly, Scottish costume of today is basically a romanticized notion of a tradition that is largely viewed through a Victorian English lens.

People who looked at Vince’s portfolio of photos were impressed at his work, and how closely his Scots weapons looked like the “real McCoy”. It seems that nobody in Scotland today is turning out things of this quality. So let’s give our “comrade in arms” a resounding cheer for his accomplishments!

Man lives not by blades alone, and there was much to be had in the form of memorable nectars of the noble malt, and of hops. Plus divers viands, the fruits of pasture, glen, and sea, to warm and comfort the belly. For haggis-lovers, it’s heaven on earth. Edinburgh is horne to the famous MacSween’s brand, and for new-age, health conscious diners, it comes in a vegetarian version. But the most memorable “haggie” that we ate was at Mr. Singh’s India, in Glasgow. We were treated to Indo-Caledonian fusion cuisine. Haggis filled pakoras (Indian springrolls) and curried haggis. Served by Indian waiters in kilts, and sounding more Scots than Mel Gibson did in “Braveheart”. Celtic punk rock playing softly in the background made this an unforgettable dining experience.
Back at the hotel, Vince and Grace kept busy organizing notes, and making hilt templates from cereal box cardboard, reflecting the best of what we saw, in order to “fine tune” an already excellent product. At least four dirks based on these designs are now in the works, and the styles will be part of Vince’s future lineup. Look for them soon at a gun show near you!

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