My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Dirk: The Scottish Bowie


While researching the bowie I did some reading on the Scottish dirk, a large knife which, like the bowie, served as both tool and weapon. The Bowies were of course of Scottish background, and they may have known something of the traditional use of the dirk. The following description of the dirk is from Letters From a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (1822), by Edward Burt:
 Having lately mentioned the dirk, I think it may not be unreasonable here to give you a short description of that dangerous weapon; and the rather, as I may have occasion to speak of it hereafter. The blade is straight, and generally above a foot long; the back near one-eighth of an inch thick; the point goes off like a tuck, and the handle is something like that of a sickle. They pretend they cannot do well without it, as being useful to them in cutting wood, and upon many other occasions; but it is a concealed mischief, hid under the plaid, ready for secret stabbing; and, in a close encounter, there is no defence against it.
The Scotish Gaël: Or, Celtic Manners, as Preserved Among the Highlanders (1849), by James Logan, provides information on its history and use.
The dirk of the Highlanders is called bidag, or biodag, the bidawg of the Welsh, in the latter syllable of which we perceive the root of the English dagger.

The bidag is adapted for fighting at close quarters, where the sword cannot be used, or where the party may, either in the heat of action, or otherwise, have been deprived of it. When dexterously wielded by a strong and resolute Highlander, this was a most terrific weapon. It was not held in the same way as the sword, but in a reverse position, pointing towards the elbow, and the manner in which it was carried allowed it to be drawn with perfect facility. The belt which fastened the plaid, became the baldrick by which this trusty blade was secured. It was placed on the right side, and instead of hanging loosely as it is now generally worn, the belt was either slipped through a hook affixed to the sheath, sometimes steady, and frequently movable on a swivel, or a long hook, or slide, answered the same purpose. It was thus firmly attached to the thigh, and was consequently so judiciously suspended, that it could be drawn in an instant, and this was of some importance in the event of a sudden assault, or so close a contention as would prevent a free use of the sword. If it hung loosely, it would have incommoded the wearer, and could not be so promptly at command, but, carried as it was, the hand could instinctively be laid on the hilt.

From the peculiar manner in which this weapon was managed, the most dreadful execution was sometimes performed with it. When the arm was raised, the dirk was pointed to the assailant in front: when lowered, it menaced the foe behind, and, by turning the wrist either way, the enemy was kept at bay, or, if he escaped destruction, received the most deadly wounds.

Incredible feats have been achieved by the dirk, which was a convenient instrument to execute revenge. A violent feud had long subsisted between the Leslies and the Leiths, powerful names in Aberdeen and the adjoining counties, and one of the former having been invited, on some occasion, to the castle of a nobleman not concerned in the quarrel, he found himself in the company of a number of his enemies, the Leiths. Waiting his opportunity, he joined the dance, and, suddenly drawing his dirk, he struck right and left, as he rushed through the hall, and, leaping from the window, effected his escape. To commemorate this bold and bloody exploit the tune of "Lesly amo' the Leiths" was composed. Another early instance of its use as an instrument of secret revenge, occurs in Ossian; as Carthon was binding Clessamor, the latter, perceiving the foe's uncovered side, "drew the dagger of his fathers." With this destructive instrument, at a later period, Forbes, the Laird of Brux, who was out in 1745, made "sun and moon shine through" the enemy, as he expressed himself to a friend of mine.


The Highlanders were always partial to "the cold steel." The sword and dirk were well adapted to their fierce and overwhelming hand to hand mode of attack, and their dexterity in the use of both, ensured the success of many a foray, and was the means of their gaining many a victory. There were always, even in late times, many of the "Highlandmen," who had no other arms, and from the many desperate conflicts in which they signalized themselves with "sword and dirk into their han', wi whilk they were na slaw," these came to be spoken of as almost the only weapons they possessed. At the battle of Killicrankie, fought in 1689, it is said of King William's troops, that
"The dirk an' d'our, made their last hour,
An' prov'd their final fa', man."
[Please don't ask me to translate that.]
I have remarked that more broad swords than dirks are to be now seen, and the reason, I apprehend, is, that the latter were appropriated for domestic purposes, when it was no longer necessary or lawful to carry them as arms. Pennant observed the dirk frequently converted into a very useful knife, by the butchers of Inverness, being, like Hudibras's dagger,
"a serviceable dudgeon,
Either for fighting or for drudging."
I have seen them employed for various uses. Some chopped up moss fir as well as if they had never been intended for more honorable service, whilst others served in the humble but useful office of a "kail gully." ["Kail" refers to the vegetable, while "gully" is a big knife.] Few are to be met with that do not appear to have been in requisition for other purposes than originally intended. The Highlander has often, by its means, provided himself with a "clear the lawing," i. e. a good cudgel.

In attacking the Duke of Cumberland's army, at Clifton, rebels cut through the hedges with their bidag, and it was one of the complaints on the disarming act, that they should be deprived of their dirks, with which they cut down wood, &c. Before the invention of [table] knives they supplied their place at table. Possidonius says the Gauls applied them to this purpose. The Highlanders used them in quartering deer and other game. The dirk was the favorite "brand" of the Gael. The dagger of Ogar was "the weapon which he loved." The most solemn oath was swearing on it, and so convenient an implement was it found, that it was almost part of their weed. I recollect one John McBean, who fought at Culloden, and was among the McIntoshes, who made so furious an irruption on the king's army. This old man, who died at the age of 101, and was able to walk abroad some days before his death, never thought himself dressed without his belt and a small knife. A gentleman of my acquaintance had shown his pistols to an old man at Skellater, in Strathdon, who, in reply, drew his dirk, and, regarding it with a look of satisfaction, observed, "my pistol will no miss fire." The Highlanders thought it hard when the act for disarming them was passed, that they should not be permitted to carry this useful and convenient article, and were loath, when the gun, the sword, and the pistols were laid aside, to part with the dirk. It was a shrewd remark of one Steuart, in Avenside, who, coming down to the lower part of Strathdon, was reminded that it was now against the law to carry his dirk; "No!" replied he, indignantly, "It is not against the law, the law is against it!"
I really like that last line.

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