As we have previously discussed the importance of jacket and sporran styles in determining the formality and meaning of your Scottish kilt outfit, we thought it was about time we discussed a few other types of kilt accessory which can impart certain meanings, and which have rich histories of their own.
Firstly we shall look at the sgian dubh, the small ceremonial knife worn tucked into the top of your kilt hose. Knives have been carried by Scotsmen since time immemorial for daily tasks such as preparing food, cutting leather, whittling wood, and also for personal protection in the rough Highland environment. Probably evolving from the term “sgian achlais”, the Gaelic term for “armpit knife”, “sgian dubh” translates as “black knife” or “hidden knife”, and refers to a concealed weapon.
When Highlanders visited friends, family and other allies however, they would be required by courtesy and etiquette to disclose the presence of any weaponry about their person. Men moving the knife from their “oxter” (armpit) into their hose would meet this requirement but still allow convenient access to the blade for any necessary tasks. Over time, as day-to-day life in the Highlands became less fraught with danger of inter-clan strife, it was no longer needed to conceal the knife at all, and the sgian dubh took its now familiar place in the kilt hose at all times, though retained its old name with the history behind it. As with the sporran, as time went on the sgian dubh developed from a basic and serviceable knife to an ornamented accessory with different styles suited to different types of event. Unlike the sporran however, which is still a very useful item for the modern kilt wearer, most modern sgian dubhs are sold pre-blunted and cannot be used as proper knives due to modern legislation forbidding carrying dangerous weapons publically.
Full dress sgian dubhs are the most popular style, and they are appropriate for many types of formal event, but less so for casual wear. These often have black resin or leather-wrapped handles and sheaths, and feature ornamentations such as Celtic engraving designs, clan crests, coloured stones set into the handle, and other details. For higher end full dress sgian dubhs, the stones will usually be semi-precious, and the ornamentation may be made with sterling silver or other precious metals, but pewter and coloured glass are also frequently used to achieve a stylish appearance on a lower budget to great effect. Another style growing in popularity thanks to its versatility is the blackwood handled sgian dubh, which is much simpler in appearance but still may feature some metal ornament, and is suitable for formal and casual events. For casual situations, due to restrictions on carrying weapons, many men now just forego wearing the sgian dubh altogether, as it is not so essential to have the complete Highland look for simple events. However, others prefer to still carry on this tradition, and these men will often choose to wear a carved handle sgian dubh made from wood or resin with no metal ornaments or set stones, or perhaps a sgian dubh which uses reclaimed stag horn for its handle, as these give a much more casual and understated look.
Next up, an often overlooked aspect of Highland clothing – the kilt flashes! Kilt flashes are worn with the elastic “garter” tucked away underneath the rolled over top of your hose, providing a valuable service in holding up the long woollen socks, and giving a more polished overall appearance. The pieces of fabric displayed to either side are now purely decorative, but in times past the garter would have been a simple piece of cloth knotted around the calf for many people, and these protruding pieces of fabric have now become the flashes we recognise today! Tartan flashes, made specially to match your kilt, are growing in popularity, but the traditional approach would have been to pick a couple of colours from your tartan and use these for your hose and flashes. For example, the MacDonald Modern tartan has a green and navy ground, with black and red stripes. When wearing this kilt, black kilt hose with red flashes would draw these colours out to more prominence nicely. For tartans where the different colours are in almost equal proportion, you can select one colour and use it in the shirt and hose, and a darker shade for the flashes, an example of this could be the Heritage of Scotland, where the navy shade could be used for the hose and shirt colour, and black for the flashes. This way your shirt and hose frame the kilt nicely and you don’t have the concern of an overwhelming number of colours distracting from the main focus of your outfit – the kilt of course!
Finally for today, we are going to consider the popularity of clan crested items. These accessories can take almost any form, from sgian dubhs and sporran, to kilt pins and cap badges, to tie clips and cuff links even! These items are an excellent way to add an extra touch of clan decoration to your outfit, especially if your family tartan is not well known, or is an unusual variant, as they allow acquaintances to identify your affiliations easily. The clan markers originally began as a simple sprig of a plant, if your clan was for some reason associated with this. However one plant could be affiliated to several clans, so the practise never really took hold as an official means of identification. Clan badges became popular during the Victorian period, when all things Highland and Scottish were very much in vogue, and generally consist of the clan crest and motto, encircled by a strap and buckle design. Only the clan chief, or his chieftains (leaders of the off-shooting septs) may wear the crest and motto in a plain circlet; this is enforced by the Lord Lyon of Scotland, who protects the rights of the owners of crest and other heraldic devices. The chief may also display his higher status by wearing three eagle feathers behind his badge; chieftains may wear two eagle feathers, and armigerous clan members, i.e. clan members who have been granted their own crest, may wear one silver eagle feather.
As the majority of Scots however are not clan chiefs or armigerous clan members, the strap and buckle design is by far the most commonly seen, which is why goods made in this fashion have become so popular. Traditionally speaking these badges were most commonly worn on the cap or glengarry, or holding the fly plaid in place, however, since these are very much a recent fashion in Highland wear terms, the other forms are gaining a foothold – especially as it means you may finally have a “kilt” accessory which you can wear even with trousers and normal suits, such as in the case of cuff links and tie bars! A very popular way of modern day clansmen being able to show their kinship and pride in their ancestry at any time!