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The History of the Dirk


Early Dirks

"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 carving—perhaps 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.

Traditional Dirks

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.

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