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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1971 (SND Vol. VIII). Includes material from the 2005 supplement.
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

SKEAN, n. Also skene, skeen, skein, skian, -en; sgian. A short-bladed black-hilted sheath-knife or dagger, specif. one used by a Highlander, for stabbing or carving (Sc. 1825 Jam.). Gen.Sc., obs. exc. in comb. skean-dhu below. In E.M.E. usage referring chiefly to Ireland. Deriv. adj. skeenach, used fig., thin, lean, like a knife, shrivelled (Arg. 1936 L. McInnes S. Kintyre 12). Cf. Skunie. [′ski(ə)n]Sc. 1708 Observator (24 April):
In one side of their Girdle sticks a Durk or Skean, about a Foot or half a Yard long.
Lnk. a.1779 D. Graham Writings (1893) I. 135:
With durks and skians they fell a sticking.
Sc. 1822 Scott F. Nigel xxvii.:
Put up your swords, dirks, and skenes.
Bwk. 1876 W. Brockie Leaderside Leg. 29:
But on their skenes, like hurchen jags, They nobly keppit them.
Abd. 1909 J. Tennant Jeannie Jaffray iii.:
The sport they got learnt them to use the pike, the dairt, an' skeen.

Combs.: 1. skean-dhu, sgian du, id., now commonly worn in the stocking with the haft protruding as part of the Highland dress. Gen.Sc. [′ski(ə)n′du]; †2. skene-ochil, -oc(c)le(s), id., specif. one concealed in the upper part of the sleeve under the armpit.1. Sc. 1811 Scott Letters (Cent. Ed.) III. 37:
A very formidable knife which when opened becomes a sort of Skene-dhu or dagger.
Sc. 1828 Wilson Noctes Amb. (1855) II. 146:
You're a desperate sateerical auld chiel, and plant your skein-dhu —.
Sc. 1831 J. Logan Sc. Gael (1876) I. 339:
The Highlanders carried the skean dhu, or black knife, which was stuck between the hose and the skin of their right leg.
Abd. 1872 J. G. Michie Deeside Tales 138:
His Claymore, Skeandhu, an' a' his graith.
Arg. 1896 N. Munro Lost Pibroch 44:
A man who has gralloched deer with a keen sgian-dubh.
Sc. 1950 Highland Dress (Stewart, Christie & Co.) 7:
Sgiandubh is worn either inside or outside garter on outer part of right leg.
Sc. 1987 Times 4 Apr :
Among his purchases was a rare miniature framed photograph of Queen Victoria inscribed 'from Great-Grand-Mama VRI', valued at under £400, which was sold after intense bidding for £205,760. Another was the Duke's silver and ivory Scottish dress dirk and skean-dhu of 1925, which cost him £226,336.
m.Sc. 1991 William Neill in Tom Hubbard The New Makars 48:
The Dirkanglavies lowpit oot,
wi dirk an sgian du,
an hackit him frae craig tae fuit
an stickit him richt thro.
Sc. 1992 Times 25 Jul :
But Rennie McOwan, the historian, has reassessed Sir Walter's part in the visit and his subsequent direction that men should don Highland dress kilts, plaids, brooches and the sgian dhu, the black knife worn in the right stocking at all official events apart from military and naval occasions.
Sc. 1993 Independent 12 Dec 20:
One of Queen Victoria's grandsons had been forced into a kilt for the occasion. Being German, he thought this was a punishment of some kind. Ushered into St George's Chapel, this little boy pulled out his sgian dhu (a ceremonial dagger) and flung it clattering across the marble floor.
Sc. 1994 Sunday Times 23 Jan :
What the hell do I care. Let them stew in their self-pity and self-righteousness. I feel moved by the pipes, the old songs, the poems, the romantic stories to the tip of my skean-dhu.
Sc. 1998 Herald 25 Apr 16:
Most people are willing to brave the second to enjoy the first, not to mention the honour that comes with telling old soldiers' tales of bloodthirsty midge encounters around the peat fire of a Highland inn - where debate rages fiercely as to whether the merely hobnail-booted mainland species is fit to be called a midge at all beside the monsters of the isles, who carry a sgian dhu in each sock and claymores between their teeth.
Sc. 2001 Scotsman 16 Jul 11:
... and had a nice dance for a wee while, until a sharp-eyed observer spotted the sgian-dhu in his sock, and he was hustled out immediately for turning up with an offensive weapon.
Sc. 2002 Sun 8 Jan :
Blair doesn't wear a Jimmy bonnet, a kilt and a skean-dhu when he goes to Scotland.
2. n.Sc. c.1730 E. Burt Letters (1815) II. 201:
Some of them carry a sort of knife which they call a skeen-ocles, from its being concealed in the sleeve near the arm pit.
Sc. 1814 Scott Waverley xxix.:
“Skene-occle! what's that?” Callum unbuttoned his coat, raised his left arm, and, with an emphatic nod, pointed to the hilt of a small dirk, snugly deposited under it, in the lining of his jacket.
Slk. 1828 Hogg Shep. Cal. (1874) xiii.:
The beldam plunged a skeinochil into my breast.

[O.Sc., skane, 1611, Gael., Ir. sgian, a knife, sgian dubh, a black knife, sgian-achlais, an armpit- or oxter-knife; sgianach, like a knife.]

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"Skean n.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 18 Apr 2024 <>



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