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Jim McDougall 4th September 2008 08:58 PM

Hearts in Baskethilts
Sounds like the Scottish version of Guns n' Roses! :) but seriously, wanted to get a discussion going on this topic. Over the years we've had Scottish basket hilts come up, and in a strong sense, they could fall broadly into either European or ethnographic headings.

Some years ago I noticed that the heart shape was often pierced in the saltires of many Scottish basket hilts and I became curious about whether this might have been a secret Jacobite symbol, and where might this symbol derive from.

Its been years since that research, but results were quite inconclusive. I'd like to hear ideas on this, and especially to see examples posted which have these hearts in the panels.

Ed 8th September 2008 04:20 PM

Here is a heart-like object on a baskethilt of mine. Note the "S". It is forwards yet many examples that I have seen are reversed. Do you know what the story is there?

Jim McDougall 8th September 2008 10:38 PM

While its been a while since researching basket hilts, theres nothing like seeing one of these beauties to recharge fascination in them !!! :)
I have long been fascinated with imbued symbolism in both markings and inscriptions on sword blades, as well as within the construction and elements of the hilts. With the lore of Scotland, there are of course many versions that deal with possible explanations that apply to the weapons.

The unusual shape that in this case presents as a terminal filler joining hilt bars (these sometimes occur as the terminal of the side guard) is termed the 'rams horn' and seems to appear almost in many variations on hilts from the two broad 'schools', Glasgow and Stirling.
Some of these have a degree of imagery of the fluer-de-lis, which has often led to speculation associating France, harboring the exiled Stuart , Bonnie Prince Charlie, which of course, while a romantic notion, is as specious as many of the others often suggested.

The 'S' figures which also occur as fillers between bars and shields have also led to suggestions of Stuart, Stirling, Simpson (for the famed Scottish hilt maker), but as noted these often are installed in reverse, thus seemingly removing the thought of them respresenting that initial. The 'S' also is seen on both Stirling and Glasgow hilts, and on hilts by makers other than Simpson, so that idea seems unlikely.

I'm not sure that any sound explanation is at hand explaining these features, but as always....more research!!:)

I found references to the 'rams horn' hilt element in "British Basket Hilts" by Dr. Cyril Mazansky, 2005, p.92, 126 and in many other references throughout the illustrations.

It does seem the heart shape often is pierced in these rams horn elements, and in "Scottish Swords and Dirks", (John Wallace, 1970, #26), the author notes that this pierced decoration appears at the end of the 17th century and is used often in hilts throughout the 18th century.

I had thought perhaps the heart might derive from the hilt piercings of this shape found in North European dussack examples of basket type hilts in the late 16th century that were likely used by Scottish troops serving in those regions, but there seems to be a wide time gap between these and the beginning of use.

Another thought that seems interesting, but almost too convenient, is that of the symbols on suits of cards, in those times esoteric but carrying the degree of secret symbolism so popular in that period. The designs found pierced or engraved are often not only hearts, but clubs, diamonds and perhaps spades. The association has been suggested occasionally over time, but no constructive evidence revealed as far as I know.

Just my thoughts and notes from research on these hilts, and I would really like to hear others.

Justin 13th September 2008 01:56 AM

3 Attachment(s)
I cant be of much help as far as the basket hilts go but this sgian duhbs is stamped with hearts on the pommel and ferrule.The sheath seems to be a later addition, the hearts on the chape and locket are punched all the way through where as the ones on the knife itself are stamped in.

Ill try to take some better pics tomorrow,hard to take clear pics at night.

Jim McDougall 13th September 2008 02:27 AM

Thank you so much for posting this very attractive example Justin! That is a help, I didn't realize that the heart symbol appeared on the skean dubh.

An interesting note on the term skean dubh, which means in Gaelic 'black knife' literally, but actually the term dubh also meant 'dark'. In the case of the skean dubh dark =hidden, as these were hidden in the stocking while the rest of the Highlanders personal armoury was set aside in visits etc.
Brings to mind the 'hideout' pistols worn on the ankle in modern times:)

In some recent reading I discovered that the North European 'dusagge', the basket hilt sabres believed to have been used by Scottish mercenaries and often mistakenly termed 'Sinclair sabres' often had heart shaped cutouts in the guard panels. The same heart shape cutouts appear on some East European sabres in Austria/Hungary (Wagner notes these shapes may have reflected the work of gypsy smiths). In Polish armour of the 17th century these heart shape cutouts are also seen, and it seems that I saw this in some examples of Polish Winged Hussar armour.

All admittedly speculative association, which I tried to follow through on many years ago ,and communicated with Professor Zygulski, who wrote on the Polish Hussars, as well as with Claude Blair concerning heart shapes in Scottish basket hilts.Both considered the possible connection interesting, but of course unproven.
I also communicated with Dr.Mazansky as he was writing his outstanding book on British basket hilt swords, but he emphasized his study was focused on typology and not much on symbolism in the hilts.

I thought it would be interesting to revive this inconclusive idea here, as I think the symbolism found in these weapons most intriguing.

Paul Macdonald 13th September 2008 11:49 AM

Hi Folks,

An interesting thread so far with great details emerging :)

Jim is right about the sgian dubh being a hidden knife originally, and about dubh not referring to the colour. The first meaning of the word black in almost any cultural language is that of dark or hidden, lacking the light of that which is good.
Even in English, we have terms such as blackmarket, blackmail and blaggard (from blackguard), referring to sinister dealings.

The tradition of this knife being worn in the hose though is not as ancient as often imagined.

Originally, ie. when carried by Jacobites through the C17th and C18th, this was a knife that you would carry on you somewhere known only to yourself. This could be somewhere in your plaid, sheathed behind a belt, or sewn into your shirt or even bonnet.
This way, if you willingly gave up your obvious arms of gun, sword and dirk, you still had a handy wee tool for use when necessary.

There is a contemporary reference to the knife being called a sgian ochles, referring to it being carried near the armpit in that case. Rob Roy MacGregor also made good his escape from captivity at one point because he surrendered his weapons but still had a wee sgian hidden on him to cut himself free.

The tradition of the knife being worn in the hose is a regimental tradition, from mid - late C18th after the formation and regulation of uniform and accoutrements of the original Highland regiments.
The very earliest of these was the famous Black Watch, which was formed in 1739. The soldiers were allowed their own weaponry at that time though, and the pattern and regulation of weapon types and uniformity of their carriage was not addressed until later.

One of these regulations regarded the small knife, which was to be worn in proud regimental fashion, on display for all to see, in the top of the hose. The form and style of the hilts of both sgian dubh and dirk developed more at this time (late C18th) to stand out more and highlight their appearance with bright military uniform, such as the addition of silver studs, silver banded tops and large stones inset. The top of the sgian dubh and dirk even became offset at an angle to show off inset glass or quartz stones.

Like most military regulation dress codes, these became popular almost immediately in civilian society and adopted as the latest fashion, particularly at a time when the notion of Scottish romanticism was perpetuated by English society throughout the UK.

The sgian dubh and dirk and even the sword, are all cultural sidearms that the patriotic Jacobite today is still entitled within the law to wear with the kilt as part of national dress.

Whenever you might see myself wearing the kilt, my own dirk is always there at my side. You won`t see a sgian dubh in my hose, but that doesnae mean that I dinnae have one! ;)

All the best,


Justin 14th September 2008 07:32 PM

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Hopefully these pics are a little more clear.

Any comments on this piece are welcomed,dont really know much about it.The hilt is horn and the fittings are all silver.The back side of the ferrule is stamped "SILVER" wich makes me think it might be early 20th century.Blade is 3 1/4in overall its 7 1/16in.

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