Cambridge District Scout Archive
The Skean Dhu (spelt in many forms, skene, sgian, dubh) is rarely seen in photograph’s of Cambridge scouts.
It has been suggested that the use was initiated by Scouts returning from the Great War, specifically from ‘the trenches’. It was formally permitted as an optional item worn as uniform in the Headquarters Gazette of Sept. (CF Johnnie Walker http://scoutguidehistoricalsociety.com/rovers.htm ). In the Cambridge archives we have few early photograph’s of known Rover Scouts from the Town. We do have some from the University. A few depictions of skean dhu can be seen.
This very datable photograph was taken at a visit of the Prince of Wales to Cambridge in 1921. The very tall Rover and Scoutmaster is very likely to be C R (Jack) Benstead MC, one of three MC’s in the very first flush of University Rovers. Although poor it does appear to show a metal loop on the top of the handle. It is possible that it is his ideosyncratic placement of a folding knife, but whilst initailly identifying it as such it always struck me as a precarious placement, even with well tied garters. That said I have not seen any pictures of a skean dhu with a hoop on top, if indeed that is what it is.
It also brought the possibility that at this early date it was used as to identify those who had been in the war or more exclusively those with honours. If this was the case it was a passing usage.
This crop, above, was taken from a university event between the wars.
Within scouting Skean dhu were specifically to be placed in the left stocking, a requirement occasionally breached as the photograph below suggests. Outside Scouting the knife was placed in the stocking of the dominant hand.
The photograph is of Gavin Malcolm MacFarlane Grieve and Rovers of the 5th – c. 1922 or
1919, the strikeout suggesting early recognition of the latter date being contradicted by an element or member.
The trio seated above all wear a skean dhu, one in the right sock. One is also wearing both a clasp knife, it is too robust to be deemed merely a penknife, and Skean dhu. Gavin Malcolm MacFarlane Grieve, centre, was with the Black Watch during the war and whilst well established in Cambridgeshire the family retained a strong Scottish connection. The two either side have not been identified. Rovers were well established in this school troop up to the start of Senior Scouts. GMMG habitually wore his skean dhu when in full uniform in the 1920’s. He is not seen wearing it after that date, but he is less evident at formal events. One clear photograph of 1932 at Abington campsite opening suggests that he is not wearing one.
60th Cambridge (Leys School) post WW2, a rare example. The neat uniforms, for this activity, suggest a demonstration day.
No examples exist in Cambridge archives of a Skean Dhu being worn ‘in the field’. They appear to have been dress wear, admittedly occasionally in a field. Modern practical archaeological reassessments of traditional highland kit and clothing suggest that they were originally more akin to a shoulder or neck knife, a small secondary tool worn safely under clothing.
Even in formal settings they are very infrequently seen. The use in Cambridge directly after the end of WW1 is still open to investigation as observations or notes come to notice.
JWR Archivist Feb 2023