The main lecture of the evening was given by Kemsley Couldridge,
past chairman of the society and currently chairman of the Friends
of the Museum. His subject was "The Scottish Dirk, From Ballocks to
Kidneys to Jewellery".
According to the Oxford English Dictionary a "dirk" is a kind of long dagger, especially of the Scottish Highlands, and is derived from the word "durk", this term being of unknown origin. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the dirk as a Scottish, general-purpose fighting knife that rose to popularity among the working classes during the 17th and 18th centuries. The weapon probably evolved from the earlier ballock or kidney knife. The hilt and blade became progressively longer during the two centuries up to 1850, from which date is was no longer used except for ceremonial purposes.
The ballock knife made its appearance about AD 1300. It continued in use on the continent and Europe well into the 16th century, and in England into the early 17th century. Many grave effigies show the ballock knife as a knightly weapon, although it was also used by the merchant and artisan classes and by the peasantry.
The medieval weapon was characterised by two rounded prominences instead of a guard. The English dubbed it the ballock knife, while the French described it as a "dagne a couillettes". This was mainly due to the shape of the hilt, with its two rounded prominences representing ballocks, or testicles, and the phallic hand grip representing the penis. It can be argued that the sexual derivation of the name also arose in part from the original position in which the dagger was worn. That is horizontally in front of the body, although this explanation is challengeed by those claiming it was also worn to the right or left side. During the prudish Victorian era euphemisms were sought for the word ballocks, which became unacceptable after about 1840. The result was kidney, and only in the last 30 years or so has the original name been re-instated.
It is probable that the dirk first made its appearance in Scotland early in the 16th century. It had a sharp point and a single edge. The tang came up through the hilt and was burred over a large knock or button. The leather sheath often had a small pocket for a byeknife, or even two, or a knife and fork for eating. The shape of the hilt, which was usually carved from heather wood and decorated with wooden, carved studs, became more ornate from the middle of the 18th century. Ivory was often used for the hilts of the byeknifes.
The reason for the changes was probably the Disarmament Acts of 1716, 1725 and 1746, which forbade the carrying of arms by all Scots except for army personnel. The first two acts saw many swords being cut up for dirks until these too where banned. Following the repeal of the acts in 1782, the manufacture of dirks resumed, but in degenerate forms as Highland dress ornaments. In 1790 a small spoon was often added to the knife and fork. The end of the dirk as an effective weapon dates from around 1800, after which it became a sidearm worn only by officers, certain NCOs and pipers of Scottish regiments.
The banning of the dirk after 1745 gave rise to the Sgian Dubh, or skean dhu, the small, sheathed knife tucked into the top of the stocking on the right leg, and which is still worn with all forms of Highland dress.
The meeting was addressed by Major General Philip Pretorius,
Director of the SA National Museum of Military History. He annouced
that the museum had just passed a milestone in its history in that
its salary bill now exceeded the grant it receives from Goverment.
He emphasised that radical change was imminent and the future uncertain. He also appealed for all the help that members of the society can give, and in particular support for the museum's own fund-raising efforts at the South African Arms and Ammunition Collectors Fair to be held at the museum on the week-end of 1st-2nd August. One important way in which members can help is by donating books for sale as the event. These can be on any subject, and age is no problem. They should be delivered to the museum, or, if required, collection can be arranged.
George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581