What is a Skean?

What is a Skean?

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  • Feb, 27 , 23

Schiffer Military’s latest book on edged weaponry is about a very rare specification of antique fighting knife, the skean. What exactly is a skean? The book’s introduction provides an excellent description:


Against the light foote Irish have I serued, and in my skinne bare tokens of their skenes.

Solimon and Persida, 1599


The distinctive fighting knife used by the Gaelic Irish in the Late Medieval / Early Modern period is the skean (Ir. scian, pronounced “shkeen”), rendered variously in English as “skean,” “skayne,” etc. It was an acutely pointed, single-edged knife very similar to the more well known Scottish dirk.

The skean could be short enough to be hidden about the body and flung like a missile, end over end. This shorter skean is sometimes called miodóg. Much-longer versions had blades up to 22" in length and can be referred to as scian fada, rendered variously in English as “long knives” or “long skeans.” All are without a guard, and two styles of handle carving can be distinguished.

The ultimate origin of the skean may lie in the seax used by the Hiberno-Norse in the Viking era, but archeological and literary evidence for the skean extends back only to the Late Medieval period. Its exact relationship to the Highland Scottish dirk is unclear, since while the blades resemble one another, the handles and sheaths are quite distinct. And whereas the earliest form of Highland dirk is not attested before ca. 1600, the Irish skean is identified as a distinctive knife in the historical record during the Tudor era.


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