A Highland Officer’s Dress Dirk

As we commemorate the Centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we take a look at an object closely associated with one Scot’s experience of the conflict, an officer’s dirk acquired by Mallaig Heritage Centre in 2014 with an NFA grant of £1,220.

Dirk and scabbard

Lt John Hay Caldwell’s dirk and scabbard

This Cameron Highlanders dirk was made by the Edinburgh firm of Marshall & Aitken in 1914 for Lieutenant John Hay Caldwell who was commissioned into the regiment in January 1914, only seven months before the outbreak of the First World War. Lt Caldwell was the only son of William Caldwell, an Edinburgh paper manufacturer who had taken up residence at Morar Lodge, near Mallaig, at some time between 1901 and 1911. After serving with the 3rd and 5th battalions of the Cameron Highlanders, Lt Caldwell was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps early in 1917, training as a pilot at Cambusbarron near Stirling and joining 63rd Squadron in Mesopotamia in August that year. While on a reconnaissance mission behind Turkish lines on 12 January 1918 his plane was forced to land. Somehow he avoided capture but died from exhaustion and exposure some 10 days later while trying to make his way back to the British lines. The dirk does not appear on the list of his personal possessions which were sent back to Britain in March 1918 and then forwarded to Morar railway station; it was probably among other items of kit which were sold at auction for a total of £67.13s.

Dirk and case

Dirk and case

The dirk has a long history in Scotland as an effective weapon that was more affordable and versatile than the sword. It was a common item in the Highlands until the wearing of Highland dress and weapons was forbidden following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. At one time all soldiers in Scottish regiments carried dirks, but from the end of the 18th century, as the musket and bayonet was adopted as the ordinary weapon of the rank and file, they were worn only by officers and by pipe and drum majors and became more of a status symbol than a weapon of war. Each regiment adopted its own design, with some having silver mounts and others gilt. Due to the requirements for kilts, trews, plaid broaches, dirks and other costly dress items, officers commissioned into Highland regiments had a much higher uniform allowance than those in regular infantry regiments. Dirks were commonly worn up until the First World War, after which dress regulations changed and they were seldom used.

The Morar War Memorial which forms the entrance to Kilchuimein cemetery

The Morar War Memorial which forms the entrance to Kilchuimein cemetery

The Caldwell family continued to live at Morar Lodge after the War. Lt Caldwell’s sisters presented funds to build a clinic in his memory which was erected in Mallaig for the Morar and Knoydart District Nursing Association. The Morar War Memorial, on which John Hay Caldwell and others from the district are commemorated, was designed by his brother-in-law the cartoonist Kenneth Bird (1887-1965) who worked under the pen name ‘Fougasse’. Bird had himself been badly wounded at the Battle of Gallipoli and contributed his first cartoon for Punch magazine in 1916 while recovering from his injuries. He would go on to become editor of Punch and became well known during the Second World War for the series of Government posters he designed on the theme ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’.

Malcolm Poole
Mallaig Heritage Centre


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