Sunday, 18 May 2008

Lewis Chessmen

At the Woodlands Centre, Airport and Ferry Terminal in Stornoway can be found large wooden carvings of the Lewis Chessmen.

The Lewis Chessmen (or Uig Chessmen, named after their find-site) constitute some of the few complete medieval chess sets that have survived until today. Discovered in 1831, they are currently exhibited in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh and the British Museum in London. There has been recent controversy about the most appropriate place for the main exhibit to be held.

The chessmen are believed to have been made in Norway, perhaps by craftsmen in Trondheim (where similar pieces have been found), sometime during the 12th century. During that period the Outer Hebrides, along with other major groups of Scottish islands, were ruled by Norway.

Almost all of the pieces in the collection are carved from walrus ivory, with a few made instead from whale teeth. The 93 pieces form parts of four or five sets, though the sizes are irregular and it is not clear whether any full original set can be compiled from the known pieces. Altogether there are 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks, and 19 pawns. All the pieces are sculptures of human figures, except the pawns (which are smaller, simple sculptures resembling carved gravestones). The knights are shown mounted (on rather diminutive horses) holding spears and shields, and all of the human figures have decidedly glum expressions (other than three rooks, which are shown as berserkers, wild-eyed and biting their shields with battle fury). The whole series displays a sensitivity and sense of humour to rival any modern art. Some bore traces of red stain when found, indicating that red and white were used to distinguish the two sides, rather than the black and white used in modern chess.

The chessmen were discovered in early 1831 in a sand bank at the head of the Bay of Uig on the west coast of Lewis. There are various local stories concerning their arrival on Lewis and modern discovery. One unverifiable tale suggests that in the 16th century (long after the period of Norse influence in the Hebrides) a cabin boy stole the pieces from a ship whilst it was anchored in Loch Resort. However, he was then murdered by a local cowherd, who buried the pieces at Uig. The cowherd was later hanged for other crimes but is said to have confessed to this act before he died.

Three hundred years later Malcolm "Sprot" Macleod from the nearby township of Pennydonald discovered the trove in a small stone kist in a dune, exhibited them briefly in his byre and sold them on to Captain Roderick Ryrie. Malcolm Macleod's family were evicted from Pennydonald several years later when the area was cleared to make the farm at Ardroil.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up with a nice copy of this chess set that was permanently setup ready for a game in my parents lounge. Unfortunately as they bought more and more books space ran short and it got packed away in a show box.

    A few years ago I bought them a miniature set as a Christmas present which now sits on the sideboard.

    Of all the chess sets I have ever seen or played these pieces have to be my favourite.


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