Meeting the Lewis Chessmen

Their story begins in medieval times, almost ten times a hundred years ago. Viking navigators sailed out from Norway to Greenland, where they traded for walrus tusk and whale teeth. They brought these back to craftspeople in the workshops of Trondheim, in southern Norway.

KIngs, queens, knights, bishops, pawns — figures for the game of chess are what these artists of Norway began to make. They carved pieces with details of sword and spear and bishops crook, helmet and crown and throne. They gave these small figures individual expressions, too — faces which in their time suggested courage, boldness, thoughtfulness, and wisdom.

Perhaps they had been commissioned to make these chessmen — there were several sets — as gifts for high born folk in the Kingdom of the Isles. Perhaps a merchant had commissioned the chessmen, in the hope that he could sell them to wealthy nobles in a place even further to the south, the thriving Norse settlement of Dublin on the island of Ireland.

The chessmen found a different fate. They did make it to the KIngdom of the Isles, what today we know as the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland, but there is no record of what North Sea storm or other sort of passage may have brought them to lie hidden on the shores of the isle of Lewis, northernmost of those long islands. One day in the 1830s, a storm revealed the kist, the chest, in which the Lewis chessmen lay.

They’ve had a varied history since then passing through the hands of private collectors, into museum holdings, and on tours across England and Scotland. At present, many of the Lewis chessmen are in the British Museum in London. Eleven of their number are in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Scotland is where I’ve met the Lewis chessmen. They have such presence, these tiny figures — and they are tiny, which somehow adds to their power and presence. A while back I made a day trip over from Glasgow to visit them and was struck again by how naturally these small somewhat abstract figures speak across the ages, across time and place, with expressions and gestures which suggest community and connection and mystery. The Lewis Chessmen have seen travels in their time, and you can see it in their faces, feel it in their presence.

It is possible they may see another journey. As Lews Castle on Lewis is being refurbished into a museum, there is a possibility that some of the Lewis chessmen may return to what you might call their ancestral home.

lower photograph copyright Kerry Dexter. thank you for respecting this.

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