Stale mate

They were made in Norway. Lost en route to Ireland. Washed up in Scotland. Now most of them are on display in England. But which country can justly lay claim to the Lewis chessmen?

By Allan Burnett

WHO OWNS the Lewis Chessmen? For the SNP government in Edinburgh and their Labour opponents in London, squabbling over whether this huddle of priceless medieval artefacts belongs in Scotland or England, the answer might seem obvious. But the fact they are contesting the issue at all, and that their conclusions directly contradict each other, only goes to prove that the answer is very far from clear. In fact, the truth about the Lewis Chessmen is infinitely more complex and colourful than the usual black-and-white certainties common to the games of politics and chess.

The full story of these enigmatic little figurines, where they come from and why their ownership matters, begins about three centuries ago, with a mysterious ship caught in the jaws of an Atlantic gale off the west coast of Lewis. The vessel narrowly avoided shipwreck by sheltering in the mouth of an inlet called Loch Resort. That night, while the crew rode out the storm by drinking, blethering and playing board games, a sailor boy in their midst made plans to escape his personal hell of confinement and on-board bullying.

But not before grabbing the most tradeable things he could lay his penniless hands on – the captain’s precious ivory chessmen. It may have taken more than one trip, but the boy managed to swim ashore with almost 100 of the fist-sized pieces in a bundle on his back.
Unknown to him, however, a cowherd was watching from the shore. When the boy made his final landing, the cowherd sprang to the chase, determined to get his hands on whatever riches the soaking sailor had under his arm. In the struggle that followed the boy was killed. The herdsman buried his victim’s remains on the moor and lugged the loot home.

When he examined the bag’s contents, the cowherd grew afraid that the glowering figures inside might prove evidence against him, should anyone launch a hunt for the missing crewman. So, under cover of darkness, the murderer took the chess pieces from his remote bothy to the Mains of Uig, about 10 miles away, and buried them in a sandbank. Years later, the herdsman was hanged in Stornoway for abusing women, but before he died he confessed to his earlier sin and told of the buried treasure.

The pieces remained undiscovered for a century or more until, around 1830, a cow belonging to a man called Calum nan Sprot, aka Malcolm Macleod, hooked a creamy white object out of the dune with its horns. Falling to his hands and knees, Macleod began to dig, eventually uncovering dozens more of the fairy-like figures.

Macleod – a staunch Presbyterian – was uncomfortable about having “idols” in his possession, especially the ones that looked like bishops. So the pieces were handed over to a Captain Ryrie, or Pirie, who sold them for £30 on Macleod’s behalf to an Edinburgh antiques dealer called TA Forrest.

Here is the full story.

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