The Lewis Chessmen

Under less than universally agreed circumstances, sometime is 1831 a hoard of undoubtedly the finest early chess pieces in the world were found. Discovered in a dry stone chamber about 15 feet below the top of a sand dune on the beach at Uig, (Uuige), located west of the Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis (pronounced Lews, from the Gaelic leodhas meaning marshy) in the Outer Hebrides and carved of Morse ivory (the fossil remains of walrus tusk) the pieces are known throughout the world as the Lewis Chessmen. The Lewis Chessmen exemplify an extraordinary cultural convergence of ancient Irish and Caledonian, Chinese, Arab and Norse societies and serve to document the popularity which the game of chess had reached amongst members of the aristocratic classes of the Middle Ages.

Their overall excellent condition (they do not appear to have been used) has lead scholars to believe that the pieces belonged to a merchant thought to be en route to Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland. Though how the Lewis Chessmen came to be left behind in the Outer Hebrides on the Isle of Lewis some 900 years ago remains a mystery. Variously attributed to craftsmen in Iceland as well as in Norway (similar pieces have been found in Trondheim), they belong to the Scandinavian Romanesque art of the mid-11th century. The Isle of Lewis was under Norwegian Viking rule until the battle of Largs in 1263. When found in the 19th century, eight of the 93 extraordinary chess pieces were stained red probably indicating they were ready for play. Included in the rare discovery were 14 plain discs for what is thought to be an early tabular game whilst the chessmen depict various figures such as church dignitaries and Norse warriors; there are 8 Kings, 8 Queens, 16 Bishops, 15 Knights, 12 Warders (Rooks) and 19 Pawns.

The first owner of the Lewis Chessmen appears to have been Malcolm MacDonald of Penny Donald. The pieces were displayed publicly for the first time by a Stornoway merchant named Roderick Ririe at the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland on 11 April 1831. Mr. Ririe in turn sold the collection (or at least most of it) to an Edinburgh Antiques dealer named T.A. Forrest for 30 guineas. Mr. Forrest then presented the Lewis Chessmen for consideration of purchase to Frederic Madden, the Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum on the 17 October 1831. Sir Walter Scott was present and wrote in his journal that day: 'The morning beautiful today, I go to look after the transcripts in the Museum and leave a card on a set of chess men thrown up by the sea on the coast of Scotland which were offered for 100.' Ultimately the majority of the pieces went to British Museum for a sum of 80 guineas negotiated by the Keeper of Antiquities Edward Hawkins, whilst the remaining 10 were purchased discretely by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (a lifelong friend of Sir Walter's) for an undisclosed price. Mr. Sharpe later found another piece (a bishop directly from Lewis) to bring his collection to a total of 11. As all known pieces make up four or five incomplete sets, and with only two complete sets the possibility of eventually discovering more pieces is utterly realistic. The Sharpe collection was sold in 1851 to Lord Londesborough who died in 1860. Subsequently the remaining 11 pieces were sold in 1888 through the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland at Christie's auction house for 100 guineas, again purchased by the British Museum this time under the direction of the Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities Sir Angustus Wollaston Franks.

It is somewhat difficult to put a contemporary value on the original purchase price of 80 Guineas as comprehensive statistics for currency valuation did not exist until fairly recently. But our best educated guess is based upon 1 guinea equalling 21 shillings, factoring 174 years and the decimalization of the British in 1971, the British Museum acquired its collection of Lewis Chessmen (in contemporary money) for a mere 6600. In 2000, when six of the pieces travelled to Lewis for a special exhibit at the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, the entire collection was valued at 3 million. Some 4-5 million people visit the Lewis Chessmen as part of the permanent collections of the British Museum (82) and the National Museum of Scotland (11) where they securely reside in climate controlled environments (50-55% humidity and 19 degrees Celsius).

The mystery about them, their superior craftsmanship, priceless value and rarity means their mere presence continues to influence contemporary culture with recent 'guest appearances' in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, as a 3D simulation in the 10th edition of chess software Chessmaster, and animated series called Noggin the Nog and songs by Dougie MacLean's Marching Mystery and Chris Leslie's The Game Pieces (first released by Fairport Convention on their 1999 album entitled The Wood and The Wire. What's more, a gloriously large royal couple (King and Queen) of carved wood now stand on the Isle of Lewis to commemorate the finding of the pieces.


Lewis Chessmen - Queen and Beserker