In April 1831, a curious collection of carved figures was exhibited to members of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. They had been found earlier that year, on a beach near Uig on the Isle of Lewis. Carved out of walrus ivory and whale’s tooth, most of them had been beautifully sculpted to resemble kings, queens, warriors and bishops. Chessmen, of course – but these figures appeared to have a life of their own, with characterful expressions, each individual piece presenting an appearance of either fortitude, or resignation, or vibrant energy. They captivated people’s imagination, and they have been doing so ever since.
The Lewis chessmen, or Uig chessmen as they are also known, number 93 pieces in all: 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men (for a board game similar to backgammon) and a buckle which may have been attached to a bag that held them. The chess pieces include eight kings and queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks and 19 pawns. This has led to speculation that there were once at least four separate chess sets, of which some pieces are still missing. When they were first found, it was noticed that some of the figures bore traces of a reddish stain, suggesting that the opposing players were red and white.
82 of the pieces are held in the British Museum in London, while 11 reside in the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, Edinburgh. This is where I saw them just recently, and was completely spellbound.
The chessmen are quite big by modern standards – the largest is just under four inches tall. It’s currently believed that they were carved between 1150 and 1200 AD in Trondheim, Norway. One theory is that a ship carrying a merchant from Norway to Ireland was wrecked off the coast of Lewis, and his goods were washed ashore. This would help to explain why there are enough pieces for several sets. At that time, the Western Isles belonged to the Kingdom of Norway.
Such charm and individuality in the figures: the kings, seated with both hands on their sheathed swords, appear grimly determined to face some unseen task, while the queens, also seated, have a more pensive attitude, holding their right palm to their face. To us, they appear anxious or nervous, but that is our modern perception: the gesture itself may have some lost significance. One source suggests that their attitude evokes the piety of the Virgin Mary, surveying the carnage on both the battlefield and the chessboard.
The bishops, mitred and cloaked, are holding a crozier in one hand. One of them appears lost in contemplation, while the other has his other hand raised in blessing. From photos of the British Museum (London) collection, I can see that one of the other bishops is clutching a book, presumably a Bible. None of them appear particularly happy, but this is understandable if they are about to witness a battle. Some historians believe that this is the first known example of bishops appearing on a chess board.
The knights are depicted on horseback, long-haired and helmeted, carrying a sword and shield; but it is the rooks or ‘warders’ that grab your attention and hold it. These goggle-eyed warriors are standing in readiness for a fight, some of them biting their shields in fierce anticipation. Historians believe that they are beserkers, a word that comes from the Old Norse berserkir or ‘bear-shirt’. Before battle, berserkers used shamanic practices to reach a state of trance-like frenzy, bonding with animal spirits which they believed would raise them above mortal pain and give them immunity to destruction and defeat. They must have struck terror into their opponents. We don’t know much about their practice, but they left a lasting impression, because this is where the word ‘beserk’ comes from.
It’s noticeable that the eyes of all the characters appear to bulge with eagerness or consternation, or maybe with intense focus on the logistics of the game in hand. This is what makes them so arresting, like comic actors in a play, although admittedly there was not much comedy about medieval warfare.
How and where were they found?
This is a question with many answers, each of which is just as intriguing as the pieces themselves. One story, which is now generally discounted, is that a cow unearthed them with her horns as she rubbed her head into a sand dune. Another version, reported in ‘The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland‘ (D Wilson, 1851) claims that a high tide uncovered a small stone chamber that contained the relics, which were found by a local inhabitant who was so spooked by their faces that he turned and fled, thinking that he had uncovered some ‘pigmy sprites of Celtic folk-lore’. It was his wife who persuaded him to return and collect them.
A third story, reported in ‘Notes on the Lewis Chessmen’, a paper by Captain F W L Thomas and published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol.4, 1860-62) is a longer and darker version. One night a herdsman employed by George Mor Mackenzie, tacksman of Balnakill in the parish of Uig, watched a ship being blown onto the rocks in a storm, and noticed a sailor swimming ashore with a bag on his back. He promptly slew the poor sailor for the sake of the riches he might be carrying, stole the bag, and buried his body secretly in the dunes. Meanwhile more survivors were coming ashore, and were treated with great hospitality by the herdsman’s employer.
Keeping the awful secret proved too much for the herdsman. Having opened the bag and found only a hoard of chess pieces, he buried them in a sandbank, but the guilt drove him to more crimes and he eventually perished on the gallows, confessing his story just before his death. The same article states that Malcolm Macleod, tenant of Penny Donald in Uig, found the relics in 1831.
Divided between three glass cabinets, the 11 Lewis chessmen that remain in Scotland are displayed in the ‘Kingdom of the Scots’ exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland. They are possibly my favourite item in the whole museum, although that will be easier to say once the fabulous Celts exhibition has closed on 25th September. If you bend down and look at their faces, they seem to come alive, and the warriors in particular look ready to walk straight out into the street and do battle. History is about telling stories, and these little figures seem to be telling us a story that has lost none of its energy in 800 years.
Visiting the National Museum of Scotland
The Museum is open daily from 10 am until 5 pm. See the NMS website for full details. Admission to the main museum including the Kingdom of the Scots is free, although there is an admission fee for some special exhibitions such as the Celts. There’s so much else to see here, besides history – it makes a fabulous day out for families.
- National Museum of Scotland – great page with a zoomable photo to see some pieces up close
- The British Museum
- BBC History
- ‘The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland‘ by Daniel Wilson (1851)
- ‘Notes on the Lewis Chessmen‘ by F W L Thomas, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 4, 1860-62) via Archaeology Data Service
- Norse-mythology.org (Berserkers)
Images copyright © Jo Woolf