The Lewis Chessmen may not have been chessmen at all

Lewis-chessmen08New research has cast doubt on traditional theories about the historic Lewis Chessmen.

The 93 pieces – currently split between museums in Edinburgh and London – were discovered on Lewis in 1831.

But the research suggests they may have been used in both chess and Hnefatafl – a similar game that was popular in medieval Scandinavia.

It also casts doubt on the traditional theory that the ivory pieces were lost or buried by a merchant.

The research was led by Dr David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland, who believes the Lewis chessmen were more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking person who lived on Lewis.

Lewis2Dr Caldwell told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that many of the pieces could have doubled for Hnefatafl, another conflict game which also pitted a king against pawns or warriors on the other side.

The ancient game has not survived into modern times.

For the first time, they also tried to work out which pieces were made by the same groups of craftsmen by measuring the chessmen’s faces, looking at their clothing, and studying details of the workmanship.

Dr Caldwell added: “We certainly still believe the pieces are Scandinavian in origin, perhaps made in a workshop by several masters in a city like Trondheim.

“But one of the main things I think we are saying in our research is that it is much more likely that the horde is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through.

King“To take a relatively easy example, there is a praise poem written in the middle of the 13th century to Angus Mor of Isla, and the poem says that he inherited his ivory chess pieces from his father Donald – that makes Angus the very first Macdonald, and the poem also makes him the king of Lewis.

“Now you of course you would be foolish to implicitly believe everything in a praise poem, but nevertheless it gives you some idea that we are dealing with a society in the west of Scotland – great leaders like Angus Mor, bishops, clan chiefs – who really valued playing chess and saw it as being one of their accomplishments.”

He said that the analysis tried to recognise the work of different craftsmen, and home in on pieces which may be replacements for ones which had been broken or lost.

They used a forensic anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson based at Dundee University, to do a photogrammetric analysis of the faces as they believed individual craftsmen would have given their faces different characteristics, just like a modern-day political cartoonists.

Plenty of mystery

Dr Caldwell said the chessmen suggested that there was a reasonable amount of wealth in the western Isles in the 13th century, perhaps because the medieval economy placed greater value on fairly barren land that could be used to raise cattle.

He added: “It was certainly leading men there, people who could make a lot of money either by raising cattle or frankly by going raiding – there was still in some ways a Viking way of life surviving into the 13th century.”

Despite the extensive research, Dr Caldwell said he still believed there was plenty of mystery surrounding the chessmen.

“I would be very disappointed if we have written the last word on the – what I hope we have done is opened up the debate and shown it is possible, even with something very well known, to discover new things,” he said.

The research will be published this week in the journal Medieval Archaeology.

bishopOf the 93 pieces found, 82 are kept at the British Museum, with 11 held by the National Museum of Scotland.

Calls have been made for all of the pieces, which were made from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, to be returned to Lewis.

It is much more likely that the horde is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through
Dr David Caldwell National Museum of Scotland



St.Kilda World Heritage Site faces danger

St-Kilda-001One of Britain’s most prized world heritage sites, the remote islands of St Kilda, will be threatened by vandalism, storm damage and alien species if a missile testing base is closed down, a leading heritage charity has warned.

The National Trust for Scotland said it was dismayed by proposals from the Ministry of Defence to withdraw all 12 staff from its small base on the main island of St Kilda as part of cuts at a missile testing range based in the Outer Hebrides.

Largely uninhabited since the islands’ last 36 residents were evacuated in 1930, after centuries of continuous occupation, St Kilda is now Britain’s only place to have two world heritage site designations from Unesco, for its archaeology dating back to the iron age, and its birdlife.

The NTS said the MoD personnel, who are stationed on the main island of Hirta to monitor missile tests from Benbecula 41 miles away on the Western Isles, played a crucial role in deterring visits from uninvited ships, monitoring storm damage or spotting alien species that could damage its very vulnerable ground-nesting birds.

St Kilda was involved in a significant scare in February 2008 after a trawler ran aground in heavy storms, potentially allowing rats to colonise the islands. The NTS sent over specialist rat catchers to ensure its gannets, fulmars, puffins and guillemot were safe. No rats were found.

The islands, which include dramatic cliffs and sea stacks, are regarded as north-eastern Europe’s most important seabird colony: about half a million birds nest there, including the world’s largest northern gannet population, as well as Manx shearwater, storm petrel and Leach’s petrel.


If the MoD base is left unmanned, the NTS, now faced with its most severe financial crisis in its history, would have to employ a full-time keeper for the island.

Kate Mavor, the trust’s chief executive, urged the MoD to reconsider its plans. “Without the support of the MoD and the infrastructure that they have in place there, there is no doubt that we would find it very difficult to give St Kilda the level of care and attention that it requires.

“However, of more concern is the risk that this proposal poses to the environmental and cultural treasures which make St Kilda so special.”

The MoD said todayit wants to cut 150 posts from the missile testing range based at Benbecula, South Uist and St Kilda and an underwater submarine testing facility at Raasay near Skye, as part of £50m savings it needs to make.

Quentin Davies, minister for defence equipment, said: “I know that this will be very disappointing news for the staff at our ranges, and I do not underestimate the impact these proposals and job losses will have on the Hebrides community, especially in the recession.”

The area’s MSPs, economic development agency and local authorities attacked the decision. Highland and Islands Enterprise’s chairman Willie Roe said the loss of 150 jobs would be a “devastating blow” to the Hebridean economy.

The sites’ operator, the private defence contractor Qinetiq, was the islands’ largest private employer. “We believe these plans fail to take account of the sites’ value and we will be doing everything in our power to find a way to put pressure on the MoD and its operator QinetiQ to seek another option,” Roe said.