The Lewis Chessmen of Scotland are Masterpieces of Craftsmanship.
The Lewis chessmen have always aroused the curiosity of visitors to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Eleven pieces rather uniquely carved out of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, they are a part of the cache found on the Isle of Lewis, and Outer Hebrides of northwest Scotland There are 82 more in the British Museum in London and many Scotsmen would love to have them back in Scotland.
The origin of the Lewis chessmen is shrouded in mystery but they were probably made in Norway around 1150-1200AD and destined to reach Ireland. They were found near Uig on Lewis in the early 19th century, supposedly in a small chamber of dry-built stone buried15 feet in the sand. They were first exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries at Scotland in 1831 and it appears that there are four distinct chess sets.
The chess pieces are elaborately carved showing seated kings and queens with distinct features, bishops with miters on their heads, knights mounted on rather small horses and holding spears and shields, rooks with shields and a wild expression, and pawns in the shape of obelisks. The human figures have recognizable features and rather serious expressions. Some of the pieces are stained red suggesting that the sets were red and white unlike the modern black and white sets. Extremely well preserved, each piece is distinctive and one can only surmise about the trade and state of society in Scandinavia when they were crafted.
Harry Potter fans may remember the wizard’s chess set with a red queen in the film “Harry Portter and the Philosopher’s Stone”; that was a Lewis piece. The Lewis have been the inspiration of the animated series “Noggin the Nog” and anumber of ballads and stories too.
It is a pity that this relic of maritime history and commerce has been split between two museums. It would be wonderful if they were all together in the Museum of Scotland, closer to the land of their origin and the place where they were discovered. Wherever they are, they are worth looking at as a salute to the craftsmanship of yore.