The Lewis Chessmen

This  essay was published in Scottish Review on Wednesday 15th June 2011.

Recently I had the pleasure of accompanying the Discovery Film Festival on a mini-tour of the north-western highlands and islands, through Skye to Lewis via Ullapool, and finally to Shetland, where we shared the facilities of the wonderful Shetland Museum in Lerwick with the Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition, on the latest stage of its tour round Scotland in roughly the opposite direction.

The story of the Lewis Chessmen, for anyone who is still unfamiliar with it, is a fascinating one: a beguiling mix of historical documentary, detective fiction and political drama. Fashioned from walrus tusks and whales’ teeth, it is generally believed that the intricately carved chessmen and assorted other pieces were created in a workshop in or around Trondheim in the middle of the 12th Century, at a time when the Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway. The Vikings were trading widely in Europe at that time as well as the whole of the North Atlantic, and the valuable cargo may well have been that of a wealthy merchant on its way to Ireland when it mysteriously ‘disappeared’.

How these exquisite objects came to be hidden or buried in a sand dune on the west coast of Lewis, and the exact date and location of their discovery is a matter of some conjecture, but it’s what has happened to them since which has caused the most controversy. Leaving aside some of the more fanciful myths surrounding the recovery of the relics, such as the one which has a cow accidentally unearthing the treasure, what is beyond doubt is that they were seen again in public for the first time in over 600 years when exhibited by Captain Roderick Ryrie at the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh in April 1831, only to be sold shortly afterwards to the British Museum for something in the region of a pound a piece, when the Society failed to raise the necessary funds to keep them in Scotland.

Many of the questions relating to the Lewis, or Uig, Chessmen remain unanswered, but the biggest question of all is where they should be held. Of the 93 pieces in existence, 82 are housed in the British Museum with a paltry 11 residing in the National Museum of Scotland, and the dispute over their ownership is one of huge political and symbolic significance. First Minister Alex Salmond, delivering the annual Sabhal Mor Ostaig lecture months after his election in 2007 described as ‘utterly unacceptable’ the fact that the bulk of the chess pieces were located in London.  However, the curator of the current exhibition, which includes less than half of the total collection, is unequivocal. Speaking in the Independent ahead of the tour in June 2010, Dr David Caldwell argued, “Once you start repatriating objects from museums, they’re all losers. I frankly think that it’s important that major museums, whether they’re here or in North America or in Greece or wherever else, ought to be able to show to their people and their visitors human endeavour in different parts of the world. The British Museum is a major international museum and lots of people see them there, and that is the name of the game.”

If there is a case for retaining the pieces in the British Museum, this isn’t it. By definition, those museums and nations which saw the return of what they would regard as rightfully theirs, would obviously not be ‘losers’. Nor is the argument for the defence particularly strengthened by the example of Greece, whose multi-million euro New Acropolis Museum in Athens was designed specifically to house the Parthenon Marbles, famously looted by the 7th Earl of Elgin between 1801 and 1812 and subsequently bought by the British Government in 1816.  The opening of the state-of-the-art building in June 2009 was overshadowed by the British Museum’s derisory offer of a short-term loan of the monumental sculptures, on condition that Greece would acknowledge London ownership of them. The Greeks politely refused the offer, and the political leaders and heads of state from around Europe who attended the inauguration ceremony did not include Queen Elizabeth, her Greek-born husband or the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who sent his apologies (for his non-attendance, not for stealing the marbles).

Not that Scotland has always been the loser in this game of ‘merry-go-round museum’ of course. The Burrell Collection in Pollock Country Park, gifted to the city of Glasgow by Sir William Burrell in 1944, houses an important and impressive array of modern sculpture, Impressionist paintings and medieval artwork including stained glass, tapestries, furniture, weaponry and Islamic artefacts from ancient Egypt and China. Burrell, the third of nine children, who at the age of 14 joined the family business and along with his brothers went on to make his fortune in shipping, was knighted in 1927 for ‘services to art and for his public work’. Wikipedia tells us that due to his vast wealth he could indulge his passion for ‘collecting antiques’ which he did successfully due to his ‘eye for a bargain’. That’s one way of telling the story. I just wonder whether at some point in the future we will come to see it all quite differently.

*The Lewis Chessmen return, temporarily, to Lewis from 15 April – 12 September 2011

One thought on “The Lewis Chessmen

  1. Pingback: The Lewis Chessmen « Bill Boyd – The Literacy Adviser

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