This afternoon I caught the very last day (in Aberdeen) of an interesting travelling exhibition on the Lewis Chessmen. In case you haven’t met them yet, they are Scandinavian chess pieces from about the 12th century, which were found on the Isle of Lewis in the early 19th century. There were several sets of them – 82 pieces in all – as well as an ivory buckle which is thought to perhaps have belonged to the bag they were buried in. For a photo of them, see the British Museum website. I think there is something very beguiling about their faces.
The exhibit was in Gaelic and English, and I went with a Gaelic-speaking friend from the Outer Hebrides. In Gaelic they are called “Fir-Tàilisg”. We were both pondering the fact that the Outer Hebrides (also called the Western Isles) were Viking territory for several centuries. The first Viking raids on the islands off the West Coast of Scotland came in the 9th century: the Book of Kells lives in Dublin now because it was smuggled out of the Isle of Iona when the Vikings arrived. The Vikings settled, intermarried, and ruled the Western Isles until the early Middle Ages. Many place names in the Outer Hebrides are clearly Norse in origin: Tarskavaig, Vatersay, Horgabost. Personal names are also bear the mark of the Vikings: my friend Tormod is named after Thor, the god of Thunder. In English, his name is Norman, i.e. Norse-man.
The Viking influence remains also in the imagery adopted by the islands. The seal of the Western Isles Council is a Viking longboat (left).
Tormod was commenting that there’s a lot more focus on the commonalities that the Gaelic culture and language have with Ireland (Scottish and Irish Gaelic were long ago one language), but much less has been done to highlight the wealth of Scandinavian influence on Gaelic culture, language and history.
It was lovely to see some of the Lewis Chessmen here in Aberdeen. They usually reside in the British Museum in London, with a few held by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Many people would love to see at least some of them in Lewis on a more permanent basis. The exhibition “Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked” travels next to Shetland, and ends up in Stornoway in Lewis. If you’d like to find out more about them – and see some really good close-up photographs, go to the National Museum of Scotland website. And if you get a chance to see them in person, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!