Posted by: christinelaennec | January 8, 2011

The Lewis Chessmen

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.

Logo of the Western Isles council. From Comhairle nan Eilean website.

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!



  1. We saw this exhibition in Edinburgh and we will go back when they come to Stornoway. They are fascinating pieces, and very enigmatic. There is a story that the finding of them on the Uig sands was a hoax, which for me just adds to their allure. x

  2. Goodmorning Christine, thanks for this wonderful history lesson…

  3. Dear Erna and Jacqui, thanks for your comments! Yes, there is a lot of mystery surrounding their discovery. I’m glad you’ll get to see the exhibition again, Jacqui.

  4. Christine, I am happy to have found your blog … I found it through Erna’s. I am absolutely enthralled with the Lewis Chessmen. They are just so fantastic. It’s almost like they have their own little story and are being a bit secretive about it. I really enjoy their faces and postures. The carving is so meticulous too … really worth seeing.

    • Dear ajb, welcome! I hope you’ll continue to find things that interest you here. Yes, I agree about the chessmen. Seeing them really makes you wish that objects could speak and tell their stories!

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