The Chessmen Talk (not literally)

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Comann Eachdraidh Uig played host last week to a visit from two experts on the Lewis Chessman, who hit the headlines in November with their theories relocating the find-site to Mealista, rather than Ardroil.

Dr David Caldwell, Keeper of Scotland and Europe at the National Museum of Scotland, and Dr Mark Hall, curator at Perth Museum, were on the island to make arrangements for the touring Chessmen’s visit in 2011.

Their proposal that the findspot was a souterrain on the site of a supposed nunnery at Mealista, Taigh na Cailleachan Dubh, has previously met with strong scepticism in Uig, where local tradition maintains that the 92 Chessmen, along with 14 plain tablemen and a buckle, were found at the Bealach Ban in the Ardroil dunes in 1831 by Malcolm “Sprot” Macleod of Pennydonald.

Dr Caldwell suggests that other sources point to Mealista, notably Captain Ryrie of Stornoway, who bought the pieces in April 1831 and the Ordnance Survey records from 1853, and that the Ardroil connection may have originated, erroneously, with Donald Morrison, writing in 1833.

Arguments from the assembled crowd challenged the new proposal, citing in particular the account of the local minister, Rev Alexander Macleod, who lived a quarter of a mile from the findspot and wrote of it in the New Statistical Report of 1833. Also mentioned was the fact that Mealista was inhabited in 1831, and a significant find there would certainly have passed into local memory.

The presentation also touched on the variety in styles, workmanship and possibly originating dates between the Chessmen, which meant that they may have been gathered over a period of time, rather than made as a discreet set. Of particular interest was the work done by forensic anthropologist Dr Caroline Wilkinson on the facial variations between the “families” of chessmen, which may indicate different craftsmen.

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Dr Hall said that some of the plainer pieces – the pawns – may also have been used along with the flat tablemen also found in the hoard for Hnefatafl, and that the set represented a “compendium” used by a wealthy individual, for whom luxury goods were a sign of power and prosperity.

A strong message from the presentation was that Lewis certainly had the wealth and power to support a high-status material culture. It is reasonable to suppose that the Chessmen, or the games compendium, were kept and used here in the Kingdom of the Isles, contrary to other suggestions that they may have been accidentally lost while en route to Dublin or some other Viking centre.

Dr Caldwell said that there was still a large amount of research to be done on the Chessmen before all their secrets were known. It is only in the recent preparations for the touring exhibition that high-resolution photographs have revealed working marks on the carved pieces.

It is hoped that the Chessmen will return to Uig for a brief visit during the summer of 2011, for the first time since 2000. The touring exhibition, which brings together 30 pieces from the British Museum and the National Museum, begins in Edinburgh in May and will continue to Aberdeen and Shetland before opening at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway on 15 April 2011.