What’s Really Known About the Chessmen Findspot

A new study of the Uig Chessmen published last week by Dr David Caldwell et al. in Mediæval Archaeology has been getting a lot of press coverage (for instance on the BBC and in the Stornoway Gazette), particularly for the suggestion that the hoard may not actually have been found in Ardroil. Uig is not at all convinced – in fact, generally reckons this new theory to be completely unfounded. The following by Anna Finlayson-Mackinnon, Ardroil, explains why.  A copy of the article may be read at Uig Museum.

Our Chessmen were in the news again this week with the publication of new research which has a controversial edge to it. For the first time – to my knowledge anyway – the authenticity of Ardroil as the find place of the Chessmen is challenged. The authors of the report strongly suggest that Mealista, not Ardroil, is the place and having read through the whole paper, I am not impressed by their evidence.

It’s flawed. Flawed because not only does it exclude relevant local information, it rubbishes it. Just as well that it’s written up in conditionals – “possibly”, “probably”, “could have”, “might have”, “conceivably”, “we suggest”, but don’t get the wrong impression here. The research behind it has been thorough and wide-reaching, apart from the local aspect. They have gathered together strands of valuable and interesting information especially on the history of board games and on the Norse influence on western Scotland. I found particular interest in extracts from the Nordic sagas and certainly in the really new aspect of this research, ie Dr Caroline Wilkinson’s contribution which is ground-breaking. She is to be found at the University of Dundee, her speciality is Human Identification from Anatomy and her analysis of the facial features of the chessmen is very detailed and completely fascinating. But, in my eyes, the rubbishing of the locals, both past & present, devalues the entire report.

The Statistical Accounts of the parishes of Scotland have always been acknowledged to be the cornerstones of historical research. Isn’t that their raison d’être? The New [1833] Account of the Parish of Uig, written by the Rev Alexander Macleod of Baile na Cille, includes this entry about the discovery of the Chessmen:

In the year 1831, a considerable number of small ivory sculptures resembling chessmen, and which appeared to be of great antiquity, were found in the sands at the head of the bay of Uig, and have been since transmitted to the Antiquarian Society of Edinburgh.

His entry is a model of concision, giving when, what, where and what happened next; the fact that it’s in the Statistical Account gives an indication of the significance of the find, and, note this, it was written just two years later. This latest piece of research just gives it a mention in the passing and concludes that Alexander Macleod’s information was probably second hand! They have based their case for Mealista on an entry in the notebook, used during the first Ordnance Survey of the early 1850s, to take down place names. “Chessmen, which were sold to ‘a society of antiquaries in Edinburgh’ were found in the ruins of the nunnery about 70 [sic] years previously.” Nothing then remained of the nunnery but the site.

Although the entry actually states 70 years, the OS Notebook dates to 20 years after the find and this is the secondhand information, not the Statistical Account’s! Secondhand, because the Ordnance Survey had a language problem. The OS personnel didn’t understand Gaelic and, as they were recording their place name information from Gaelic speakers who had no English, they were dependent on translators who were, usually, young local men more interested in their pay than in the accuracy of the translation. What this notebook entry gives is the translator’s take on the Chessmen. It was certainly secondhand, it might even have been third hand – twenty years later? And yet, credence has been given, in this research, to the OS notebook rather than the Statistical Account! Rightly enough, these OS notebooks have never been regarded as sources of accuracy and many place names, in both Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, are evidence of the language difficulty.

Malcolm Macleod, Pennydonald, the finder of the Chessman, who has invariably been given a bad press, is not given much credit this time round either. Barely mentioned, he’s been airbrushed out with, “Little was heard of Malcolm Macleod after 1831” – the inference there being that he had nothing to tell. If a case is to be made for an alternative find site, you can’t have the original finder going about talking to people and taking them into the machair to show them the very sandbank. We know that little was indeed heard of Malcolm Macleod after 1831 but locally, we know why. His name hasn’t disappeared out of history, however, successive generations, both here in Uig and in Ness, have known of him as the man who found the Chessmen.  Nowadays, the information board beside the large figure of the King in the machair behind the site of his home ensures that visitors can access the story.

Neither, in the making of the alternative case, can credence be given to anyone around now who is still promoting the Ardroil site and this research finds that “the folklore element continues to grow.” There is actually “a local crofter on the Ardroil Estate” who is perpetuating the myth. “She” claims to know the precise find spot on the grounds that she belongs to a family that has been in Ardroil since the 1840s. The authors conclude that oral tradition over such a long period cannot be relied on. I had no difficulty in identifying the crofter or in recognising the distortion and skewing of facts.

Nobody here claims to know the precise find spot but we do know the area and we know the site of Malcolm Macleod’s house; we know because our elders took the trouble to ensure that we knew our own history. We are also familiar, in this part of the world, with the disparaging use that is sometimes made of the term “crofter”, and it is particularly disappointed to find this coming out of the National Museum of Scotland or any other Scottish museum. Don’t museums usually value oral tradition? This paper pays little heed to Uig’s wealth in that respect and no heed whatsoever to the corroboration of tradition through documentary evidence.

The other plank in the case for Mealista is Mr/Captain John Ryrie. They suggest him as a possible finder, in or near Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha. It is a known fact that he was the man who presented the Chessmen in Edinburgh in April 1831 and it has been thought that he might have been the person who came to Uig to fetch them after the Rev Alexander Macleod had reported the find to Stornoway. It was reported at the time that Ryrie said that the Chessman had been found in Uig near Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha so the latest conclusion is that if he knew that, he must have been the person to find them and, if not Ryrie himself, then a relative of his! It has long been known that Ryrie was a member of a Stornoway sea-faring family. Would he have been familiar enough with Uig to know that Mealista and Ardroil are some six miles apart given that Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha was the land mark commonly used to denote the extent of Lewis and that there was hardly a road in the parish in 1831? Would this not have been the equivalent of the “somewhere in the wilds of Uig” that you would get from the coves or blones of today if asked to explain where something over here was?

Several of the significant sites of Mealista are discussed as possible locations for the Chessmen. I found that part of the paper somewhat chaotic and at that point, I lost the thread. The authors of the report actually say that there has never been local input into investigations of the Chessmen and they finish by calling for a full archaeological survey of Mealista.  Wouldn’t we all welcome that, plus the long overdue dig of the Bealach Bàn.