Read The Lewis Chessmen Online

Authors: David H. Caldwell

The Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen


The Lewis Chessmen





Originally published in 2010 by
NMS Enterprises Limited – Publishing
a division of NMS Enterprises Limited
National Museums Scotland
Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF

Reprinted in 2010 and 2011 (twice), 2012 and 2014.
e-book 2014

Text and images, unless otherwise credited:
© National Museums Scotland 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher

The moral rights of David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall and Caroline M. Wilkinson to be identified as the authors of this book have been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.

ISBN (print): 978 1 905267 46 0

ISBN (e-book): 978 1 905267 94 1

Cover design: Mark Blackadder.

Cover image: Montage of the Lewis chessmen in National Museums Scotland.

Publication format:

NMS Enterprises Limited – Publishing.

Printed and bound in the United Kingdom by Bell & Bain Limited, Glasgow.

Published by National Museums Scotland as one of a number of titles based on museum scholarship and partnership.

For a full listing of NMS Enterprises Limited – Publishing titles and related merchandise:



Foreword by Jane Carmichael, National Museums Scotland


The Lewis Chessmen:

The Hoard's Discovery

The Contents of the Hoard

Why Twelfth-century Scandinavian?

How Lewis?

Lewis and the Kingdom of the Isles

The Lewis Chessmen in Lewis

Analysing the Chessmen

From Trondheim

Playing Games

The Legacy

References and Research

About the Authors


HIS book was written to accompany a travelling exhibition in 2010-11 about new research on the Lewis chessmen. It could not have been done without the support and input of many colleagues in National Museums Scotland, and also the help and generosity of colleagues in the British Museum, particularly James Robinson. We are also most grateful to Sally Foster, editor of
Medieval Archaeology
, for allowing work originally published in that journal to reappear here.

David H. Caldwell

Mark A. Hall

Caroline M. Wilkinson


Jane Carmichael

Director of Collections

National Museums Scotland

HE Lewis chessmen have long been associated with mystery and romance: mystery about their origins and burial in the Western Isles some eight hundred years ago and the romantic story of their chance discovery in the nineteenth century. The remarkably expressive detailing of the figures gives them a unique immediacy and attractiveness and has made them famous.

Many scholars have been drawn to investigate them. Contemporary scholars have the advantage of drawing on advanced scientific techniques. This book summarises the story of the chessmen and the most recent research in which Dr David Caldwell, of National Museums Scotland, and his team have used forensic analysis combined with historical expertise to review the evidence.

National Museums Scotland and the British Museum are pleased to be partners in creating the exhibition,
The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked
, with funding from the Scottish Government. This exhibition brings the chessmen together to tell their story and will be shown first at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. We are delighted to be able to work with our partners across Scotland to take the exhibition to Aberdeen, Lerwick and Stornoway.

We hope that the exhibition and this book, as well as associated events and information on the National Museums Scotland and British Museum websites will be enjoyed as widely as possible.

May 2010


N 11 April 1831 Roderick Ririe from Stornoway in Lewis had a hoard of 93 pieces of ivory, most of which were readily recognised as chessmen, exhibited in Edinburgh at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The Antiquaries were interested in acquiring at least some of them for their museum, but after a delay 82 of the pieces were purchased later that year by the British Museum. The other eleven eventually ended up in the Society of Antiquaries' museum in Edinburgh, now subsumed in National Museums Scotland.

The Lewis chessmen, as they have long been known, are arguably the most well-known treasure ever to have been found in Scotland and certainly one of the most valuable. It is difficult to translate that worth into money, and practically impossible to measure their cultural significance and the enjoyment they have given countless museum visitors over the years. We can be sure that their appeal continues to be very considerable. Since their acquisition by the two museums, they have been almost continuously on display in London and Edinburgh and some have been sent to prestigious exhibitions elsewhere in Britain and also overseas, including Sydney in Australia and to several locations in North America. Both museums have also lent pieces
on a number of occasions for display in Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway.

The Lewis chessmen have acquired an iconic status as the epitome of chessmen. There is worldwide recognition that that is what they are, and art historians have always regarded them as outstanding examples of Romanesque Art – a style of art that was widespread throughout Europe in the twelfth century. They are often featured in books on art or Scandinavian culture, but after more than 170 years there is still some mystery surrounding how and when they got to Lewis and a lot to be said about their true significance. This book reviews the Lewis chessmen story and shows how they can tell us a lot more about our history and heritage.

The Lewis Chessmen


The Hoard's Discovery

OW and where the hoard was discovered has always been a subject of interest. It has long been believed that Malcolm MacLeod, a resident of the settlement of Peighinn Dhomhnuill (Penny Donald – since cleared) in the Parish of Uig on the west coast of the island, discovered it in a sandbank in the Mains of Uig. This locates the find-spot in an area of sand dunes at Ardroil on the south side of Tràighe Ùige (Uig Strand) [
Fig. 1
]. Lewis is a part of the world where there is a strong tradition of storytelling, and it is not surprising that the hoard's discovery was no sooner public knowledge than an explanation for its loss was found.

This map shows possible find-spots for the Lewis hoard.

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