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Chess Sets

Scottish American Society


A great hoard of twelfth-century chesspieces was discovered in 1831on a remote beach located on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.  These are the islands off the Northwest coast of Scotland.  Carved from walrus tusks, the Lewis chessmen have been described as the "greatest chessmen of the European Middle Ages."  The group consists of roughly ninety-three pieces.  Eighty two are in the British Museum, eleven are in the National Museums of Scotland.  Some are still resident in a museum in Lewis and some may well be in private hands and unknown to the curatorial world.
These chessmen occupy a unique place within the art of eleventh and twelfth century Europe.  They are the largest single surviving group of secular Romanesque objects made for leisure and enjoyment, almost certainly for an aristocratic laity.  The creation of these unique pieces has had many attributions, including Iceland, Norway (or Scandinavia) Scotland, Ireland and England.  The most likely source of the original pieces was Norway.  How the sets landed on an obscure section of a remote part of the Hebrides will almost certainly never be known.
One of the stories of the discovery of the chess set is that in the spring of 1831 the sea undermined and carried away a large portion of a sandbank in the parish of Uig, thus exposing a small stone building in appearance somewhat like an oven.  A Highlander who happened to be working nearby became curious about the building and broke into it.  In the misty darkness of the newly opened structure, he was astonished to see what looked to him to be an assembly of elves or gnomes.  He naturally felt he had invaded the territory of the wee folk.  According to Celtic folk-lore such an invasion could bring upon the head of the intruder either great tragedy or years of imprisonment by the fairy folk.  Being a superstitious man, he quickly fled.  His wife was less worried about the impact the sprites could have upon their lives and induced him to return to the site with her.  Together they carried away several of the small carved ivory figures.