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Should Lewis Chessmen be brought back to Scotland?

December 23, 2007
The BishopFOR six centuries, they lay hidden, their secrets buried within the unblemished sands of the Outer Hebrides.
Now the fate of the ancient Lewis Chessmen – deemed one of the greatest artefacts ever found in Scotland – has become the latest subject in Britain’s cross-border political war.First Minister Alex Salmond will start 2008 with a high-profile campaign to ‘repatriate’ 82 of the beautiful figurines back to Scotland from their current home in the British Museum in London.

The priceless relics were found on a beach near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the early 19th century. Historians believe they were probably made in Norway in around 1200AD, and were originally bound for Ireland. But having spent most of their lives buried in Scotland, Salmond insists they should all be returned here.The King

Last night, yet another clash between his Government and officials in London was looming, after the Department for Culture in London said it had no plans to allow the pieces to be sent to Lewis on anything other than a temporary basis.The chess pieces are exquisitely carved figurines of seated kings and queens with distinct features, bishops with mitres on their heads and knights mounted on horses. Their distinctive style was copied for a scene in the film Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone.

It is thought they were discovered by a local shepherd sometime before 1831, after he stumbled on a small stone chamber about 15ft beneath a sand bank, in which the chessmen were protected.

They were first exhibited in Scotland soon after, but were then quickly split up. Of the 93 pieces, 10 remained in Scotland, while the rest were donated to the British Museum, where they remain.

Another piece has since been added to the Scottish collection, all of which are currently displayed at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

Now Salmond wants all the pieces to be reunited north of the Border.

The WarderIn a speech to Gaelic campaigners last week, Salmond said: “I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett Formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland.”

A source close to Salmond said that the First Minister and his team will step up the campaign in coming weeks. He added that plans were being drawn up for the next move in having the priceless relics returned to Scotland.

The source said: “We will take this further in the New Year. We are working on a series of options. We think this is an important matter, because they should be back where they belong and they could be a boost for the Western Isles economy.”

The move has been backed by locals in the Outer Hebrides, who believe that the Chessmen could be a valuable tourism money-spinner.

Traditional industries such as fishing, tweed and oil-rig servicing have slumped, and the population has shrunk to 24,000, from more than 30,000 20 years ago. Locals have also hinted that they might settle for something less than all the pieces being in the Isles, or even in Scotland.

Alex MacDonald, convener of the islands council, said: “We welcome this move by Alex Salmond, and it is very significant for us that the First Minister believes that the Chessmen should be returned to the islands. My preference would be for some to be in Edinburgh, some in Stornoway (the islands’ capital] and some in Uig, where they were originally found.”

Annie MacDonald, a campaigner for the return of the pieces and a councillor for the area of Lewis where they were found, said: “We should have the Uig Chessmen here where they were found. I know they probably originated in Norway, but they were found here and it is because of here that the world knows about them. They would be great for tourism.”

But Whitehall has given no sign it will budge in allowing the whole set north of the Border for anything other than an occasional short-term display.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “By Act of Parliament, the British Museum is forbidden from disposing of any of its assets, and to change that would require primary legislation. We have no plans to do that.”

A source added: “The key pointer in this context is that this is the British Museum. That means that it is the repository for items for the whole of the UK. That might not suit Mr Salmond, but that’s it.”

No one at the British Museum was available for comment.

By Murdo MacLeod
One Comment leave one →
  1. pasthorizons permalink*
    January 10, 2008 1:04 pm

    How the Chessmen got sold to the British Museum

    The first owner of the Lewis Chessmen appears to have been Malcolm MacDonald of Penny Donald. The pieces were displayed publicly for the first time by a Stornoway merchant named Roderick Ririe at the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland on 11 April 1831. Mr. Ririe in turn sold the collection (or at least most of it) to an Edinburgh Antiques dealer named T.A. Forrest for 30 guineas. Mr. Forrest then presented the Lewis Chessmen for consideration of purchase to Frederic Madden, the Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum on the 17 October 1831. Sir Walter Scott was present and wrote in his journal that day: ‘The morning beautiful today, I go to look after the transcripts in the Museum and leave a card on a set of chess men thrown up by the sea on the coast of Scotland which were offered for £100.’ Ultimately the majority of the pieces went to British Museum for a sum of 80 guineas negotiated by the Keeper of Antiquities Edward Hawkins, whilst the remaining 10 were purchased discretely by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (a lifelong friend of Sir Walter’s) for an undisclosed price. Mr. Sharpe later found another piece (a bishop directly from Lewis) to bring his collection to a total of 11. As all known pieces make up four or five incomplete sets, and with only two complete sets the possibility of eventually discovering more pieces is utterly realistic. The Sharpe collection was sold in 1851 to Lord Londesborough who died in 1860. Subsequently the remaining 11 pieces were sold in 1888 through the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland at Christie’s auction house for 100 guineas, again purchased by the British Museum this time under the direction of the Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities Sir Angustus Wollaston Franks.

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