“The most astonishing collection of ancient
pieces in existence”
The 11th century Chess pieces
the Lewis Chessmen made from walrus tusk and found on the beach in the parish of Uig on the Isle of Lewis (Hebrides) and now in the British Museum, were found in 1831 buried in a sandbank in the Isle of Lewis, the largest island of the
outer Hebrides in Scotland.
The sea carried away the sandbank uncovering a mysterious building (a small brick oven) that had been buried under the sand.
Carved of walrus ivory, they may have come from Iceland, although recent investigation suggests that the Lewis Chessmen may have originated in Trondheim, the medieval capital city of Norway, and home to the Norsemen during the eleventh and
twelfth centuries who were the overlords of the isle of Lewis.
It seems that they brought the Chessmen with them from Norway when they voyaged to the island. Some authorities date them to the 12th century. There were four sets, not all complete.
According to legend, they were stolen by a sailor from a ship anchored in Loch Hamnaway soon after the year 1600.
A shepherd known as Ghillie Ruadh murdered the sailor to get the treasure, but fearing discovery, carefully buried the pieces. A few years later he was hanged in Stornoway for another crime, and is said to have made a dying confession to the murder of the sailor.
A local peasant, Calum nan Sprot, working nearby found what he concluded to be a collection of
elves and gnomes. The superstitious highlander flung down his spade and fled home in horror. Superstition in the Isle of Lewis had survived in a powerful form.
Thus, when the peasant first looked at the group of singular little ivory figures, it was natural that they should appear as the pigmy sprites of
Celtic folklore. However, he was induced by his wife to return to the spot and take the figures home.
He sold them to a local collector who realized they were Chessmen pieces. There were 78 pieces in all, belonging to eight or more sets. 67 are now in the British Museum and the rest in the National Museum in Edinburgh.
Experts are unanimous in regarding them as "The most astonishing collection of ancient Chessmen in existence".