Chess Edinburgh lewischessmen2-75h 

Chandler Cornered

The Mystery of the 'Lewis' Gaming Pieces

Updated Spetember 2010.

"But it is evident, that to serve some purpose, contradictory statements
were circulated by the persons who discovered or who afterwards obtained
possession of these Chess-men, regarding the place where the discovery was
actually made.

From minutes read to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, llth March 1833.

"Why do you not display the Lewis Chessmen on a chessboard?"
A question often asked at the British Museum.

"Because the fact is they do not look like chess pieces.
We do not want the tourists asking questions."

Infact so unlike chess pieces that the Museum has now taken
to adding a new piece not carved or found anywhere to convince
the growing numbers of sceptics and fleece the tourists that
this is indeed a chess set.

The fact they have no Rook is not an obstacle. They invented one.

OK but now at last it looks a chess set.

Well it does now, but back then....

The pieces were carved in the 12th. Century.

The Bishop was not introduced into the game of Chess until the 15th century.
Check out Caxton's 'Game of Chess' printed in about 1470.
No piece called a Bishop.

The Spanish put a Bishop into chess in the early 1500's at the same time
as they increseaed the powers of the Bishop and Queen.
This is all a well documented fact.

So what ever this Norwegian lad was carving in the 12th century it
was not for a game of Chess.

There are various accounts of where the Lewis Gaming Pieces came from.
All revolve around the Isle of Lewis and some very fancy tales they are too.

An unknown cabin boy makes 3 trips to swim ashore from an unknown ship,
gets murdered by an unknown person, buried in an unknown grave,
up pops a cow and sticks it's horn into a sandback again at an unknown location...

...this is all brilliant stuff.

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland did not believe it.

Did you know that in 1826 the newly formed Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
were approached with a bag of carved figures claiming to be part of
Bonnie Prince Charlie's treasure found in Roxburgh?.
They told the seller to get lost. I wonder what was in that bag.

Edinburgh 1831.
People were still talking about the recently finished Edinburgh v London
correspondence match from which the Scotch Opening got it's name.

A book had just been published about it written by William Lewis.

Suddenly a chess set appears with the pieces found on Lewis.

The seller, a Mr Forrest took some of the pieces, stained them red
with beetroot juice and made up what would pass as a chess set.

The pieces were shown to The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland but
they mistrusted the method the pieces came into Forrest's hands.
The story today is the Society could not afford the asking price
but as the minutes state, the reason was different.

They could have haggled because Forrest sold the pieces to the
British Museum for a knock price finally glad to be rid of them

Two years later The Society were given a chance to purchase some more pieces.
This they did without questioning where they came from, though they did
register a 'save ass' clause in their minutes.

This is not me. I'm carrying on where Ken Whyld left of.

Ken Whyld is the co-author on one of the greatest books ever written
on the history of Chess. The Oxford Companion to Chess. by Hooper & Whyld.

On another site (the first Edinburgh site -now defunct) I first stated my fears that the
Lewis pieces were not Chessmen. It is the piece they call a Rook that I dislike.

It does not look like a Rook. It's too small to be a Rook.
At the time when the pieces were carved the Rook was the most
powerful piece on the board. (then the Queen moved like a King).

Indeed when the 11 pieces that were eventually purchased by The Society
they were logged thus:

Three Queens, two large, one small; one of the large holds a drinking-cup.
One Knight on horseback.
Two Bishops.
Two Kings.
Two Knights, one biting his shield."

No mention of a Rook. Yet the Rook, which was originally called a 'Warder'
by the British Museum, now exists as a Rook biting a shield.
Everyone called it a Knight till they noticed they had no Rook.

(Now they have ditched this piece and adding a tower which was never part of the horde).

I added that the pieces were all white some were dyed as part of a con.
(The BM confirmed not long after they bought the pieces that a Rook
was missing and some of the pieces had been recently dyed.)
You cannot play chess with all white pieces. They are not chessmen.

A few days after I posted it I was emailed by Ken.

He said my piece was amusing but I may have stumbled upon something.
He said there is no actual proof that the pieces were found on Lewis.
I was asked to keep this under my hat as he was still researching.

Ken sadly passed away In July 2003. But In the May 2003 edition of the
British Chess Magazine there appeared an article by Ken.

Now I do not want to use the name of Ken Whyd to add any weight to my
own theory. Nor do I wish to tarnish the memory of a great man by lifting
just bits from the article that suit me.

Ken does not dispute wether or not they are chess pieces he disputes where
they are from. His article adds more mystery.

So I give it here the article in full.
I have added nothing except one change in grammar. [he then].

This artice deserves to be more well known as it was written by
a chess player who knew a thing or two about doing research.

Fantasy Island?

"IS IT A FAIRY tale; or perhaps something more sinister?
The Lewis chessmen are one of the glories of our chess heritage.
Their brooding magnificence has a universal appeal;
The story of their resurrection is quite parochial.

Experts date them to the 12th century but they first became known on II April 1831,
when they were shown in Edinburgh by Roderick Pirie, a merchant of Stornaway
(or Captain Ryrie or Ririe - the uncertainty as to his name is typical of the whole story).

He told those present at the meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
that the carvings had been recently found in Uig bay, on the Isle of Lewis,
buried under 15 feet of sand. A letter about the discovery was read.

Immediately a contradictory story was given, and the letter disappeared.
In June 1831 a Scottish newspaper reported that the men were found by a
peasant digging a sandbank.

CK Sharpe wrote in 1833 that they were found close to where a nunnery
had stood, in a vaulted room about six feet long which had ashes on the floor.

In 1851 a different yarn was told. The spring tide of 1831 washed away part
of a sandbank exposing something like an oven. A local peasant broke into it,
and seeing what he thought to be a gathering of gnomes, fled in panic.
His wife persuaded him to go back and collect the loot.

The final version appeared in 1967, in a publication about the folklore of Lewis.
A herdsman saw one of his cows rubbing against a sand hill and pulling out some
white objects with her horns.

In September 1990 Bob Meadley of Australia made the three-hour boat trip from the
Scottish mainland to Lewis, and went to Uig bay to see for himself.
He made a video there. The locals did not agree about the site of the hoard,
dividing their votes between two sandy hills fairly near to the cemetery.
Both are far from the sea, and at a high altitude. Otherwise Meadley found a
reluctance to talk about the subject.


All of the stories cannot be true, so why should we believe any one of them?

The constant factor is Uig bay, but anyone putting up a smoke screen would
probably choose a remote spot on the furthest side of a Gaelic-speaking island
that is itself difficult to reach. I suggest that the men were never in
the bay of Uig, and that is why the locals cannot be more forthcoming.

The chessmen are undoubtedly genuine, but the tale of their discovery seems
to me to be completely false. Sometimes subterfuges are used to deter an invasion
of trophy-seekers onto an archaeological site, but in those cases the truth emerges
after a few years.

Could the men have been obtained fraudulently? Were they stolen?
Anyone who holds that honesty could be taken for granted in such distinguished
company would do well to look at the next development.

Captain Ririe, who allegedly paid the herdsman, Malcolm Macleod, 30 for the hoard,
sold it to an Edinburgh dealer, TA Forrest, who offered it for 100.

Sir Frederic Madden of the British Museum was enthusiastic, and bought what he
believed to be the whole collection (67 chessmen, 14 draughtsmen, a belt buckle),
for 80 guineas (84). However Forrest had sold secretly ten more pieces to CK Sharpe.
Who managed to buy a further bishop from Lewis, These eleven men eventually finished
up in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

TA Forrest, who again behaved dishonestly at an auction of Sharpe's effects in 1851,
seems to have been the villain of the piece.

I offer the hypothesis that he was the man who originally acquired the hoard
(which had never seen Uig), and that Captain Ririe (if he existed) was his decoy man.

The only weakness in my theory is that Sharpe bought a single piece from Lewis.
In view of his enthusiasm, a con-artist could easily have set him up.

Given that obfuscation is the name of the game it is perhaps worth noting
that, after 1831, folklore was created in Lewis to explain the hoard's existence,
the yarns conflict.

In one, a herdsman witnesses a shipwreck, and sees a sailor swim ashore with a bag.
In the other the herdsman sees a ship laying at anchor, and at moonrise a boy rows
ashore with a bundle.

In both stories the Lewis resident slays the seaman,
buries but never recovers the bag,

[he then] descends into further depravity and even 'the abuse of women',
and is hanged at Gallows Hill, Stornaway.
The wicked man is named as 'Gille Ruadh', or Red Gillie.

Perhaps someone can find real evidence of the existence of the
'Red Gillie', Captain Ririe, or Malcolm Macleod.
There are many Macleods buried in Uig, according to Meadley.

Note that Ken himself finds a possible hole.

"The only weakness in my theory is that Sharpe bought a single piece from Lewis."

Sharpe said he went to Lewis and bought the piece.
Ken was being kind to Sharp saying he had been duped.
I think it is incredible that Sharp suddenly leaves Edinburgh and
returns a few days later with a Bishop.

This amazing 3 day very well documented journey 1 days from
Edinburgh to Lewis and 1 days back again in the 1830's was impossible.

I think he had the extra piece with him all the time in an attempt
to fool the Society and was in league with Forrest.

Ken thinks the pieces were chess pieces but we never got around
to discussing the whole matter.
In the original post I never mentioned the Lewis connection
nor the time period that Bishops were introduced to the game.

Also by then I had not seen the Society minutes which add a fair amount
of fuel to Ken's theory.

A great pity as I would have valued his opionion more than any others.

So what are the 'Lewis' gaming pieces?

There exists a Viking game with many variations called Tafl or Hnefatafl
which is first recorded in 400 A.D. It is played with Kings and foot
soldiers. Versions and line ups vary on what ever saga the game is repeating.
Usually a game has 3 or four different pieces.
Remember 4 major pieces were found - they turned a Knight was a Rook.

One set up has a King and 8 defenders against 16 attackers.
The 16 attackers are depicted as simple pawns.
You need not have two different colours.
You do not need a board. The celtic board given with the Lewis set
is the fabric of some marketing guys imagination.

When I was researching Hnefatafl one lad on the net was explaining how to
make the pieces. He said why bother...

"Use the pieces from a couple of sets they laughingly call the Lewis Chessmen."

I have a feeling a lot of people know they are not chess pieces but
are scared to put their head up over the barricade to protect theor reputations.

As for where they came from?

I'm with Ken Whyld on this one. There is no proof. No solid proof.
But he may have hinted at the reason why. To protect the site.

Let us suppose these beautiful carved pieces were found on Lewis.
If the real location was revealed then everyman and his dog would
be there digging up the countryside. Who knows?

The Nunnery or Church may hold a clue.
Often Christian buildiing were built on top of Pagen sites.
If they had disturbed a grave and found these pieces then keeping
their source a secret would have been very important to them.

And now Iceland is staking a claim on these pieces.

I see they too are desparate to get the Bishop into chess before the 1500's.

No Bishop, no chess game, and that means they will not able to sell them
to the tourists at 69.95 a pop.

It's always about the money.

Back to Chandler Cornered

Creative web design and Search Engine Optimisation by Spiderwriting Web Design