History's Pawns

By Dewey, Donald | Scandinavian Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

History's Pawns


Dewey, Donald, Scandinavian Review


For more than eight centuries, the Lewis Chessmen have been trying to establish their home in northern Europe.

THE ALLURE OF CHESS HAS NEVTR BEEN CONFINED TO ITS adepts. Even those who don't know which pieces have to be moved forward one square at a time, who have forgotten which have to be moved diagonally, and who are puzzled by those that can be moved only in an L pattern, can still be drawn in by the figurines themselves. Museums in every major city of the world are sure to have at least one standing exhibition of kings, queens and rooks that have attained local historical significance. Sometimes that significance is in the dazzling style of the artisan who carved the pieces. Other times it is in the association that they were used in a game by the national Father of This before he went off to triumph in the crucial Battle of That. Always their attraction is that they tickle that ineffable human vulnerability to sets - the order in variety, as long as there isn't too much order or too much variety.

At least in the West, no chess set has proven more beguiling for what it is and where it first saw the light of a paring knife than the so-called Lewis Chessmen. Some have called it the most famous chess set in the world; for sure, it has crossed more historical, cultural and political boards than most, checkmating what would appear to be even the most persuasive conclusions about its origins in favor of just a little more rancor and a little more mystery.

Like all good mysteries involving chess pieces, this one began in 183 1 on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides Isle of Lewis when one Malcolm MacLeod hit something in a sand bank with his shovel. What he uncovered was a small stone burial chamber (cist) containing 92 game pieces plus a belt buckle (there has never been any explanation of the relevance of the belt buckle). Made of ivory and eventually reckoned as coming from Scandinavia in the 12th century, the figurines included 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, IS knights, 12 warders (the equivalent of contemporary rooks) and 19 pawns. Also part of the trove were 14 round tablemen from the ancient game of tables, a precursor to backgammon. Initial suppositions were that the items had originated in Norway, which at the time had possession of what Malcolm MacLeod knew as Scotland. That proved to be a supposition that spawned numerous other suppositions still being debated in more than one country.

The first thing MacLeod did with his find was about the only good thing he did with it - set up a rudimentary exhibit in his village of Pennydonald. This was enough to entice a nearby landlord, Roderick Kyrie, to stiff MacLeod by buying the whole lot cheaply and setting up a more elaborate showing under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. (What it wasn't enough for was to save MacLeod and the discovery site on the Bay of Uig from being cleared out a short while later to make room for some grand aristocratic holding.) Among those who viewed the display at the Society was Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, one of the period's most renowned dabblers in anything that made for salon conversation and a close friend of Sir Walter Scott. A draftsman, poet and author of books on everything from the Church of Scotland to witchcraft, as well as an avid antiquarian, Sharpe bought 10 of the pieces for his private amusement, presumably the first time the figurines had been broken up in six centuries. Some years later, he resold his acquisitions to a Lord Londonesborough, who in turn sold them back to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Then, just when the chessmen were getting the footloose reputation of the Maltese Falcon, the Society donated them to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, where they remain to this day.

As for the other, larger group of pieces not scooped up by Sharpe, Kyrie had little trouble persuading the British Museum that they belonged in London. In this he had at least the passive support of the Scots novelist Scott, who became one of the first visitors to the artifacts in their new home. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

History's Pawns
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.