History's Pawns

Article excerpt

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. …