Monday, May 10, 2010
The Lewis Chessmen: Bewitching
Dug up on a beach 180 years ago, Lewis Chessmen still have a bewitching effect
Date: 09 May 2010
By Peter Ross
TO walk into a room in Granton, in the north of Edinburgh, and see the Lewis chessmen set out on a table is one of those rare moments in life when the old saying about having your heart in your mouth seems less like a banal cliché and more a statement of visceral fact. I can feel the pulse and taste the blood. (Photo: National Museums of Scotland conservator Jane Clark with some of the pieces. Love this photo because you get a real sense of the scale of these pieces, which are, as far as I can tell by looking, are from two different sets).
The chessmen are the most precious archaeological treasures ever discovered in Scotland. It is believed they were made in Trondheim, Norway, in the late 12th century and dug from the sands of Lewis's Atlantic coast in 1831. Yet here they are, huddled near the corner of the large white lab table, as if in the midst of a heated discussion over whether they should shin down the leg, make their way to the nearby Firth of Forth, and rebury themselves by the water. "No fighting now," says the conservator Jane Clark in mock-admonishment, plucking up a knight on horseback with one of her white-gloved hands; the pieces are so lifelike that one half expects a whinnying protest at this indignity.
We are in the collection centre of the National Museums Scotland (NMS), a bland modern building in which conservation work takes place and where objects are kept when not on display. The chess pieces are here to be checked, photographed and packed ahead of an exhibition, The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked, which opens at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on 21 May and continues to Aberdeen, Lerwick and Stornoway. There will be 29 chessmen on display – six from NMS and 23 on loan from the British Museum in London – except during the Edinburgh run when the entire NMS collection will swell the total to 34.
Today, Jane Clark is letting me see all 11 NMS pieces and has grouped them by type – two kings, three queens, three bishops, one knight and two of the rook-like pieces known as warders. It feels jarringly anachronistic to see them in a modern workplace with someone on the radio droning about Nick Clegg and a mobile phone playing, rather gratifyingly, the theme to Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
The larger of the kings is the biggest piece – almost 10cm tall and 223.5 grams. The pieces are brownish-white, the colour of tobacco-stained teeth, and are made from the tusks of walruses hunted, most likely, in Greenland. They are covered in tiny grooves, like frost veins on a window pane, which are thought to be the marks left by insects burrowing in the white Lewis sand.
Most striking of all are the facial expressions. These are not the interchangeable symbolic pieces of a modern chess set. These figures seem frozen in the moment of feeling strong emotions. The larger king gives a saucer-eyed scowl and looks set to pull his sword from its scabbard. The queens, as if in response, seem flustered, their palms pressed to their cheeks; it's an expression familiar from The Broons (there were 11 in that family, too) when Paw does something that leaves Maw black-affronted. The queens, could they speak, might well be saying "Crivvens!"
It's the warders, though, that are most compelling. One, usually referred to as a "berserker", looks terrified at the thought of going into battle. He is biting the top of his shield with five tiny teeth. He's a comic figure in a way, though oddly moving too. He seems to say something about what we ask of soldiers in our contemporary wars, and how heroism is largely a matter of continuing to function in frightening situations. It's daft, but I feel for him.
The chessmen have always had this ability to move us. Thousands, perhaps millions of eyes have gazed upon them over the years and found the encounter rich. Sir Walter Scott spent an hour contemplating them on 17 October, 1831, the day they were brought to the British Museum and offered for sale; more than a century later, visits to see the chessmen at the museum inspired Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin to make The Saga Of Noggin The Nog, the 1960s animated series. How strange and delicious to think that the creators of Ivanhoe and Ivor the Engine can be linked by these ancient objects.
"He's one of my favourites," says Clark of the berserker. "I also like the knight 'cos he's in such a sorry state." She's responding to the knight's vulnerability – it is the most worn of the pieces – as if it is a person. It seems that anyone who spends prolonged periods with the chessmen can't help but perceive them in that way.
"Maybe I should be smacked for thinking these thoughts," says Dr David Caldwell, the curator who has been responsible for the pieces since 1973, "but you get very possessive about your collections. You see them as being yours, though I don't think in an unhealthy way. Undoubtedly I see them as part of my family. I do have those feelings. Somebody asked me fairly recently if I knew what their names were. I haven't actually said, 'Right, he's Robinvald and he's Angus,' but the fact is that I do know a lot of likely names one could call them, and I have actually personalised them deep down in me."
The question is why should people feel so strongly about the chessmen? In part, surely, because they are figurative; indeed, colloquial accounts of their discovery relate that the islanders referred to them as "fairy folk". It's even said that Malcolm "Sprot" Macleod, the crofter who is believed to have uncovered them, was so unsettled by their appearance that he ran home in alarm to his wife. She, like Maw Broon or a Norse queen, told him to not be so daft and to go back and get them. But there is something more. Standing over the chessmen in the NMS lab, the desire to reach out and lift one, or even just lay a finger on a crown, is very strong (as is the converse impulse to run away in case I break them). This, I think, is key to their attraction. It's easy to imagine them being held by hands which have themselves long turned to bone. They are a tangible link to the people of the past, and because they are gaming pieces they say something rather poignant about human pleasure and intellect. The men and women who played with these, we might think, were not so different from us.
The chessmen also derive glamour from their mysterious origins. No one knows for sure where they were made or how they came to be on Lewis, and last year Dr David Caldwell published research claiming that they may have been discovered in the machair by Mèalasta, a village now deserted, six miles south of the point on the beautiful Uig sands which has long been considered the true "findspot".
Caldwell's theory has not found favour with Comann Eachdraidh Uig, the local historical society. Its members continue to maintain that the chessmen – which they pointedly call the Uig chessmen – were found by Malcolm Macleod in the Bealach Bàn, a hollow in the dunes near what is now the village of Ardroil. "It's absolutely consistent throughout our oral tradition going back that that's where they came from," says the society's treasurer Sarah Egan. "Something that happened 180 years ago is really no distance away. The population has been pretty consistent. For someone who is 80 now, their grandfather would have had it as a child that the chessmen were found there and by Malcolm."
Macleod's living descendants on Lewis keep a low profile. It's said, though, that he sold the chessmen to a merchant from Stornoway who took them to the Scottish mainland. Not long after his discovery, Macleod's village fell victim to the Clearances and he moved to the north of the island, dying within ten years. The chessmen, meanwhile, were divided and sold in both Edinburgh and London.
There's also a tantalising possibility that further pieces may have been sold in secret to private collectors. James Robinson of the British Museum jokes that he always looks out for them on Antiques Roadshow. "And I never dismiss anyone who tells me they have one. Every month I get at least one enquiry about a potential find of a chessman, but invariably they turn out to be resin copies that we've made here."
Greater than the controversy over where the chessmen came from is that over where they should be kept in future. Scottish Nationalist politicians have long argued that the 82 pieces held in London should be returned to Lewis, and the issue has gained a greater urgency since the SNP came to power. "They are the Lewis chessmen," says the MP Angus MacNeil, whose constituency includes the island. "Seeing them in their own natural setting would fire the imagination, people would understand the background better, and they would be appreciated more."
Unsurprisingly, this view is not shared by the British Museum and, according to Sarah Egan, there is no great demand locally for the entire hoard of chessmen to return permanently to the island "where nobody will see them". Even National Museums Scotland takes the view that the situation is best left as it is. "But if my fairy godmother waved a magic wand and gave me the rest," says David Caldwell, "then, of course, I am only human."
At the end of my visit to the NMS lab, Jane Clark packs the chessmen back into the silver carrying case which may transport them on their forthcoming tour. It's a brief return to the darkness for treasures which have and will continue to brighten the lives of all who return their unblinking ivory gaze.