Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Haunted Lewis Chess Pieces?

Judith Weingarten, author of the excellent blog Xenobia, Empress of the East, sent along the following, for which I thank her! 

Haunted Chessmen
November 25, 2011
From Strange


***This post is dedicated to Invisible***
Invisible writes in with the news that the Lewis Chessmen are about to go on exhibition in New York. And Beach took this as a prompt for one of his favourite archaeological stories. The unnamed Lewis farmer in the following account was one Malcolm ‘Sprot’ Macleod.

In 1831 a high tide on the coast near Uig in the Isle of Lewis washed away a sand-bank and exposed a cave in which there as a small beehive-shaped building rather like the little domestic grinding querns to be found in the Highlands. A labourer working near found it, and, thinking it might contain some treasure, broke into it. He found a cache of eighty-four carved chessmen ranged together. They had an uncanny look, and he flung down his spade and ran, convinced that he had come on a sleeping company of fairies.

[In] the narrative above, from the great Katharine Briggs, continues with poor Malcolm being sent back to get the chessmen by his furious wife.
The greater part of them [67 of 78] are now in the British museum. Replicas have been made of them, but the originals, all mustered together, are much more impressive. A tradition has risen about them. It is said that the guards who take the guard-dogs round at night cannot get them to pass the Celtic [sic] chessmen. They bristle and drag back on their haunches. So perhaps the Highlander’s superstition can be excused.

The chess pieces are actually Norse in origin and were probably made in Scandinavia, quite possibly in Norway, which ruled the Western Isles at this time. But in Gaelic legends chess games between mortals and fairies are a commonplace, perhaps because chess was seen as a ‘game of kings’.

As to those poor dogs, Katharine Briggs is always reliable and she will certainly have come across this tale in her endless fairy hunting. It remains to be seen though whether it is just third-hand London rumour or a folk belief from the staff of the British Museum itself.

I don't know who Katharine Briggs is -- but I too, wonder if there is anything more to the intriguing notion that the pieces might be "haunted."  It seems plausible to me that a simple laborer coming across the wondrously carved pieces for the first time, with those large bulging, staring eyes of theirs, might have been a little spooked by the sight of all of them lying there, seeming to stare right at him!  In the 1830s, away from the big cities, the legends of the land would still have been close in the hearts of the local people.  Who knows - perhaps the laborer at first mistook the pieces for fairies themselves -- you know, "The Wee Little People"...

I looked through what resources I have in my library, but there was no mention direct mention of the "laborer" discovering the pieces and running away because they frightened him!  Indeed, accounts I've read online generally say that there is no report of how the pieces were first discovered other than the well known "facts" (the location of the discovery and the interesting fact that they were evidently "buried" in a sort of oven or stone cache of one sort or other).  But - read on for yourself, and check out Note 8 at the very end. 

I did find some information about how the pieces first came to the attention of the public, in H.J.R. Murray's "A History of Chess" (pages 758-762, including hand-drawn illustrations of some of the pieces in the British Museum): 

The Lewis chessmen were discovered in 1831 in a sand-bank at the head of the Bay of Uig, on the west coast of the island of Lewis, one of the outer Hebrides.  There is no circumstantial account of the discovery, but it appears that they were found in a small chamber of dry-built stone, resembling an oven, about 15 feet below the top of the sand-bank.  The chessmen were exhibited by Mr. Roderick Ririe at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, April 11, 1831, but before the members had raised the money to purchase them Mr. Kirkpatrick Sharpe stepped in and bought 10 of the pieces, while the remaining 67 chessmen, 14 tablemen, and a buckle were bought for the British Museum.  On the dispersion of Mr. Sharpe's collection, the Lewis chessmen, now 11 in number, Mr. Sharpe having obtained another one from Lewis, were purchased by Lord Londesborough, and at the sale of the latter's collection in 1888 they were purchased by the Society of Antiquaries for the Scottish National Museum.  All the game-pieces, as well as the buckle, are carved of walrus-ivory.  The 78 chessmen comprise 8 Kings, 8 Queens, 16 Bishops, 15 Knights, 12 Rooks, and 19 Pawns, of which 2 Kings, 3 Queens, 3 Bishops, a Knight, and 2 Rooks are now at Edinburgh.  The Kings and Queens are carved seated, the Kings holding a half-drawn sword across the knees, the Queens usually resting the head on the right hand.  Seven of the Bishops (2 at Edinburgh) are also seated, the other 9 are standing.  All are represented with the crozier.  The Knights are on horseback with spear in the right ahnd and shield on the left arm.  The Rooks are armed warriors on foot, with  helmet, shield, and sword.  The Pawns are of various shapes and sizes, but most have octagonal bases.  Two of them bear some ornamentation.  A Queen of the same type as the Lewis Queens was found in County Meath, Ireland, in the first half of the 19th century.  It is now in a private museum in Dublin.(7)

The carving of the Rooks as warriors on foot undoubtedly points to Icelandic workmanship.  La Peyrere, Lettre a M. La Mothe (1664), Paris, [1663, 56, describing the Icelandic chessmen, says:

La difference qu'il y a de leu pieces aux notres, est, que nos Fous sont des Evesques parmy eux . . . Leu Rocs sont de petits Capitaines, que les escoliers Islandois que sont icy apelent Centurions.  Ils sont representez, l'espee au coste, les joues enfles, et sonnant du cor, qu'ils tiennent des deux mains.

[Don't ask me to translate!] 

Sir Frederick Madden, in his Historical Remarks (Archaeologia, 1852, xxiv; also separately printed, and in CPC., i), endeavoured to prove that these pieces are of Icelandic carving of the middle of the 12th century.  The latest authority, Mr. O.M. Dalton (Cat. Ivory Carvings . . . in the B. Mus., London, 1909), ascribes them to the 12th century, and thinks that they may be of British carving.  Wilson had already claimed a Scotch origin for them.  Both views depend upon the assumption that the chessmen are as old as the 13th century.

If there were any truth in the tradition which Capt. Thomas discovered to be current in Lewis, they may be the work of Icelandic carvers of the beginning of the 17th century only.(8)

The notes from Murray:

(7)  A rough woodcut of it was given in O'Donovan's Leabhar na g-Ceart, Dublin, 1847, lxii.  Other Norse chessmen are depicted in Fabricius, Danmarkshistorie, 1861, i. 494 (a seated Bishop), in  Worsaae, Nordiske Oldsager i det kongelige Museum i. Kjobenhawn, Kjobenhavn,  1854, 160 (a King, Bishop, and Pawn) and in Engelhardt, Guide illustri du Musee des Antiquities du Nord, Copenhague, 1870, 57 (a Knight); - v. d. Linde, ii. 312.

(8)  The tradition is to the effect that a shepherd employed by George Mor Mackenzie (who settled in Lewis, 1614-15) murdered a sailor, who had swum ashore from a wreck with the chessmen in a bag.  The shepherd buried the bag in the sand, and never prospered afterwards.  Capt. F. and W. L. Thomas, in Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scotl., 1863, iv. 411.  In addition to the works already mentioned, information respecting the Lewis chessmen is also contained in Wilson, Prehis. Annals Scotl., ii 341; and Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scotl., 1889, xxiii. 9.
This is some good stuff! A possible murder connected to the Lewis chess pieces?  Now that could be a capital haunting, indeed! 

Imagine this:  what if the story is true; or at the least, a mangled version of the story (regardless of its truth) is talked about for years around the islands, enough so that it has passed into general folklore after some years (we don't know when the shipwreck occurred or when the murder of the sailor took place).  Given this background, in addition to an enduring belief in hauntings and ghosts and, of course, the Wee Little People, the laborer's reaction might not seem so silly to our modern eyes if he knew that tale of a long-ago murder and the burying of the unfortunate sailor's bagful of goodies...

Woooooooo, sends chills down my spine, I have to say! 


I don't recall coming across in any of the accounts I've read about how the Lewis chess pieces ended up where they did the information contained in Murray's account.  Much more fascinating reading than bare-bones reports that the British Museum acquired 67 pieces and the National Museum of Scotland acquired the other 11 pieces!

Here's the line of "descent" of the pieces after they surfaced -- no indication, unfortunately, of whether they were held for a period of time after their discovery before being sold to Mr. Roderick Ririe, or when he may have acquired them, or what he paid for them.  It is quite possible, of course, that Ririe was not the original purchaser, but as he exhibited the pieces at the Antiquarian Society I am assuming that he must have been an avid antiquities collector and I assume he may have been the first buyer.  How he came to know about the pieces, however, now that is something not known either.  Arghhh! 

1.  Roderick Ririe exhibits the pieces to the Scottish Antiquarian Society on April 11, 1831.  They consist of 77 chess pieces, 14 "tablemen" (checkers? tablut pieces?) and an ivory belt buckle.

2.  Mr. Kirkpatrick Sharpe buys 10 chess pieces directly from Ririe.

3.  Ririe sells 67 pieces, 14 "tablemen" and one belt buckle to the British Museum. 

4.  Kirkpatrick Sharpe acquires another Lewis piece - but it is not described how, or how the piece was identified as belonging to the Lewis cache.  In any event, either Sharpe or someone on his behalf or on behalf of his Estate sells 11 Lewis pieces to Lord Londesborough.

5.  In 1888 the Society of Antiquaries acquires the 11 Sharpe pieces for the Scottish National Museum.

It appears at least some record of these transactions were kept -- else Murray couldn't have tracked down the information he provided in his History of Chess!  Didn't 'gentlemen' of the period nearly always write diaries and letters and what not? Was nothing from their records saved that can be dug around in today that might contain further information or clues?  Inventories?  Estate records?  Attorneys' records?  Bills of Sale?  We know that the pieces passed through the hands of at least three gentlemen:  (1) Ririe; (2) Sharpe; (3) Lord Londesborough. 

And what of Capt. Thomas?  Who was he, and why was he interested in the Lewis chess pieces?  How did he track down the old story about the shepherd murdering the sailor and burying the contents of the sailor's sack? What, exactly, were the contents of the sailor's sack?  It is assumed it was the Lewis chess pieces but - how do we really know...

And why would the local people have been willing to talk to him?  We've all read tales from all over the world about how notoriously closed-mouth villagers are when it comes to outsiders - whether a thousand years ago or today.  So how did the Captain sniff out the murder story? 

I do love a mystery, but I don't know if I have the time or resources to try and explore this any further.  Like the blogger who reported the original "haunted pieces" story (see above, from , I'm wondering if anyone out there has any information on this? 

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