Lewis chessmen

Not Even From Lewis, Mate

chandlerg05pic1.jpg ‘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,’ state the minutes of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for 11 March 1833, expressing their doubts that the eleven Lewis chessmen they are considering buying may not have come from the Isle of Lewis and were possibly obtained by illegal means.

First, here’s the accepted theory about the Lewis chessmen.

At an unknown date, an unknown ship is sheltering from a storm in a bay on the Isle of Lewis. Onboard, an unknown cabin boy seizes his chance to escape from the ship, sneaks into the Captain’s cabin, steals a sack containing 128 carved walrus pieces (four chess sets) and swims ashore. The boy is spotted by an unknown person, who, unaccountably, murders him. The murderer disposes of the body in an unknown grave, buries the bag of pieces in an unknown location and leaves. He goes to Stornoway and whilst awaiting execution for an unknown crime confesses to killing the cabin boy. One day a herdsman’s cow sticks its head into a sandbank and pulls out 92 of the chess pieces. The herdsman sells the find to a Captain Pyrie, who takes it to Edinburgh and sells it to a Mr Forrest. Forrest sells 82 of the pieces to the British Museum (BM); the remaining eleven pieces, he sells to a Mr Sharpe, who later sells them to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. (SAS).

The discovery of the pieces is a fantastically romantic tale, until you start looking for the facts.

What about the unnamed cabin boy who swims to shore from the ship with no name. Apparently he is a very strong swimmer – swimming with four walrus ivory chess sets in a sack is quite a feat. When you raise this point the storyteller is likely to add that he made two or three trips.

The unnamed murderer, the (as yet) undiscovered body, the gallows confession, the herdsman whose name is given in some sources as Malcolm Macleod, and finally Captain Pyrie, of whom nobody can find any trace – there is simply not a shred of evidence to suggest that any of the above is true. No signed statements, no reports, no provenance and no exact location. But because the theory cannot be disproved, it is taken as fact.

The only facts are Forrest, Sharpe and the purchases made by the BM and the SAS.

But before we look deeper into the find and how the BM and SAS obtained these pieces, it might be helpful if I supply a brief history of chess in Scotland in the 1820s – and why a chess set suddenly appeared at this time.

The very first sporting event between England and Scotland was a chess match. From 1823-28, the Edinburgh Chess Club were engaged in playing the London Chess Club at correspondence chess. Well, to be more exact, stagecoach chess. The moves were written on a pieces of paper, envelopes sealed, and then taken back and forth between Edinburgh and London by stagecoach. The Edinburgh Chess Club still has the complete set of its letters from the London Club.

Although officially it was Edinburgh CC v London CC, the newspapers of the day, The Scotsman included, were calling it the Scotland v England Chess Match and giving regular reports of its progress. Scotland won the match and to this day the opening used by Edinburgh to defeat London in the deciding game is called The Scotch Game.

So, chess was big news in Edinburgh in 1828. How fortunate that between 1829 and 1831 (dates differ according to different sources) a cow stuck a horn into a sandbank on the Isle of Lewis and pulled out a chess set.

Let us now look at how the BM and SAS came to own these pieces. Mr Forrest, an Edinburgh dealer with a very dodgy CV, has this bag of white carved pieces that he bought from a Norwegian sailor in Leith Docks: this cannot be disproved, so, by the same criteria as the Isle of Lewis theory, must be fact. Nobody will ever know how Forrest obtained the pieces but the story of them being found on Lewis holds no water and was even in doubt back in 1833, when the Antiquaries wrote their minutes.

I can embellish as well as the next man – and if you want a more fanciful tale, then let me remind you that Edinburgh in the 1820s was rife with grave robbers. Not Burke and Hare, they never robbed a grave in their miserable lives. I’m talking about real grave robbers, who not only dug up dead bodies and sold them to doctors but also looted graves hundreds of years old looking for treasure.

Why not have a more enterprising band of these fiends rowing out to one of the many islands in the Forth and looting one of the Viking graves? It’s just as feasible as murdered cabin boys, condemned men’s confession and straying cows.

Let us return to Forrest and his bag of carved pieces. He meets up with his friend Mr Sharpe and together, using a little imagination and some beetroot juice, they turn 32 of the pieces into a chess set. You may think I’m treating Sharpe unkindly by implying he was involved in the scam, but it was he who took the incredible three-day journey (you will learn more of this later and you can decide if he was a villain or a patsy).

Together Forrest and Sharpe hatch up the Isle of Lewis tale and this gets better and better with many changes and additions at each re-telling. To date there are six myths in circulation as to the discovery of the Lewis pieces. I have no proof whatsoever that Forrest and Sharpe colluded in a fraud. But I can present the evidence to suggest it.

Forrest takes the chess set to the SAS and they ask questions. The SAS had every right to be cautious. A few years before they dismissed a similar find supposed to have been dug up in Roxburgh and belonging to Bonnie Prince Charlie (a look at their minutes will confirm this). Did Forrest try to dupe them before with the very same pieces, claiming they were dug up in Roxburgh? He was certainly a dodgy character (later, in 1851, he was charged with acting in a dishonest manner at an auction of articles once owned by his dead friend Mr Sharpe.)

The SAS minutes are vague on the subject of the Roxburgh pieces but some members of the SAS were definitely anti-Forrest when he comes to him with his tale of buying the figures from a Captain Pyrie and says a cow found the hoard. (The murdered cabin boy crops up first in later versions of the story.)

The SAS members dither and discuss.

Sir Frederic Madden of the BM hears about the find and approaches Forrest. ‘I’ll take the lot,’ says he, and a deal is done. £84.00 exchanges hands and the 83 of the pieces go to London. Upon examining them, Sir Frederic discovers that the pieces are all white, ‘

…though some appear to have been recently dyed.’ He logs the purchase as possible chess pieces: Kings, Queens, Bishops, Knights, Pawns and Warders(?). He can find no Rooks.

Back in Edinburgh, the lucky Forrest finds more pieces – eleven in total – and in a master stroke, gets Sharpe to show ten of them to the SAS. Forrest uses Sharpe, because the SAS simply do not believe a word he says. One theory here is that Forrest sells the remaining ten pieces to Sharpe but I’m staying with the two of them being in cahoots. Why would Sharpe buy a ten-piece chess set?

No explanation is ever given to where the ten extra pieces came from, apart from claims that Forrest and Sharpe held some pieces back from the BM. Why?

If they were gained illegally, as is generally accepted, then why not get rid of the lot in one go?

I think the further eleven pieces came into their possession from the original source – a source that will never be known.

Sharpe shows the SAS the new pieces. A bit miffed at losing out to the BM but still unsure of the credibility of the tale, they require further proof. This is what Forrest and Sharpe had anticipated. ‘I’ll go to the Isle of Lewis and see if there are any more pieces,’ offers a very confident Mr Sharpe. He leaves Edinburgh, arrives in Lewis, finds the exact spot where the pieces were discovered, unearths another piece and returns to Edinburgh. All within three days! In 1833! An incredible feat!

Now the finding of the eleventh piece is well documented, though nobody seems to query the three-day Edinburgh to Lewis and back again journey, or how Sharpe discovered the actual location of the site – which has eluded everyone ever since. My guess is that Sharpe laid low in some hide-out and should have stayed there till a more believable period of time had passed, but was either on the verge of being discovered, or thought three days would suffice.

The SAS still had their doubts but purchased the now eleven pieces and entered a ‘save ass’ clause in their minutes. It is possible the SAS just let the Isle of Lewis story run unchecked so that they could purchase the pieces with a clear conscience. But it is also very clear from the minutes that they had severe doubts.

This is what the SAS bought and how they describe them: 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 or pawns. The BM had all the pawns (tombstones).

chandlerg05pic3.jpg Back in London, things are looking a bit dodgy for Sir Frederick’s reputation, as his ‘possible chess pieces’ do not appear to have a Rook. So the BM, in an effort to construct a chess set out of the pieces, take one of the foot-soldiers, the figure biting his shield, and declare it to be a Rook. In the 12th century the Rook was the most powerful piece in chess. The BM has relegated it to the smallest piece on the board – a case of making the piece fit the theory.

There are Kings, Queens, Knights and Bishops. What else can they be, apart from chess pieces? Everybody agrees they were carved in the 12th century. We even know where they were carved: in a Norwegian village called Trondheim.

But the Bishop did not appear on a chessboard until the 15th century. I repeat: the Bishop was not introduced to the game of Chess until the 15th century. So whatever the Viking artist carved in Trondheim, it was not a chess set.

This one fact alone debunks the theory the Lewis pieces are chessmen.

Add to this, the fact that the pieces, before the ingenious Forrest and Sharpe intervened, were all white. It’s impossible to play chess with pieces all the same colour.

Another moot point. Where is the chessboard? The Celtic board currently given with the Lewis set is the fabric of some modern marketer’s imagination (a decedent of Mr Forrest, perhaps?).

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 AD. It is played with pieces, and foot soldiers. Versions and line-ups vary on whatever saga the game is repeating. (We do the same today with computers games depicting famous battles.) Usually a game of Tafl or Hnefatafl has three or four different pieces.

Remember, four major pieces were found – Kings, Queen, Bishops and Knights – the BM turned a foot soldier into a Rook. For this Viking game, you do not need to have to have two different colours. When I was researching Hnefatafl, I one lad who has a site dedicated to Viking games was asked how to make the pieces for Hnefatafl. He answered, ‘Why bother… use the pieces from a couple of sets they laughingly call the Lewis Chessmen.’

I am totally convinced the ‘Lewis Chessmen’ are not chess pieces. The BM experts keep repeating, ‘they are chess pieces, they are chess pieces’ every time the pieces are mentioned on the television. They know there are doubts about their authenticity, especially amongt serious chess players.

chandlerg05pic3.jpg A spokesman for the BM stated in a recent interview with CHESS magazine remarked that he is often asked why the pieces are not displayed as a chess set on a chess board. (They are shown in their groups, Kings, Queens, Bishops, Knights and ‘Rooks’ – foot soldiers.) He added that, when set up on a board, the Lewis Chessmen do NOT look like chess pieces.

Why don’t they just admit they are wrong?

Let us now look again at the Isle of Lewis connection. There are six known myths surrounding the location of the discovery of the Lewis pieces. Despite visits to Lewis in search of it by chess historians, museum researchers, treasure seekers and the variegated curious, nobody can point to the location of discovery, nor give a shred to proof for any of the legends.

Ken Whyld, co-author of The Oxford Companion to Chess (widely acknowledged to be the best book on the subject), wrote in the British Chess Magazine of the exploits of Bob Meadley, an Australian chess enthusiast who spent days interviewing Lewis locals and researching archives, trying to find the facts. He states Bob was met with great reluctance to talk about the subject.

But why pick Lewis as the source of the find in the first place? Is it a coincidence that the most famous chess player in the 1830s was the chess author William Lewis (1787-1870). On top of all the other factors listed above, this coincidence makes me doubt even more that the pieces came from the Isle of Lewis. I say no – but the romantic in me wants to believe. It has been suggested that the real site of discovery on Lewis is known and that whoever holds the secret does not want a historic or religious site desecrated. I have my doubts but remain open-minded on that matter.

I’ve seen the pieces in the ‘flesh’. To me, they look slightly sinister with an impish glow. They appear to be smiling as if they know something we don’t. They have that kind of smug look a magician has before he pulls the rabbit out of the hat. Perhaps they’re saying, ‘We are not chess pieces and we did not come from the Isle of Lewis.’

Currently there is a big debate going on with various people demanding the pieces be returned to their rightful home.


I agree.

Send them back to Norway and then refund in full every tourist who has bought one of these ‘William Lewis Chess Sets’.

Illustrations: Hnefatafl board and pieces; and a(nother) Lewisian conversation.

©Geoff Chandler