38911: Uig Chessmen

The Uig or Lewis Chessmen were found in 1831 in a stone cist in the shifting dunes of Uig Bay at Ardroil, by Malcolm “Sprot” Macleod of the village of Pennydonald.

The pieces are elaborately carved in walrus tusk and stand between 3.5cm and 10.2cm high. Originally there seem to have been at least 93 pieces but we now know of 78, comprising eight kings, eight queens, sixteen bishops, fifteen knights, twelve warders and nineteen pawns. All wear a glum expression and four of the warders are seen biting the tops of their shields. These are berserkers, the fierce Viking warriors who worked themselves into a frenzy before heading into battle without armour.

From the style of carving and dress, the pieces have been dated to the mid to late twelfth century and are certainly Norse in origin. They may have been produced by one or several workshops in Trondheim, Norway, where a similar piece was unearthed. Accompanying the chessmen in their stone chamber were fourteen plain round gaming pieces and a carved belt-buckle.

How the hoard came to be in the sandbank is, of course, unknown. Norse occupation of the Western Isles lasted for nearly five centuries and the chessmen may have been hidden towards the end of our Viking period. A local story maintains however that they were brought ashore much later by a young shipwrecked sailor, who made the mistake of telling a gillie he met in the hills what he was carrying. The unscrupulous gillie murdered the boy for the pieces, which he naturally hid, but he was himself hanged in Stornoway for other crimes and allegedly confessed to the murder on the gallows. According to local tradition, the boy’s bones were found in a cave in the hills. Later still, Malcolm Macleod came upon the hoard of chessmen by chance.

It seems the pieces were initially displayed by Malcolm in his byre and people came from around the district to view them. He sold them, apparently for 30, to a Roderick Pirie of Stornoway. (Malcolm and his family and neighbours were evicted from Pennydonald a few years later when the farm at Ardroil was created.) The chessmen were exhibited to the Society of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh and passed to a dealer. The British Museum bought 82 pieces, believing that to be the whole set, but ten were sold privately to a member of the Society who also bought a stray bishop directly from Lewis. These eleven were acquired for the National Museum of Scotland in 1888. Six of the chessmen were last in Uig in 2000, for a single day; one is due to return to Stornoway for display at Museum nan Eilean in from September 2007.

Record Type:
Object or Artefact
Type Of Object Artefact:
Chess Pieces
Record Maintained by:

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