Essays, Material Culture, The Lewis Chess Pieces
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The Lewis Chess Pieces: 1. Legends

Last Updated 29 September 2018.

This is part one in a series on the Lewis Chess Pieces. Part 2 discusses their origins. 

War Games

It is the eve of battle. An intimidating row of rune stones protectively surrounds the site of the final strategic counsel. The discussion has reached an impasse, and all is quiet. The king sits on this throne, entertaining a poker face. His queen looks worried, even downright miserable. Behind their thrones stands a bishop. He taps his staff against his cheek and stares into the distance. The horse next to him snorts, his rider looking glum trying to ignore the trembling figure beside him. It is the berserker eagerly biting his shield, waiting for his chieftains to unleash him on the enemy.

Lewis chess pieces (Source: Pixabay/Moonietunes).

Many find the Lewis chess pieces fascinating. And they truly are.

What do we know about them? They are part of a Viking hoard including 93 objects made of ivory from walrus tusks and whales’ teeth. (How many teeth? I once read about four figurines, but haven’t seen that confirmed online.) There are 78 chessmen, 14 table games (similar to backgammon) and a buckle. Except for 11 chessmen in the National Museums of Scotland, all other 67 chessmen and further pieces are in the British Museum.[1]

Everything else is speculation.


Yes, everything. It makes for a great story, though! Of feuds between chess players and scholars, of countries claiming their rightful heritage. And at the heart is the mystery of their discovery, the puzzle of their unique quality and craftsmanship. And questions on how they represent the chess game in the Viking Age.


Oldest Theory: The Sailor

Andreas Aschenbach (Source: Pixabay/12019).

The Isle of Lewis is part of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. During the Viking Age, it was of strategic importance to the Norse Vikings who eventually established the Kingdom of the Isles here.[2]

Most legends about the chess pieces originate from Lewis. As is the case with legends, the truth behind them is never confirmed. But no smoke without fire. The island features persistently in the stories and many versions exist online, some very entertaining. Here is the most academically sound one:

The story is set in the 17th century and its main essentials are that ‘An Gille Ruadh’, a servant of the MacKenzie tacksman of Baile na Cille, spotted a young sailor fleeing his ship with a treasure bundle. ‘An Gillie Ruadh’ murdered the sailor for the sake of his treasure that he then buried. He was unable to return and collect it, but confessed to this crime some time afterwards when he was on the scaffold at Stornoway, convicted to death for other misdemeanours.[3]

The young sailor had a rough old time being outwitted by an opportunistic local. But if the pieces were not on Lewis before the seventeenth century where did they (and the sailor) come from? And was there a young sailor at all?

So many holes in this tale and no answers whatsoever…

Youngest Theory: The Chieftain

Seventeenth Century map of the Hebrides (Source: Wikipedia/Seriykotik).

The youngest story follows a theory published in 2009. The authors suggest that a local chieftain might have been the owner of the Lewis’ hoard. They base their idea on the hoard’s historical context and on relevant mediaeval manuscripts. A major source they use for life on the Hebrides during the Viking Age is the Orkney Saga. Insofar as sagas can be taken literally, this one shows that chess games were often not just trade goods, but also pastimes on board of ships. The Vikings often raided and traded on the Hebrides, so the hoard might have been part of any of the many shipwrecks consequently found by an islander and hidden. The saga indeed mentions the habit of the Hebrideans to bury their valuables.[4]

But burying treasure seems a common habit in the Viking Age, if one is to go by the numerous hoards the Vikings left behind. Could this local chieftain have afforded the equivalent of four sets of ivory chess pieces and further table games? If not for himself, maybe as part of trade goods. Then why hide them and not sell them to generate income? To avoid local taxes raised by the Norse leaders? Or would a local sale have raised uncomfortable questions? Because the hoard could have been intended as a gift from the ruler of the Isle of Man to the king of Norway?[5]

Whatever the origins, the discovery of the hoard appears just as intricate.


Theory 1: Malcolm McLeod, Ùig

Isle of Lewis, Aird Uig (Source: Flickr/Haydn Blackey).

The most heard tale about the discovery of the Lewis chess pieces, involves the farmer Malcolm McLeod. One day before 1831, he walks across the dunes near Ùig. He stumbles on a cist, a stone coffin, and finds the hoard. Apparently, he shouts something about elves and fairies and runs home as fast as his superstitious legs can carry him. Not long after, a captain Ryrie acts as his middle man and the hoard is sold for 30 pounds to an Edinburgh antiquarian by the name of Mr Forrest.

Mr Forrest then strikes an excellent deal with the British Museum and sells 82 pieces for 80 guineas. Only, he doesn’t sell them all. He keeps 10 pieces behind which he eventually sells to a fellow Scotsman. This gentlemen then adds another piece (?) to the collection. When the eleven parts come up for auction in 1888, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland finally manages to acquire them. In time, and due to financing issues, the pieces are donated to the National Museum of Scotland.[6]

Where did that extra figurine suddenly and sneakily appear from? Some say from Lewis, too, but this is not satisfactorily explained anywhere.

Theory 2: The House of the Black Women, Mealasta

Ruins at Mealasta, Isle of Lewis (Source: Fergusson).

Yet another theory places them in the ruins of the House of the Black Women, an abandoned nunnery.[7]

To my storyteller’s brain, this sentence is just too good to be true. The article has no references, though, so my academic brain kicks in and I do some online digging. The source of this theory is Ordnance Survey Name Book (ONB) of 1851. It states that the hoard was found around 1780 in the nunnery known as Tigh Nan Cailleachan Dubha near Mealasta, south of Ùig. Even more mind-boggling, is that after this bit, this story exactly follows the earlier part about Mr Forrest, the Edinburgh antiquarian.[8]

It’s too bad the leads about the nunnery don’t give a coherent picture. The nunnery is supposedly Benedictine or Dominican. Nuns can wear black habits in both orders, so this is a rather general reference to the term Black women. Besides, it is no lead at all in the quest for the origin of the chess pieces. An even farther-fetched reference that ends up nowhere, is the ruins at Mealasta being pre crofting houses, better known as black houses on Lewis.

A 2005 survey gives some ecclesial reference and confirms the ruins in a nearby graveyard might have belonged to a church…[9] The authors understandably refrain from making further conclusions or theories. The next survey takes place in 2011 in the wake of the theory of the local chieftain. The basement of the house at Mealasta is examined. Until this date, no further results or further clues have been published.[10]

What Now?

This might seem altogether a terribly disappointing and confused tale.

Have you been looking for a pattern? How about this: the sailor washes ashore, only to be bested by Gillie who then hides the treasure with the Black women before he meets his end in Stornoway. The nuns, too, hide it again in a cist in the dunes before (or after) the nunnery disappears for undisclosed reasons, only for Malcolm to find it by the nineteenth century? See how easily new legends are created? And with no necessary facts whatsoever? For your entertainment or for the sceptics among you, there are plenty of ‘out of the box’ versions about the hoard’s discovery just a google search away…

But for more facts, it’s better to wait until something concretely shows up. The short of it is that we don’t know anything until a cist in the dunes near Ùig is found, or that basement at Mealasta reveals more. The latter is already under close(r) surveillance of SHORE due to coastal erosion.[12]

Overall, the connection to Lewis is also too strong to ignore. And whatever the time and manner in which it was lost and found, after Mr Forrest’s sale the Lewis’ hoard finds its own spotlight.


  1. David H Caldwell, Mark A Hall & Caroline M Wilkinson, ‘The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces: A Re-examination of their Context, Meanings, Discovery and Manufacture,’ Medieval Archaeology Volume 53.1 (2009), pp. 155 [pp. 155–203]. DOI: 10.1179/007660909X12457506806243.
    National Museums of Scotland, ‘Lewis chessmen.’ Last Accessed 31 May 2018. ↩
  2. Brittany Schorn and Judy Quinn (eds.), The Vikings in Lewis. (Nottingham: The Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, 2014), pp. 11–12.  ↩
  3. David H Caldwell, Mark A Hall & Caroline M Wilkinson (2009), pp. 173.
    It was written down by Donald Morrison (1787–1834), a local storyteller on Lewis. His manuscript was edited in 1975 by Norman MacDonald as The Morrison Manuscript: The Traditions of the Western Isles, under the direction of Alexander Morrison, District Librarian, Public Library Stornoway Isles of Lewis.  ↩
  4. David H Caldwell, Mark A Hall & Caroline M Wilkinson (2009), pp. 166–167, 171.  ↩
  5. David H Caldwell, Mark A Hall & Caroline M Wilkinson (2009), pp. 178.  ↩
  6. The Herald, ‘Stale Mate.’ Published 02 February 2008. Last Accessed 28 May 2018.
    Susan Price, ‘Lost In The Dune: The Lewis Chessmen.’ The History Girls Published 1 February 2015. Last Accessed 28 May 2018. ↩
  7. Jen Pinkowski, ‘12 Berserk Facts About the Lewis Chessmen.’ Mental Floss. Published November 2, 2015. Last Accessed 28 May 2018. ↩
  8. Canmore, ‘Lewis, Tigh Nan Cailleachan Dubha.’ Last Accessed 28 May 2018. ↩
  9. Rachel C. Barrowman, and Jane Hooper, Lewis Coastal Chapel-Sites Survey: Topographic Survey 2005. Project Report. (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2006), pp. 15.  ↩
  10. Canmore, ‘Lewis, Tigh Nan Cailleachan Dubha.’ Last Accessed 28 May 2018. ↩
  11. Canmore, ‘Lewis, Tigh Nan Cailleachan Dubha.’ Last Accessed 28 May 2018. ↩

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