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Lewis Chessmen subject to metropolitan prejudice

Arguments by the British Museum over the Lewis Chessmen [1] have been revealed under the Freedom of Information Act & highlight the lack of respect for the campaign shown by the institution. The derogatory wording of internal memos has many similarities with memos released regarding the Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Library [2], which take a similar tone.

The Scotsman [3]

Published Date: 24 February 2008
Source: Scotland On Sunday
Location: Scotland
Chessmen keepers reveal fear of ‘Gallic hotheads’
By Murdo MacLeod, Political Correspondent

STORNOWAY and Paris are normally difficult to confuse, but a spelling gaffe in a British Museum memo managed to mix the Gaels and the Gauls.

A document which suggested “Gallic hotheads” might seize the Lewis chessmen has come to light, much to the bemusement of islanders who have in turn accused museum officials of “ignorance”.

The museum has claimed the reference is nothing more than a “spelling error”.

But the gaffe has been seized on by locals who believe that metropolitan prejudice shows why the chessmen should be “repatriated”.

The Scottish Government’s campaign for the Chessman to be returned to Scotland has stirred controversy on both sides of the border. In December, First Minister Alex Salmond said it was “utterly unacceptable” that the Lewis chessmen were “scattered” around Britain and vowed to campaign for them to be united in Scotland.

The priceless relics were found on a beach near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the early 19th century. Historians believe they were probably made in Norway around 1200AD, and were bound for Ireland.

The memo, which has come to light under Freedom of Information legislation, was written in 2000, when the community museum in Uig wanted to show some of the pieces during a planned summer exhibition in Stornoway.

It said: “It is unlikely that the Uig community museum will meet the security requirements. We can insist on security from the local constabulary and also from the volunteers who run the Uig Museum. Here there is a balance of risk. Clearly there may be Gallic hotheads who might wish to imperial the chessmen by some direct action to achieve publicity.

“On the other hand it is equally likely that these will be cared for securely and entirely responsibly by a community who will welcome their temporary return and who will ensure that nothing of the sort takes place.”

The museum refused to hand over other documents on the subject, saying that disclosure would “inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purpose of deliberation”.

The reference to islanders as “Gallic” has enraged locals, the term is normally used to refer to the French, while the main language of the Western Isles is spelt “Gaelic”.

Annie MacDonald, a campaigner for the return of the pieces an
d a councillor for the area of Lewis where they were found, said: “Do these people even know which country they are talking about? I thought they were supposed to be scholars and know the difference between Gaels and the French. I’m insulted by the suggestion that they think we are hotheads here. What did they think was going to happen to them? I think these comments are rather prejudiced.”

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: “This was clearly a spelling mistake, and clearly the view was that they could go to Uig, because in the event they did go.”

A spokesman for the islands’ council, which is officially known by its Gaelic name Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said of the memo: “It’s an interesting point of view. And clearly there were no hotheads, Gallic, Gaelic, or otherwise.”

Of the 93 pieces, 10 remained in Scotland, where they are now at the National Museum of Scotland.

The full article contains 542 words and appears in Scotland On Sunday newspaper.
Last Updated: 23 February 2008 6:54 PM