January 9, 2008

Whose chess set is it anyway

Posted at 1:56 pm in Similar cases

The arguments over the requests for return of the Lewis Chessmen are continuing in both the letters pages & editorials of the Scottish press.

The Scotsman

Published Date: 07 January 2008
Source: The Scotsman
Location: Scotland
Whose king (rook, pawn, knight etc) is it anyway?

ROOM Two of the British Museum in London, visited by five million people a year, is home to the medieval Europe collection.
It includes treasures such as the Limoges casket from France, an ivory triptych from Byzantium, and an early English citole, or guitar. Then there are 24 of the Lewis chessmen, dug up in a Scottish sand dune nearly two centuries ago.

The British Museum holds 82 of the 93 Lewis chessmen, one of Scotland’s most famous archeological finds. It shows another 34 in room 42, alongside Viking artefacts like the famous Sutton Hoo hoard of armour and treasure. Another 24 are behind closed doors, viewable by appointment. Some have just returned from a loan to Hong Kong.

Nearly two centuries after they were found on the west coast of Lewis, Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, has called for the Lewis chessmen to return here, demanding a “united set for an independent Scotland”.

Several leading Scottish historians have welcomed the First Minister’s call. There ought at least to be a fairer split between London and Scotland, they say – while Lewis has a strong case to become the permanent home of some, if not all, the figurines.

The Glasgow University historian, Ted Cowan, said: “They should definitely be in Lewis. In the 19th century most of this stuff was whisked off to repositories in Edinburgh or London but nowadays with modern facilities why on earth shouldn’t they be kept in the area to which they belong?”

The chess pieces, in four sets with several missing, “may not be the best metaphor for an independent Scotland”, he admitted. But he added: “They belong in their proper context in Lewis.”

The details of the chessmen’s discovery in 1831 remain murky to this day. The hoard was found in the sand dunes of the west coast of Lewis, perhaps sheltered in a stone chamber. They seem to have ended up in London by chance rather than any grand design.

They were found by Malcolm MacLeod, of Penny Donald, Uig, who took advice from a Stornoway merchant on how to sell them. An Edinburgh dealer, TA Forrest, bought them for £30 and the Scottish Society of Antiquaries tried and failed to buy them. Forrest sold 82 pieces to the British Museum, with the help of an assistant keeper fascinated by board games, for 80 guineas. Ten other pieces collected by Lord Londesborough were bought for the National Museum of Scotland in 1888, with another added later.

The chessmen were made about 900 years ago, of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth. They offer vital historical evidence of the strong trading, diplomatic or military links, at a time when Lewis and Skye were at the cross-roads of a world reaching from the west coast of Norway and Denmark around Scotland to Ireland.

The exquisite carvings run from a hunched Norse warrior chewing on his shield to a queen who looks thoroughly bored. They came from Trondheim, Norway, it is thought, and were probably bound for Ireland or the Isle of Man, testimony to a vast 12th-century trading and diplomatic network in which the Hebrides played a central part.

When the British Museum’s pieces were shown in Lewis in the mid 1990s, they brought demands the islands should keep them. They travelled under police escort, witnesses remembered, delivered in a locked briefcase handcuffed to a curator’s wrist.

The St Andrews historian Alex Woolf, author of a recent textbook on Scotland at the time the 12th-century figurines were made, proposed a fairer three-way split between the British Museum, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and Lewis itself.

“There’s a lot of them, and it seems to me that dividing them between the three sites would be a sensible way to do it,” Mr Woolf said. “If Scotland moved towards full independence, you would have to think again.”

The British Museum says it has had no official request for their return, but that the chessmen are part of its “unique overview of world civilisations”.

The National Museum of Scotland is proud to keep its own 13 chessmen on permanent display. But the director, Gordon Rintoul, showed little appetite for grabbing more from London. He responded cautiously that the two museums “provide wider public access to these internationally important items across Scotland, the UK and the world”.

The issue of returning artefacts to local areas is fraught with danger. The British Museum could face renewed pressure over iconic artefacts from the Elgin marbles to the Rosetta stone. The NMS has already seen locals campaign for the return of famous monuments like the Hilton of Cadboll Stone to Easter Ross. In 1999 the Dupplin Cross, a 1,200-year-old Celtic monument, was returned to Dunning, Perthshire.

Both museums stress that they send their chessmen on loans round the world, from Hong Kong to Stornoway, when they are not on display at home. Sending them to Lewis could vastly shrink the numbers that see them; the British Museum has five million visitors a year, while Lewis has a population of 20,000.

Historian James Fraser, of Edinburgh University, specialises in the early Middle Ages and regularly takes his students to see the chessmen, but does not support demands to bring them back.

“As a scholar and a teacher my main concern is that the things be accessible to students and the general public. Places like Edinburgh and London are better situated for that kind of thing.

Mr Fraser, who is Canadian, argued: “In a sense there should be some important Scottish artefacts in the British Museum, to show off the treasures in that forum.

“It’s very difficult to say these are Scottish. That’s where they were found, buried with someone who may not have been native. Whether the Irish or Scandinavians have more of a case for them to be returned is anyone’s guess.”

Mr Salmond’s advisers are aware of the arguments. A source close to the First Minister’s office said: “The Scottish Government will continue to consult with interested parties to get a consensus in Scotland and we will take matters forward with a proposal.”

Mr Woolf said that Mr Salmond is questioning “whether we keep a national collection in a union sense, or a Scottish sense, or whether the British Museum should change its name to the English Museum.

“I think he’s right to raise it as an issue. It does have to be talked about, though it’s a typical nationalist hype thing. Are we going to ask them to return Gordon Brown? That’s someone else from Scotland who has been stuck in London for years.”

‘Why not also bring back Cutty Sark and Mary, Queen of Scots?’

THE Scottish leader of the Celtic League called yesterday for all cultural artefacts to be returned to their countries of origin.

From Clyde-built ships like the Cutty Sark, to the royal passport from William Wallace’s sporran, “all historical items belonging to a nation should be returned to that nation”, said Iain Ramsay, the league’s Scottish secretary.

The rules apply to the Elgin marbles from Greece as much as to the Lewis chessmen, he said.

“The British Museum is an Aladdin’s cave of stolen articles from all over the world. The counter-argument to that is they are being well looked after.”

The league, a group of activists from six Celtic nations, claims to champion the cultural rights of the indigenous people of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Brittany, the Isle of Man and Cornwall. It has a few hundred members in Scotland who are usually nationalists, Mr Ramsay said. The policy on returns was agreed at a conference last year.

The league is campaigning for the return of the royal passport from the French king in Wallace’s sporran when he was taken by the English, Mr Ramsay said.

“It is now in London, in the possession of the British authorities, and they refuse to return it. It should be returned to the French, or to Scotland.

“Even where people are buried is important. Mary, Queen of Scots should be interred in France, or Scotland, she shouldn’t be in Westminster Abbey.”

Other items the league wants returned from the British Museum are the Gold Cape of Mold, a stunning Bronze Age garment discovered in North Wales. Another, the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles, a 13th-century history, is held by the British Library.

The Cutty Sark, a 19th-century tea clipper, was ravaged by fire in a Greenwich dry dock last year, but it should have been on show on the Clyde where it was built, said Mr Ramsay.

The full article contains 1445 words and appears in The Scotsman newspaper.
Last Updated: 07 January 2008 11:59 AM

The Scotsman

Published Date: 09 January 2008
Source: The Scotsman
Location: Scotland
How can we demand Chessmen’s return when we hold far more grisly plunder?

With controversy over the proper location of the Lewis Chessmen gathering force, Tim Cornwell (Agenda, 7 January) raises important questions and provides much information.

Yet before we all froth at the mouth with Iain Ramsay about imperialist English looting, it is salutary to grasp that the 82 chessmen in the British Museum were acquired via unforced market transactions. I wish Malcolm MacLeod had been in a position to sell direct to an end purchaser, but one, perhaps two, other Scots made money out of selling on.

Even MacLeod’s £30 selling price was not as paltry as it sounds, being about £2,700 in today’s sterling values. Nevertheless, the case for the Chessmen’s return to Scotland still stands, for the Chessmen are deeply grounded in Hebridean history. I hope they end up in Uig, which would not preclude their periodic loan to other venues.

There is an another angle on all this, however, as raised by Roddy Maclean (Letters, 26 December). Perhaps Boxing Day lethargy prevented it being noticed as widely as it deserved. He is all for the Chessman returning to Scotland. He also informs us, however, of an ill-gotten item in the vaults of the National Museum, Edinburgh – a Tasmanian Aboriginal skull. Its continued presence there potentially disgraces all of us who desire the return of the Lewis Chessmen, including Alex Salmond.

Following the violent slaughter and dispossession of Tasmania’s Aborigines during roughly the first four decades of the colonial occupation, their skeletal remains and hair samples were prized by collectors, very much so by curators of Britain’s museum and university collections. That rotten fruit of imperialism, racist pseudo-science, drove this scandalous curatorial fad.

Though there is a strong case for return of the Lewis Chessmen to Scotland, the nation has no moral right to clamour for that until the skull is redeemed, without strings, from Edinburgh into the hands of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. I call for leadership and support from the Scottish Government on this ques
tion, as an urgent priority.

Dundas Street

Alex Salmond is to be congratulated in his attempt to have the Chessmen returned to Lewis.

Lewis was under Norwegian jurisdiction for hundreds of years and the chessmen were found by a man with the Norse surname Ljot (MacLeod) in the Norse village of Koppadal (Capadal) situated in the Norse parish of Vik (Uig), an area once ruled by the Norse tribe Olaffson (MacAulay). The level of Norse influence in the Western Isles can be gauged by the fact that the islanders fought for the King of Norway against the Scots at the Battle of Largs in 1263.

In view of the close affinity between the Hebrides and Norway, there is a possibility the chessmen were made in Lewis or perhaps were a present from Norway to a Viking chief in Lewis.

Woodcroft Avenue
Bridge of Don, Aberdeen

The full article contains 495 words and appears in The Scotsman newspaper.
Last Updated: 08 January 2008 8:55 PM

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