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Lewis chessmen - A view from our expert author


The story goes that the chess pieces were then uncovered in 1831, either by a fierce storm or by a cow rubbing against a sand dune.

Many people will have heard of Uig sands as the place where the Lewis chessmen are said to have been uncovered. Also known as Ardroil beach, and signposted as such, the sands are most easily accessed from the south side of the bay at Eadar Dha Fladhail, 2 miles south of Timsgarry and signified by a 3m-high wooden Lewis chessman piece perched by the sandy track. The chessmen are said to have been uncovered just behind this giant woodwork figure. Close by the car park is a useful information board.

Lewis chessmen Lewis Outer Hebrides by Henrywei, Dreamstime

The chessmen were brought ashore in the 16th century from a wrecked ship on the coast between Uig and Harris. The sailor who carried them is believed to have been murdered by a herdsman who later buried them. Embellishments and contradictions to the tale are plentiful but ill fortune is said to have befallen the herdsman who was later hanged at Gallows Hill in Stornoway, having confessed to the murder and given the location of the pieces. The story goes that the chess pieces were then uncovered in 1831, either by a fierce storm or by a cow rubbing against a sand dune. Either way, nature exposed the 12th-century Viking pieces carved from walrus ivory, including kings, queens, bishops, knights, warders and pawns. The complete find comprised 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men and a buckle to secure a bag and is thought likely to have come from a collection of four chess sets. Eleven of the chessmen are owned by National Museums Scotland and the remaining 82 pieces by the British Museum in London, though six of the British Museum’s collection are on long-term loan at the Lews Castle Museum and Archive (Museum nan Eilean) in Stornoway. The figures are believed to be Scandinavian in origin and probably made in Trondheim in Norway during the late 12th or early 13th centuries. They range in height from 6cm to 10cm.

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