Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen Uig Sands Outer Hebrides Scotland by Marcin Kadziolka, ShutterstockThe chessmen are said to have been uncovered just behind this imposing woodwork figure © Marcin Kadziolka, Shutterstock

The Lewis chessmen pieces were found on the dramatic and vast Uig Sands.

Many people will have heard of Uig Sands as the place where the Lewis chessmen are said to have been uncovered; perhaps fewer are aware of the spectacular beauty of this monumental landscape. Visible for miles around, the vast sands of Uig boast an extraordinary tidal range. The distance between the highest and lowest spring tide can be almost a mile, and at low tide it feels as though you can walk towards the sea for ever. During the equinox, the high water can even cover the low-lying part of the machair behind the high dunes. 

Also known as Ardroil beach, and signposted as such, the sands are most easily accessed from the southside 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. 

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.

Despite their intricate detail and skilled carving, it is thought they were intended for practical use, for hnefatafl (a Viking chesslike board game that involved two unequal sides) and/or chess. Four of the wildeyed warders are biting the tops of their shields; these are berserkers, fierce Viking warriors who worked themselves into a frenzy before heading into battle without armour. More of the tale of the Lewis chessmen remains to be unpicked, as other stories claim the chessmen were in fact found far from Uig Sands, an argument that unsurprisingly gets short shrift locally. 

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