Lewis chessmen give Salmond a touch of the Elgins

January 29, 2008


For a politician seeking a popularist move, the symbolism of a stolen national treasure is irresistible. Alex Salmond has leapt into action for the return of the Lewis Chessmen. It is a cause with echoes of the battles over the Elgin Marbles. But unlike Lord Elgin, who became the villain of the piece, he casts himself as the rescuer, the Merlina Mercouri of modern Scottish politics.

According to The Independent,

The Lewis Chessmen, a set of carved pieces made in the 12th century and found hidden on a Scottish beach six centuries later, have become the subject of a cross-border repatriation row. The Chessmen, fashioned out of walrus ivory and whale teeth, were found near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the early 19th century. They are deemed to be one of the greatest artefacts ever found in Scotland.

Now, the country’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, is calling for the return of 82 pieces which are currently displayed at the British Museum in London. [another 11 pieces remain in Scotland] and are exhibited at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

The figures … are believed to have been made by craftsmen in Trondheim, Norway, where similar pieces have been found. Some historians believe they were hidden, or lost, after a mishap during their transportation from Norway to wealthy Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland.

They were discovered by a shepherd in the years before 1831 in a small stone chamber 15 feet beneath a sand bank. They were originally exhibited in Scotland but were split up soon after and most were later donated to the British Museum.

Despite the Norwegian origin of the chessmen, Mr Salmond insisted they should be returned to Scotland, since they had spent most of their existence there. “I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett Formula,” [The Government’s rules for allocating per capita revenues to Scotland] he told a gathering of Gaelic campaigners recently. “I will continue campaigning for a united set in an independent Scotland.”

A source close to Mr Salmond said that the matter would be taken further [early in the 2008]. “We are working on a series of options. We think this is an important matter, because they should be back where they belong and they could be a boost for the Western Isles economy.”

Chessplayers a bit sniffy

Chess players are a bit sniffy about the Lewis set. Imitations are to be found in gift-shops and airports around the world. This time of year there will be many beginners who will have received presents of ersatz Lewis chess sets in a variety of bling-like materials. They will almost all have been bought by well-meaning non chess-players. The matching boards are almost invariably too small, and the pieces, however culturally significant their origins, are not fit for purpose. The squatness of the pieces are too reminiscent of collectors items based on some fantasy computer game.

To make matters worse, the universal standard for chess played at all competitive levels is the beautiful Staunton design, named after the great English chess player Howard Staunton.

Staunton’s biographer Bill Wall summarises the provenance of the design

On September 8, 1849 Staunton endorsed the chess set design by Nathaniel Cook and manufactured by his brother-in-law, John Jacques. He recommended the sets in the Illustrated London News and it became known as the Staunton pattern. Later, each chess box that the chessmen came in was signed by Staunton and Jacques stamped upon each set.

The Staunton design is fit for purpose, in individual appearance and feel, and also in action. Players move the pieces hither and thither around the board, in a elegant ritual in time and space. They contribute to the game so powerfully as to make alternatives appear counterfeit. The most cherished examples are of polished box wood, although sadly, for economic reasons, a plastic version is increasingly gaining in sales if not in popularity. [I know one junior tournament director who spends entire afternoons cleansing such pieces with surgical spirits, to remove some of the zillions of bugs from their polycarbonate surfaces contaminated by enthusiastic, but grubby fingers of the young players.]

Give us back our marbles

The story of the Parthenon marbles tells the tale of the Elgin marbles and the perfidious Lord Elgin. As related from a Greek perspective, the author manages to skewer Elgin, The British and Ottoman Empires all in the same story. It is one of those little ironies for our tale, that the noble Lord’s Scottish ancestry is also revealed:

Elgin was a Scottish Lord who hoped to do well in politics. At the beginning of the 19th century Lord Elgin was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The capital of the Ottoman Empire was in Istanbul in what is now called Turkey. At that time relations between Britain and Turkey were very good. Why? Egypt had been part of the Ottoman Empire until Napoleon, the French general, defeated the Turks and occupied Egypt. The British defeated Napoleon and the French left Egypt. As a result the Turks were very grateful to the British …

Lord Elgin wanted to find some ancient Greek statues to decorate his mansion in Scotland. He travelled in Greece, looking for things to send back to Britain. He employed an artist to make drawings of Greek statues and buildings. When he came to the Acropolis he was given permission to remove anything which was lying on the ground. But Elgin decided to take the statues of the Parthenon frieze and send them back to England…

When Elgin took the Parthenon Marbles, Greece was not an independent country. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks ruled in the lands of the Greeks. So the Greeks were not able to stop Elgin from taking the Marbles. Twenty years later the Greeks started a war of independence and soon Greece became an independent country. Immediately the Greeks demanded the return of the Parthenon Marbles, but their request was refused …In the early 1980s, a famous Greek actress called Melina Mercouri became Minister of Culture in the Greek government. She began the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. That campaign continues today, although Melina Mercouri died in 1994.
[The article goes on to list arguments in favour of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece]
… The Parthenon Marbles were stolen from Greece by Lord Elgin. Elgin did not have permission to cut sculptures from the Parthenon. He only had permission to take pieces that were lying on the ground. It is wrong that half of the Parthenon Marbles are in London and half are in Athens. They should all be in the same place. They were created in Athens, so they should be on display in Athens. The British Museum has not looked after the Marbles as well as they say they have. In the 1930s the Marbles were cleaned. This cleaning damaged the surface of the Marbles.

Give us back our chess pieces

Well, you can see where this is all leading. Mr. Salmond has begun his own political campaign. But unlike Lord Elgin, who became the villain of the piece, he casts himself as the rescuer, the Merlina Merconi of modern Scottish politics. The affair seems unlikely to rumble on as long as the earlier political brouhaha.

A chess player’s plea

As I chess player I have a modest proposal to make. I’m not sure what Mr. Salmond is planning to do next. I would encourage him to approach some wealthy sympathizer for funds to establish a truly international chess tournament on the Isles of Lewis. Maybe build a fine hotel complex, if the bird-life permits. Name it the Isle of Uig Liberation Tournament. Now that might really do something for tourism, as well as for chess.

But please, find some way to play all matches with non-plastic, non-Scottish, Staunton chess sets.