Few people know that white sand beaches and palm trees can be found in Scotland, though not necessarily in the same place. But that’s a story for another time.
Imagine walking on just such a beach. It’s 1831. You’re in Uig, a small community on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Mostly you’re looking at a rare blue sky until you notice something in the sand. With a little digging, you discover a curious collection of ivory pieces.
What you found is a hoard of the most important chess pieces in history. They’re ranked fifth on a list of archaeological finds by the British Museum.
Through expert analysis and study, we now believe this cache of 93 ivory pieces (actually most of the pieces are walrus tusk with a few made of whale teeth), were carved between 1150 and 1200 in Trondheim, Norway.
At first, this might seem like a strange place of origin. Until you realize the Outer Hebrides and other Scottish islands were ruled by Norway at that time. It would follow there was trade between Scotland and Norway. Wealthy Norwegian merchants living in Scotland might well order a luxury item from the homeland.
We don’t know why the chessmen ended up in the sand. They may have been purposely hidden but never retrieved or maybe lost after a mishap. No matter. The important thing is, they were unearthed.
Of the 93 items recovered, 78 are chess pieces (which may include pieces from as many as five different chess sets), 14 are tablemen (tokens used on other game boards), and one is a belt buckle.
The entire collection is most impressive. However, they can’t be seen together in one place. Eleven are displayed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The others moved south to live at the British Museum.
Scotland holds mysteries and secrets from ages past. Slowly, she releases them, helping us piece together the puzzle of history.
We are richer for it.