Susan here – our Christmas tree is still up, lights still glowing each night, the year has scarcely begun, and it’s been quite the week since New Year’s! Hang on, it’s bound to get better! In that hopeful spirit, and perhaps to dispel some of the cloud of 2020, I’m hanging on to Christmas a bit longer. We had a lovely holiday, even managed to see some family (appropriately masked and distanced, and we even staged Christmas on the Porch in the sunny cold with a few). There were great gifts and lots of smiles, though no hugs this year. Some of the presents are still out where we can enjoy them before they find their various nooks and niches. Christmas and Hanukkah and any holiday gift-giving isn’t just about gifts—the loving, caring thoughtfulness behind them is what matters, makes the difference, lasts a lifetime.
Though some gifts are just so cool, right?! This year my husband surprised me with something I’ve drooled over for a while: a set of Lewis chessmen. And I wanted to share it with you, because here at Wenches, we love Christmas, we love kindness, and we loooooove historical stuff. This set was produced by the National Museum of Scotland, a beautiful reproduction, gorgeous and fascinating. I don’t really play chess (my dad taught me years ago, my husband followed up with more hours of play, but it just didn’t stick) – though I’ll be picking it back up again if just for the excuse to play with these remarkable, adorable little guys, with their serious and perplexed little faces, and their incredible detail. (The photos here are of my own wee Lewis set, not the beautiful museum originals — and yes, my wee chessmen are seated on a cheese board, since their board had yet to be delivered.)
The original chess pieces were discovered in 1831 at Uig on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, when a farmer found a horde of little carvings exposed on a beach after a storm. Today, 11 pieces are in the National Museum of Scotland and 82 pieces are in the British Museum, renowned as unique and priceless treasures. An additional piece was discovered in 2019 in the back of a drawer in Edinburgh, purchased in 1964 for a few pounds–the price today of a creamy latte; wrapped in a cloth, stuck in a drawer, forgotten for a generation.
Made of walrus ivory, a few of whale teeth, intricately carved, whimsical, rustic, they are exquisite, tough, and beautiful despite the wear and tear of sand and centuries. The 93 pieces belong to four incomplete sets, which in mix-and-match provide a full two teams for warfare on an outsized board–they are hefty little thugs and royals.
They don’t look particularly warlike, with a husky, somber queen, a morose, grumpy king, two blessing bishops with croziers, two knights with elongated shields riding short, stocky ponies, a row of pawns like carved, stubby little monoliths. The most war-minded among them are the rooks, or warders as they are called in the museum collections, presented as berserkers, some ferocious, some even biting the tops of their shields with curious deliberateness.
Their curators and historians have dated them to the 12th or perhaps the early 13th century based on various factors, including comparison of similar carvings in Scandinavia and Britain. It has been suggested that they may have been produced in a Norwegian artist’s workshop—the variations between the pieces indicated more than one artistic hand. What they were doing all bundled together on a beach in Uig, Lewis, is anyone’s guess, but a reasonable suggestion is that the pieces were a merchant’s cache lost on a sinking ship, brought back to the world on the waves of another storm over six hundred years later.
Their fame reaches far and wide, and a song was even written about them—Scottish singer-songwriter-OBE Dougie MacLean, who has a house on Lewis not far from Uig, sings in the steady beat of “Marching Mystery” about the chessmen:
She holds her weary head
Her heavy horsemen stand alone
It's for the living and the dead
To search their fortune far from home …
It’s a great tribute—you can listen to Dougie’s song here.
As for me, this is my tribute to them: I sit and stare at these small warriors, warlords, warrior queen, weigh them in my hand, compare them favorably to their exquisite counterparts in London and Edinburgh. I am compelled by them. I have long felt a deep pull to their time and place. I wrote about them too, before today, creating a similar set for the main characters in Lady Macbeth: A Novel:
… What game was this, besides chess? My father held his wine well, and his game could be saved. Why yield his board to me now?
“If you prefer the lady take your place,” Macbeth said, “I would be honored.”
The wine was telling on me too, for I agreed, though my skill at the game was modest. Macbeth stood, and my father too, who drew out his chair of wicker and wood for me before walking away to greet another man who had hailed him.
Seated, I glanced at the board, then at Macbeth. In the firelight, his strong-cut features bespoke some Norse blood, as did his deep-set eyes and tall build. Two slender braids mingled in his hair; I wondered if his wife or a mistress had done that. Along his right cheek, a faint scar slanted toward his mouth. I glanced away when he looked at me.
Studying the board, I saw my principal pieces and a few ways to defend territory, royalty, and men. Each stocky little piece had been carved from a small block incised with minute detail, including embroidered robes and chain mail, wide eyes and solemn expressions, even wicker chairs much like the one that supported me.
“This is a fine set,” I commented.“My father has one with pieces carved of oak and walnut, though not so well crafted as this. Is it ivory?”
“Walrus tusks and teeth. I own one similar to this.”
“At your home in…Moray?” I asked carefully.
“I have property along that border, where my wife and I make our home.”
Why would my father, a prince and a warrior, want his daughter to sit here in this cordial arrangement when she was already betrothed to Moray's mormaer, and this surly warlord married to another? I did not see the point. “You stay with the king? I hear he fostered you.” I tilted my blocky little king with a finger.
“As one of his men, I am often with his court. Lady, your move.”
I lifted the little pawn with its engraved knotwork design. My game pieces were cream colored, with traces of ink rubbed into the grooves to bring out the detail. Macbeth’s chessmen were stained dark red.
He tapped his fingers, watching me. Seeing my best chance, I shifted the pawn to capture his bishop. Macbeth cocked an eyebrow in silence, reaching forward to slide a warrior from the back row to take a spot between my queen and bishop. His single move threatened. I had not seen it coming.
I frowned, leaned forward, my heavy braid looping over my shoulder as I perused the board. Then I took his offending housecarl with my queen. Sliding her into place, snatching up the defeated piece, I looked up.
Macbeth inclined his head graciously, hovering his fingers over the board. His hands were large, agile, rough. He touched a reddened horseman that sat between one of my men and a bishop, then snatched up my queen and set her aside.“Beware, lady. Sometimes a quiet warrior can move swiftly to possess a queen.”
“Boldly said for one who plays with walrus teeth.”
Years ago, I saw the Lewis chessmen in Edinburgh, so small and delicately detailed, so solid and powerful, with their history and their secrets and their silence. I will never forget the sight of them in that glass case on their little pedestals. And now I have a little set of my own. I may even relearn chess, see if I can make a queen’s gambit of my own (yes, I’m watching the show too!).
Was there something especially meaningful for you this holiday? Did some treasure come into your life this year, or some other year? We’d love to hear about it!