The Icelandic Woman Behind the Lewis Chessman

The Lewis Chessmen, carved about 800 years ago mostly from walrus tusks, had previously been considered of Norwegian origin Picture

The Lewis Chessmen, carved about 800 years ago mostly from walrus tusks, had previously been considered of Norwegian origin Picture

During a seminar at the National Museum of Scotland claims were made that the iconic Lewis Chessmen could have been made in Iceland by a priest’s wife.

These chessmen have fascinated historians and scholars since they were found in Uig in Lewis in 1831. But fresh claims challenge some long-held beliefs about the pieces.

The most commonly held view on the origin of the 93 pieces, primarily made from walrus tusks, is that they were made in Norway in the 12th or 13th century and were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland.

The new theory has been put forward by Icelandic chess fans Einar Einarsson and Gudmundur Thórarinsson, who was the chairman of the organising committee of the famous world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972.

They argue that at the time of the creation of the Lewis Chessmen – around 1150-1200 – it is likely that no nation except Iceland had connected chess with bishops or the church.

They say the word “bishop” for a chess piece is used in only two languages, Icelandic and English. In most other languages, including Norwegian, this piece is known as a “runner”.

Other pieces of evidence include the chess knights being mounted on horses that seem Icelandic in both size and head shape and the rooks resembling berserkers (an Icelandic word for a soldier wearing a shirt made of bearskin) who figure prominently in contemporary Icelandic writings but not in written works in Norway at the time.

Mr Thórarinsson says historic writings refer to Bishop Páll in Iceland sending carved gifts made from tusks. These were made by Margrét the Adroit, his wife, so called because of her prodigious skill at carving walrus tusks.

He added: “One might even entertain the notion that the Lewis chessmen were made at the request of Bishop Páll of Skálholt and carved by Margrét the Adroit whose carving skills were the stuff of legend.

“The pieces were then sent abroad for sale or as a gift, but the ship was then lost”.

The British Museum presently holds 82 of the chess pieces and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has the other 11.

Yesterday the Icelandic theory was not ruled out by experts.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: “The British Museum states that the Lewis Chessmen were probably made in Norway, but the theory that they were produced in Iceland is certainly a possibility.

“The background of the Lewis Chessmen is open to debate and the British Museum is pleased that they still generate such interest.”

Dr David Caldwell from the National Museums Scotland, added: “As the Lewis Chessmen are such remarkable and fascinating objects, there are naturally a lot of theories surrounding them.

“I am pleased that our own research and our extremely popular exhibition ‘The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked’ is reigniting debate and discussion.

“Although the origin of the chessmen can never be certain, we would support the present evidence and research that they came from Norway, as there is less evidence for an Icelandic connection.’


About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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One thought on “The Icelandic Woman Behind the Lewis Chessman

  1. Morten Lilleören



    I write you because you have published articles about the Lewis Chessmen Therefore I have taken the liberty to send you a recent article I have written about them

    First some general remarks: The Lewis chessmen are in such a high esteem that during the years several diverging interests have made their claim. During the latter years I have to mention two in particular: The Scots and the Icelanders. I do not have to inform you about “the Scottish stand”, but as I have several Scottish corr.chess friends, they have on occasions notified me about the most common stand amongst Scots, something like “the only certain thing is that the chessmen were found at Isle of Lewis, which is Scottish land”. The problem with this position is of course that we know a lot more.

    The second position is the Icelandic one: In order to reach a conclusion Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson (which you have refered/quoted) actually had to use methods which are scholarly unacceptable.

    Both these postions are made possible by the state of knowledge about (the history of) the chessmen. There is a certain bias concerning all the material that has been published. This is probably caused by two facts: 1. The authors have been British, 2. Their scholarship have, as far as I know, either been as archaelogists or art historians. I am sorry to say so, but this means that knowledge about the rather massive body of Norse literature and the Norse history at large has been (too) scant.

    Here’s the basic fact: In 1098 King Edgar of Scotland and Magnus III “Barelegs” of Norway signed a treaty where all the western isles were recognised as Norwegian , and the islands did not become a part of Scotland’s crown until 1266. These islands were colonised by the Norwegians from 800 and onwards, a fact that for instance the place-names of Lewis give an overwhelming evidence about. The “problems” occur because of two facts: 1. The pieces and their heritage are desireable, and 2. The Isle of Lewis later became a part of Scotland. If No.2 never had taken place, no one would ever have questioned if the pieces were Norwegian. As to No.1: Auschwitz is now in Poland, yet no one tries to tell us that it was a Polish camp. It is undesireable. On the other hand we have a parallell in the ancient greek cities along the coast of Asia Minor: One hundred years ago all Greeks were either driven out/escaped or killed, and the Turks took over the whole area. Last year I had an odd experience: I took part in the ICCF Congress in Turkey as the Norwegian delegate. One day we had a break, and participated on a guided tour to several ancient ruins. To my horror the guide over and over again tried to cover up or outright deny that these ruins were ancient greek cities. This was probably a calculated risk, he must have counted on our lack of knowledge. Here we clearly see the consequences of the national bias when the items in question are desireable. As this article contains a lot of (?) information about the Hebrides a long time ago, I hope you are interested in publishing it.

    Merry Yule and a Happy New Year,

    Morten Lilleõren


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