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Lewis chessmen visit the isles

SHETLAND Museum and Archives will be hosting an exhibition of national importance when the world famous Lewis Chessmen go on show for two months from Friday.

‘The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked’ exhibition shows around 30 of the original hoard of 90 pieces made of walrus ivory that were found on the western shore of the isle of Lewis, in 1831.

The touring exhibition, which moves to Stornoway in April this year, looks at the mystery and intrigue surrounding the chessmen, explores the stories of their discovery and shows how the characters reflect society at the time they were made.

Thought to have been carved in the ecclesiastical centre of 12th century Trondheim, in Norway, the chessmen have been assembled from at least four different chess sets, and are described as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland.

Shetland Museum and Archives curator Ian Tait said seeing these artefacts at the local museum was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“The significance of this exhibition is that it is an opportunity for us to get national treasures here at Shetland Museum and Archives, which is a unique opportunity for the Shetland public.

“It also is an exciting way that we can link Shetland, the Hebrides and Norway as part of a common Scandinavian heritage we used to share. We were once all part of a Norwegian kingdom.

“Islanders will be able see something here that is kindred to Shetland and yet not quite the same. It is reassuringly similar and yet it is excitingly different.”

Earlier this week, staff from National Museums Scotland and the British Museum were busy setting up the exhibition in the museum’s Da Gadderie exhibition space.

The pieces are being arranged in a number of exhibition cabinets telling the story of their discovery and interpreting their meaning.

David Caldwell, keeper of Scotland in Europe for National Museums Scotland, said it had been important for his team to bring the exhibition to Shetland.
“They were found by a local man in Lewis. We are unsure of exactly when and where and how they were found, but they were found in Lewis and our analysis of the discovery suggests to us that they probably belonged to an important man on Lewis.

“They are not some accidental survival of something lost from somebody from the outside, they were owned by somebody in Lewis.

“It was very important to us that Shetland was one of the places this exhibition came to, because the people of Shetland more so than anybody else in Scotland have a direct link to the Scandinavian past – and we wanted Shetlanders to appreciate that, and see the wonderful and glorious things our ancestors produced,” he said.

‘The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked’ exhibition opens on Friday 21 January and runs until 27 March. Entry is free.

The museum also hosts a series of related events during February, including a lecture by Dr Irving Finkel, the assistant keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, entitled ‘The Best Chessmen in all the World’.