Checkmate: Lewis Chessmen Set To Return To Scotland On Loan

Scottish Minister for Culture Mike Russell is expected to announce today that the Lewis Chessmen a collection of 93 individually hand-carved walrus-ivory chess pieces dating from the 12th century, found on the Isle of Lewis in 1831 are to be reunited again. A proportion of the 82-piece set belonging to the British Museum in London will arrive home on loan, to join up with the 11 other artefacts currently held by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Theyll go on tour around the country in coming months, taking in destinations including Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.

The Lewis Chessmen are one of the British Museums most popular exhibits. The temporary return north of even a few pieces (at least 25, probably more) represents checkmate for the Scottish Government, who have been calling for the Chessmens full repatriation for a long time, and were preparing to lobby at Westminster. The agreement hammered out by museum bosses appears to be a compromise intended to head-off any potential debate over ownership. British Museum chiefs fear that repatriation might set a dangerous precedent for the return of other disputed items, such as the much-fought-over Elgin Marbles, Bust of Nefertiti and Rosetta Stone.

British Museum chiefs fear that repatriation might set a dangerous precedent for the return of other disputed items

The British Museums rights over the Lewis Chessmen are much stronger than they are over other controversial artefacts in their collection, such as the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon without clear permission by Thomas Bruce in the early 19th century (the Greeks still hope to get them back). The chess pieces werent plundered, but rather purchased for 80 guineas from a dealer in Edinburgh, who in turn had paid 30 for them himself.

Yet its believed that the Scottish Government which is pursuing a nationalist agenda, with the ultimate goal of Scottish independence from the rest of the United Kingdom wont drop their claim to repatriation altogether in the long term, and may yet make further calls for a permanent release.

Artefact repatriation is a sticky ethical subject its hard to determine who really owns centuries-old artefacts that changed hands in ages before any firm regulation of such exchanges was instituted.

The debate over the Lewis Chessmen is complicated further by the fact that the set is thought to be Scandinavian in origin, since it dates from a time when the Outer Hebrides were ruled by Norway. If the Scots think theyve got a right to the Chessmen, then couldnt a Norwegian claim too logically be made?

Picture by Simon Greig. Some rights reserved.