The Lewis Chess Pieces

In archaeological studies of the Vikings in the Celtic Isles, there is a discrepancy in the large amount of work that has been done in the Northern Isles and the Isle of Man versus the Western Isles of the Hebrides (Sharples 41-42). The artifacts that have been found in the Western Isles show that there is an important Norse tradition of settlement there. This paper will discuss the material remains of vikings in the Celtic Isles, specifically setting the story of the Lewis chess pieces into the context of the Manx crosses on the Isle of Man. By working through the creation and history of these pieces, scholars can see the artistic and religious impact that the vikings had on the Celtic Isles, as well as the need for archaeologists to continue work.

Although the material remains themselves are somewhat of an enigma, there are many confirmed textual connections between Iceland and Scotland. An initial connection displays itself in a roundabout way, through the ties between Norway and Iceland, as well as those between Norway and Scotland. In the Viking Age, the King of the Isles maintained control of the Scottish Islands under the jurisdiction of the King of Norway. King Magnus only ceded the Isles to Scotland in 1266 AD, well after the Viking Age had come to its conclusion. There were only a few years of overlap where both Iceland and the Isles were under the rule of the Norwegians.

We also see the connection of specific characters from Icelandic lore. As one example, a  well known female land-taker, Unn the Deep-Minded, lived in the Hebrides before moving to Iceland. These personal connections can be seen on the landscape of Lewis, as the Isle hosts four times as many Norse place names as Gaelic ones. Icelandic history has not forgotten the Celtic connection either, as twenty percent of the names in Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) are Gaelic (Sharples 39). The Scottish world was not distanced from that of the Scandinavians; “These were not ‘people on the edge, eking out a miserable subsistence’ on the margins of the Viking world, the archaeologists note. They were players in a huge cultural network, trafficking in goods and ideas” (Brown 73). While the ideas are shown in the presence of names and stories, these physical remains are what lead into the archaeology of the Hebrides.

For the most part, archaeological studies of the Norse presence in the north of Scotland have focused on settlements such as Jarlshof, Shetland; Birsay, Orkney; and Freswick, Caithness. The focus on these northern settlements does not mean that the Western Isles are less important to the archaeological record. In fact, any viking voyages down the western coast of Great Britain would require contact with those islands (Sharples 2). The Isle of Man, which lies further down from Lewis, between Ireland and England, also presents a clear idea of the Viking presence in the Celtic world. The island was central to the Kingdom of the Isles, and is also where we find a large amount of the archaeological evidence as to the presence of the Vikings in Britain (Harrison 2).

Many of the discoveries on Man have been related to burials from the Viking age. These burials date to before the conversion of Iceland, so there is a clear distinction between the native Christian inhabitants of Man and the Vikings who were settling into the landscape. However, after a few generations, the two groups started to intermarry and the mark of the Vikings became more solidified. The Manx crosses reveal part of this legacy. There are around one hundred crosses and fragments that display the artistic culture of Scandinavia, with the presence of runes as well as symbolic features. P.M.C. Kermode was the first scholar to research and categorize these different artifacts, dividing them between ‘Celtic’ and ‘Scandinavian’. However, although the styles emerge from the two cultures, the artifacts themselves all seem to have been carved on the Isle itself, so must be placed in the category of ‘Manx’. One such piece that belies the dichotomy of ‘Celtic’ vs. ‘Scandinavian’ is Thorwald’s Cross, which depicts both the battle of Ragnarok as well as a figure holding a Christian cross (Harrison 4).

The archaeology that has been done on Man gives an idea of the relationship between Iceland and the Celtic world through religion and practices. However, the Western Hebrides boast a greater proximity to both Iceland and Norway and so can give an even greater idea of the relationship between the various lands. The archaeology that has been done so far points towards the legacy of the Vikings in Scotland, but more can be done in order to dig deeper into this deep kinship of ideas and art.

The archaeology that has been done in the Western Isles first has to start with the landscape. A main difficulty with these islands is that it is hard to recognize archaeological sites without excavating. Along the west coast of the isles are shell deposits known as the machair, a landform which is constantly eroding and shifting; “It is therefore possible that the coastline in the Viking period was significantly different in location but probably not in character from the coastline of today” (Sharples 6). The machair provides a transparent idea of where sites are, as rabbits tunnel into mounds and bring up artifacts. Inland, these islands are covered heavily with large areas of peat or rock known as the blacklands. These areas are not as willing to reveal their secrets as the machair; the remains that can be seen are often much more recent than the Viking Age, and the acidity of the landscape destroy artifacts like those found on the beaches and prevents animals from digging (Sharples 6). These topographical features point towards why the area has been neglected for archaeological study, but also gives more reason to continue work.

South Uist is the island of the Western Isles that has been given the most attention. Between 1993 and 1996, archaeologists field-worked the entire machair, looking for settlements. Most often, archaeologists found and positively identified Middle Iron Age (100 BC- 300 AD) settlements more than Late Iron Age (300 AD – 800 AD) ones. One of the patterns that was most interesting on the island of South Uist was the idea of settlement continuity, or that fact that settlements had been in the same locations from the time of the Middle Iron Age through the time of the Vikings. This tells archaeologists that the vikings integrated themselves into the lives of the islanders, not distancing themselves and building completely new and isolated settlements but rather working themselves into the sites that were already there (Sharples 11). The archaeological projects in the Western Isles, although sparse, have uncovered some interesting facts about the vikings’ impact on the Celtic world. Sometimes, however, it is the accidental archaeology that stumbles across the most interesting and mysterious finds.

In the 1990s, six burials were found on Uig after wind blew some of the sand of the machair away to reveal ‘the bleached remains of a human skull lying in the sand’ (Qtd. in Brown 73). In 1915, another Viking Age Burial of two women was found, with burial goods displaying both Viking and Celtic cultural designs. Looking even further backwards in time, the Lewis chess pieces were discovered in 1831 on a beach in Uig on the Isle of Lewis. Comprised of 93 pieces (with 78 actual chessmen) in all, they are intricate pieces that are iconic of Scandinavian art (Caldwell 155). Other archaeological finds show that these were not the only instance of chess pieces being made by Icelanders. In 2011, a rook was found in Northern Iceland. The similarities are obvious, and at the very least show that the artistic minds of whoever made the different sets were of the same culture (Brown 15-17). If we intersperse the archaeology of the chessmen with textual evidence and legends, we get a well-rounded idea of what their story might be.

Apart from their intricate beauty and mystique, the Lewis pieces also have the added appeal of being thought to have been made by a woman; Margret the Adroit, who was a well-known artisan in Iceland around the time the chess pieces were made (Brown 15-17). The only information that we have on Margret comes from the Saga of Bishop Pall, which names her as one four of the artisans he commissioned; the others are Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, and Thorstein the Shrine-Smith. This saga is often overlooked and has not been translated into English in its entirety; a short passage that Nancy Marie Brown translated reads:


“It should also be said that Bishop Pall sent many gifts to his friends abroad, both gyrfalcons and other treasures. He sent Archbishop Thorir a bishop’s crozier of walrus ivory, carved so skillfully that no one in Iceland had ever seen such artistry before; it was made by Margret the Adroit, who at that time was the most skilled carver in all Iceland. Both she and her husband were at Skalholt when Bishop Pall died, and Thorir the Priest, Margret’s husband, took over the management of the see, but Margret made everything that Bishop Pall wanted” (Brown 141)


The author Loft, son of Bishop Pall, tells us little more than this. From other sources, we know that Margret’s status is what allowed her to practice as an artisan instead of working through the more mundane tasks of a homestead. When Bishop Pall’s wife passed away, their daughter Thora took on the role of lady of the house. However, because she was only fourteen, it is likely that Margret stepped in to help the teenager run the household. Margret and her husband became the full caretakers of Skallholt between 1211 when Bishop Pall died and 1216 when the next bishop was appointed (Brown 145). Unfortunately, there are no more definitive clues as to whether whether she did in fact carve the chess pieces that now bear the name of Lewis.

There are different theories as to how these chess pieces ended up on the Isle. Several of these include the notion of a merchant who was carrying the goods across the ocean. In one such version, there was a shipwreck, and the pieces washed up on shore and were hidden by different tidal formations until the discovery in 1831. Another theory brings in the fact (mentioned in Orkneyinga Saga) that people often buried goods to hide them from vikings, and says that the merchant did the selfsame thing. Unfortunately, there is no well-recorded description of the discovery, so it is hard to determine whether the pieces were purposefully hidden or simply lost. Other versions hold that the pieces did in fact belong to an individual or group on Lewis, and yet another that they were meant as a gift for someone of high prestige and somehow got lost along the way. This is the story that is most often tied in with Margret the Adroit and Bishop Pall, because of the high status of the participants.

Various scholars also tend to lean towards the “chess pieces as gift” account because it does not require belief in the fortuitous nature of the artifacts just happening to end up safe on a beach in Lewis after a shipwreck. Tribute gifts were customary throughout the Scandinavian and Celtic kingdoms during the Viking Age. Although Irish in origin, the Lebor na Cert (‘Book of Rights’) gives an idea of how tributes worked in the Celtic world, dating back to the late 11th century. Board games, such as chess, were included under the term fitchill or fidcheall, meaning ‘wood-sense’  (Caldwell, 176-177). In Old Norse, the word for “chess” is tafl, which means any game that is played on a tafl, or table.

The importance of chess-playing is shown in various accounts of it being named a skill of great men. Kali Kolsson, who later became an Earl of Orkney, claimed chess as one of the nine skills that he had mastered; the others are rune-carving, reading, carpentry, skiing, shooting, sailing, playing the harp, and composing verse (Brown 95). This romanticization of various skills is shown in The Saga of the Heath-Killings, where a berserker woos a girl over a chess game (Brown 14).

Especially for warriors, knowledge of strategy and cunning are vital to surviving in the field, and chess was a demonstration of that prowess. A game similar to chess is hnefatafl (‘fist-table’)in which a single king is placed on the center of the board with a few warriors and needs to fight out while outnumbered two to one (Brown 14). This shows the stakes that vikings faced in their real lives as well as in their boardgames. Far from being merely a game, chess was a demonstration of power, as shown in The Saga of King Olaf the Saint, when King Canute (of Denmark, England, and Norway) plays a game of chess against Earl Ulf;


“There his brother-in-law, Earl Ulf, had prepared a great feast for him.  The earl was the most agreeable host, but the king was silent and sullen.  The earl talked to him in every way to make him cheerful, and brought forward everything which he thought would amuse him; but the king remained stern, and speaking little.  At last the earl proposed to him a game at chess, which he agreed to; and a chess-board was produced, and they played together.  Earl Ulf was hasty in temper, stiff, and in nothing yielding; but everything he managed went on well in his hands; and he was a great warrior, about whom there are many stories.  He was the most powerful man in Denmark next to the King. … When they had played a while the king made a false move, at which the earl took a knight from the king; but the king set the piece again upon the board, and told the earl to make another move; but the earl grew angry, threw over the chessboard, stood up, and went away.

The king said, ‘Runnest thou away, Ulf the coward?’

The earl turned round at the door and said, ‘Thou wouldst have run farther at Helga river, if thou hadst come to battle there. Thou didst not call me Ulf the coward, when I hastened to thy help while the Swedes were beating thee like a dog.’ (Sturluson 162-163)


In this particular story, we see the great importance of chess as a representation of respect and power. After this episode, Ulf leaves and Canute sends a soldier to kill him, even after being told that he had taken refuge in a church. When Ulf treats the king’s players in such a way on the board, Canute takes it as an affront to his person in real life. Although the sagas (as all legendary stories) are known to be exaggerations of historical people and places, the story highlights the connection between the Scandinavian and Celtic world, as well as the presence of and importance of chess throughout the kingdoms.

The Isle of Man is a well-documented and excavated area of the Celtic world. Yet it lies far away from Iceland, flanked on either side by land masses. If an accidental discovery of a hoard of chess pieces on Lewis can lead to such interesting questions about the vikings’ presence in Scotland, the question remains as to how much more can be discovered if archaeologists look more closely in a purposeful search.




Brown, Nancy Marie. Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World

and the Woman Who Made Them. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Caldwell, David H, Mark A Hall & Caroline M Wilkinson (2009) “The Lewis Hoard of Gaming

Pieces: A Re-examination of their Context, Meanings, Discovery and Manufacture.”

Medieval Archaeology, 53:1 (July 2013): 155-203.

Harrison, S. “The Vikings in the Isle of Man.” The Antiquaries Journal, 89 (September 2009): 441–443.

Sharples, Niall & Mike Parker Pearson (1999) “Norse Settlement in the Outer Hebrides.”

Norwegian Archaeological Review, 32:1 (1999): 41-62.

Sturluson, Snorri. “Saga of Olaf Haraldson.” Heimskringla: The Chronicle of the Kings of

Norway. Trans. Samuel Laing. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844.

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