Monday, June 6, 2016

Isle of Lewis Chess Men

 As you can see I have a few books on chess lined up.

Mozart's Violin Sonata No. 32 in  B-flat Major is playing as I write.  Mozart is great for focusing and collecting one's thoughts.  Metallica is great for driving your car at 1 am in the morning and you're trying to stay awake. Here's a link if you'd like to listen while you read today's post (to Mozart, not Metallica).

But currently I am awake and writing my latest post.  

 My Isle of Lewis Chess Set

I can't remember when I first learned about the Isle of Lewis Chessmen, I don't watch Harry Potter so I didn't see them there, even though apparently there is a scene where the characters are playing chess using  Lewis Chessman figurines.

But learn about them I did and with my usual enthusiasm at discovering something new, I couldn't gather enough information fast enough.  There are some great videos about them on youtube.  I am providing links at the end of this post.

The Lewis Chess men were discovered accidentally on the beach on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland in 1831.  Theories abound but the most likely is that they came from Norway and was brought by ship but for reasons unknown to us, were buried on the beach.

They are one of the oldest surviving chess sets and can be dated and placed by  the Bishops.  The Bishops tell us that they were created after Christianity spread throughout Europe.  Originally he was an elephant or an armed attendant mounted on an elephant revealing Chess' Indian origins.  The hat on the Bishop tells us that the pieces were made during the 12th century because the hat design before and after this century was different.

The pieces are believed to come from Norway because there are statues that look unmistakably like the Queen pieces and the Berserkers. The Queen's forlorn expression is probably what moves me the most about this set.  War is not a happy occasion and her expression shows it.  There are four or five different Queens with different hand positions but all carry the same tragic expression.

The original pieces number 78, indicating that the collection is a compilation of several sets.   I chose a Chess set that had different kinds of Kings, Queens, Knights and Rooks.  One of the more fascinating pieces is the Berserkers.  

The Berserker is another reason the pieces undoubtedly came from Norway.  Berserkers were Viking warriors that whipped themselves into a drug-induced trance before going into battle.  They fought naked and supposedly in a dangerous, insane condition.  Above you can see my Berserker is biting his shield and fully dressed. Now I better appreciate why enraged people are said to go berserk.  I like that word and intend to use it at every opportunity.,204,203,200_.jpg

A good concise book to read is The Lewis Chessman: Unmasked by David Caldwell.  He lists all the theories as to their origins, provides maps of the Isle of Lewis, the reasons why the pieces ended up where they did and best of all, includes good photos of every type of piece.

Another book I also finished is Chess: An Illustrated History by Raymond Keene.,204,203,200_.jpg

Keene is a Chess Master and what he says about the history of chess, starting back in India and the Middle East; and especially his timelines starting in the 19th century of International Chess tournaments is fascinating.  But the real gem of this book is the large, glossy color photos of chess sets from all over the world. The photos are alone worth the price of the book (which I got dirt cheap, used on Amazon hee, hee).

Another good resource is  They have a great video on youtube about the Isle of Lewis Chess men and also their products, from which I  bought my own pieces because they provided the greatest variety.  Every other site only offered pieces where the pieces from each side exactly mirrored each other. has different queens, kings, bishops etc for each side.  Each rook is different from each other and includes a berserker.  Their site is worth checking out.  They have a lot of different chess sets as well.

After buying my pieces I had to buy a board, which wasn't easy because the colors I chose was light pink and gray (they come in a variety of colors, the original pieces are made of walrus tusk and pale) so I had to find a board with complementary colors.  Then I had to find a table, which my husband and I did this weekend at an antique barn.

 A nice little nook in which to play chess.

My intention is to read the other books which provide strategies and hopefully improve my own feeble skills.  

A final link I'm providing is the game Bobby Fischer played against Donald Byrne.  Bobby was 13 years old at the time and the game is famous because he sacrificed his Queen.  The video is twenty minutes long and very interesting even if you're not that into chess.

Below are links about the Isle of Lewis set created by the British Museum where most of the pieces currently are on exhibit.

Isle of Lewis Chessmen part 1

Isle of Lewis part 2

British Museum web site

Bobby Fischer vs Donald Byrne


Brian Joseph said...

Fascinating post Sharon.

I love unusual histories such as the story of the Isle of Lewis Chess Men. The legend of the Berserkers is also so interesting.

That looks to be a really neat chess set and board that you purchased. It has been years since I played but I would not mind using something that nice.

Happy Chess Playing!

R.T. said...

I tried long ago to learn chess but soon discovered my mind cannot think far enough ahead to be any sort of a chess-player. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the Isle of Lewis chessmen story. Your posting has me on the trail to learn more. Thanks! (P.S. Even checkers is far beyond my abilities. I'm easily sabotaged and beaten by everyone.)

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading and learning about the Isle of Lewis chess pieces. I really like the shield chewing Berserker design.

We have been thinking about getting a chess set. Now I know where we can find some interesting pieces.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Chris: I love all the different types of chess pieces. They can be expensive. I didn't buy the most expensive but I think it was reasonably priced considering the detail and quality of material used.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! I am a sucker for chess sets. The art from different countries fascinates me. I really need to improve my skills. Luckily I've bought a couple of books that take you step by step through famous strategies and I hope it will improve my game.

The board was purchased separately and we had to be careful to buy one big enough for the pieces because they are larger than normal Staunton size.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi R.T. I know what you mean. I'm a horrible strategist. I'm trying to improve by going step by step through some famous games. Hopefully something will rub off.