In 1831 a Viking hoard was discovered by Malcolm Macleod near Uig, Lewis (Scottish Gaelic: Leòdin) in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland (Scottish Gaelic: Leòdhas, Na h-Eileanan Siar, Alba) . This hoard contained 93 carvings: one buckle, 14 pieces of a game called tables and 78 medieval chess pieces. The chess pieces were found in a sand dune where they seem to have been placed in a small, drystone chamber. The Norse beautifully crafted chess pieces, found in near pristine condition except for some discolouration, were made from walrus tusks and whale teeth and date from sometime between 1150-1200 AD. There is some discussion about whether the set was made in Norway or Iceland.
Nobody knows how the pieces came to be buried in the sand in the Isle of Lewis. However, we do know that at the approximate time the chessmen were made the Isle of Lewis belonged to the Kingdom of Norway. The Viking interventions in this area began in the 8th century AD. The Islands of Scotland and the Isle of Man formed the Northern and Southern Isles. The Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney were known to the Norse as Norðreyjar. The Southern Isles forming the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles (sometimes known as The Kingdom of the Isles) consisting of the Hebrides, the islands in the Firth of Clyde and the Isle of Man were known as Suðreyjar. Lewis was part of this Kingdom of Mann and the Isles and so the Lewis chessmen date from the time of Viking rule.
Eleven of the chessmen are owned by National Museums Scotland and the remaining 82 reside at the British Museum. The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the form of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. Now six of the Lewis Chessmen, a King, Queen, bishop, knight, warder and pawn, are coming ‘home’ to Lewis. This will be in time for the opening of the brand new museum at Lews Castle (Scottish Gaelic:Caisteal Leòdhais), where they will be on permanent display. Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean is set to open in December 2015. The return of at least some pieces of the famous 900-year-old Lewis Chessmen is very welcome and appropriate.