Permanent Exhibition for Lewis Chessmen

14 June 2012

Permanent Exhibition for Lewis Chessmen

This article is taken from the Hebrides News website - 

Six of the world famous Lewis Chessmen will be displayed in a permanent exhibition in the Hebrides it has been confirmed.

They would pull in large number of tourists and be the jewel in the crown in a proposed new modern state-of-the art museum centre at the historic Lewis Castle

There is massive global fascination in the chessmen and even a fraction of the number of visitors which presently flock to see them in the British and National museums would be a significant economic boost to the Hebrides.

From time to time the actual pieces will change but around six of the iconic Viking treasures, which are around 1000 years old, will be on public display in the Western Isles - ultimately on centre stage in the planned heritage hub within a redeveloped Lews Castle complex overlooking Stornoway harbour.

Presently in a perilously decayed state the historic castle is being rescued at a cost of £13 million. Its redevelopment will allow other Hebridean collections currently held at the National Archives of Scotland to be returned to the islands.

Some 23,000 people attended the Lewis Chessmen exhibition in Stornoway in five months last summer - the first time they were seen on the islands for 12 years.

Around 60% of people visited specifically to see the chessmen and cruise ships laid on buses for their passengers - giving just a taste of their massive pull.

A crowd also turned up when a handful of the chessmen spent a day at the Uig museum overlooking the large expanse of Uig Bay where they were discovered in 1831.

The promise of a rush of extra tourists see their chessmen in their historic context and spending cash around the islands sparked efforts for some of 1000-year-old Viking treasures to be based on the Western Iles permanently.

The loan agreement has resulted from a formal partnership between Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the British Museum and the new gallery space will be a partnership gallery with the British Museum.

Isle development chief Archie Campbell said the Lewis Chessmen held a "unique appeal" and the homecoming is the outcome of a strong partnership with the British Museum.

He said: The Council is committed to raising the profile of the rich heritage and culture of the Outer Hebrides. These amazing little pieces will undoubtedly attract new visitors to the islands and once they are here visitors will find there is a lot more to see, enjoy and learn. Heritage is one of our most important assets and will make an increasing contribution to the economy of the islands."

Both National Museums Scotland and the British Museum are supporting the development of the £4.6m Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Lews Castle project and this partnership will result in a wider selection of loans to both support the new interpretation at the Castle and to give local people and visitors an opportunity to see significant world objects in a new and different setting. National Museums Scotland and Museum nan Eilean are currently finalising a list of further loans to the project.

Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum said: "The loan of some of the chessmen and other objects from the British Museum is part of a long-term partnership with our colleagues at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. We are delighted to be partnering the Council on the redevelopment of Lews Castle and the partnership gallery which promises to be a major attraction for the Western Isles. The British Museum is committed to lending its world collection and to working with partners across the UK to share objects and expertise for the benefit of the widest possible audience.

Colin McLean, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said: "We are delighted to acknowledge this excellent example of partnership working which will help underwrite our major capital investment in the Lews Castle museum project. It's great to know the Lewis Chessmen will be on display where they were originally found and that local people and visitors will be able to learn about and enjoy them for the first time."

Delicate negotiations by Western Isles Council and the Scottish Government after their "homecoming tour" devised a deal to get at least a handful repatriated to the island of their discovery rather than an occasional visit every decade.

The British Museum stresses they are also national treasures and their shared locations London and Edinburgh are more accessible to the wider population and foreign tourists.

But it developed an agreement with Western Isles Council for future loans of the chessmen and historical artefacts to the islands.

Today's announcement also paves the way for more seasonal outreach displays of the historic figures in Uig.

Hidden on the Uig machair for centuries, the walrus ivory chessmen were discovered amongst stone bothies in a small glen by the stunning sandy beach at Ardroil by crofter Calum Macleod of nearby Pennydonald.

They are believed to have been made in Norway, during the Viking period and imported via ship on one of the Norse' expeditions to the Hebrides.

As the largest and best group of early chessmen to survive, they are one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland and are of major international importance.

The four sets are split between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. The two museums pooled a third of their gaming pieces for last year's Stornoway display.

National Museums Scotland has a five year partnership focused upon sharing skills to help the Western Isles museum service, Museum nan Eilean, achieve its ambitions for a modern twenty-first century museum service and offering increased support for the local, village and independent museums across the Outer Hebrides.


Scotland’s Islands - the events, exhibitions and activities happening all year round.

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