Salmond makes first move in battle to win back Lewis Chessmen

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The Independent Online

The Lewis Chessmen, a set of carved pieces made in the 12th century and found hidden on a Scottish beach six centuries later, have become the subject of a cross-border repatriation row.

The Chessmen, fashioned out of walrus ivory and whale teeth, were found near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the early 19th century. They are deemed to be one of the greatest artefacts ever found in Scotland.

Now, the country's First Minister, Alex Salmond, is calling for the return of 82 pieces which are currently displayed at the British Museum in London. Out of a total of 93, only 11 remain in Scotland and are exhibited at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

The figures of seated kings and queens with bishops wearing mitres on their heads and knights mounted on horses include two complete sets and pieces from two or three others. They are believed to have been made by craftsmen in Trondheim, Norway, where similar pieces have been found. Some historians believe they were hidden, or lost, after a mishap during their transportation from Norway to wealthy Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland. Few other medieval chess sets have survived to this day.

They were discovered by a shepherd in the years before 1831 in a small stone chamber 15 feet beneath a sand bank. They were originally exhibited in Scotland but were split up soon after and most were later donated to the British Museum.

Despite the Norwegian origin of the chessmen, Mr Salmond insisted they should be returned to Scotland, since they had spent most of their existence there. "I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett Formula," he told a gathering of Gaelic campaigners recently. "I will continue campaigning for a united set in an independent Scotland."

A source close to Mr Salmond said that the matter would be taken further in the New Year. "We are working on a series of options. We think this is an important matter, because they should be back where they belong and they could be a boost for the Western Isles economy."

But the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it had no plans to allow the pieces to be sent to Scotland on anything other than a temporary basis. A spokesman said: "By Act of Parliament, the British Museum is forbidden from disposing of any of its assets and to change that would require primary legislation. We have no plans to do that."

Mr Salmond's call to repatriate the pieces was backed by residents of the Outer Hebrides who felt the Chessmen would be valuable to the local economy, which has flagged with the decline of traditional industries such as fishing, tweed and more modern ones such as oil-rig servicing.

Alex MacDonald, the convener of Lewis Council, said: "We welcome this move and it is significant for us that the First Minister believes that the Chessmen should be returned to the islands. My preference would be for some to be in Edinburgh, some in Stornoway [the capital of the Western Isles] and some in Uig, where they were originally found."

Anne MacDonald, a local campaigner, said: "We should have the Uig Chessmen here where they were found. They would be great for tourism."