The Lewis Chessmen were found on an island that can be reached today only by air, or by ferry that takes more than two hours to cross from the Scottish mainland. Much beloved by hikers, the island has a landscape and climate that are daunting. Storm winds over the island can be so strong in the winter that they blow small fish up to the very top of the cliffs at Barra Head, which rise 620 feet above the water. In December, Lewis enjoys less than an hour of sunlight a day.
By contrast, the month of June is almost without darkness. Throughout the year, the island's temperature is softened by the Gulf Stream, so that even in January and February, it does not dip below freezing. The sea provides a means of sustenance, livelihood, and transport. And so, at this northwest border of Europe, civilization took hold thousands of years ago.
The archaeological and documentary record is incomplete but impressive. The earliest monument stands on the west coast of the island: a magnificent stone circle, the Callanish stones—a communal ritual monument somewhat akin in spirit to Stonehenge. Built around 3000 B.C.E., it is more than 43 feet in diameter and is formed of stones ranging from about 3 to 15 feet in height.
There is no evidence that the Roman conquest of Britain ever reached as far as the shores of Lewis. (Indeed, Emperor Hadrian's wall across the north of England is a testament to the Roman's desire to establish the boundary of the civilized world south of the Scottish border.) But the second-century Roman geographer Ptolemy seems to refer to the Hebrides, the chain of islands of which Lewis is a part. Some jewelry finds indicate a level of interaction between Lewis and Roman Britain, while the work of contemporary residents of Lewis is exemplified by the Broch, imposing free-stone structures.
The Norsemen effectively assumed control of the Isle of Lewis as the Kingdom of Norway was united after the Battle of Hofrsfjord in the late 800s. Evidence to the presence of Viking culture are the gilded brooches and belt from a woman's grave found in Valtos, Uig, near the protected bay ("Uig" derives from the Norse word for "bay") where the chessmen reportedly were found. "Ring silver," a currency equivalent, was found buried in peat at Diabadail. More important, a Viking hoard consisting of "hack silver" as well as Norman coins dating to about 990–1040 was found on the grounds of Stornoway Castle. The silver had been wrapped in cloth and placed inside a cow horn. It seems an unlikely form of money bag, but that may be exactly what some of the queens from the hoard of Lewis chessmen (including one on view in the exhibition at The Cloisters) are holding in their laps!
In 1098 King Edgar of Scotland formally signed over the western isles to Magnus III of Norway, and the islands did not return to Scotland's crown until 1266. The Isle of Lewis was, logically, part of a larger, seafaring culture, and though the waters were frigid and sometimes stormy, they nonetheless provided a highway for trade in marketable goods. A vital water route ran west from Norway, hugged the coastline of the Hebrides and then dipped south into the Irish Sea. From the shores of the Scottish mainland, Crusaders set their sights as far as the Holy Land. King Edgar answered the call to the First Crusade in 1095. He returned with the unlikely prize of a camel, which—perhaps unsure what to do with the creature—he passed off as a gift to the High King of Ireland, Muircheartach Ua Briain. Compared to this exotic import, an extraordinary example of the fluid exchanges facilitated by the sea lanes linking Scotland and its isles to the world, the shipping of a Norwegian merchant's wares composed largely of small ivory game pieces seems almost pedestrian.