The Lewis chessmen are just one of the many battlegrounds of Scottish Independence [stewf]
c The Lewis chessmen are just one of the many battlegrounds of Scottish Independence [stewf]

Scotland: Chessmen in the battle for independence

How has an ancient set of chess pieces become embroiled in the movement for Scottish Independence?

The year 2014, will be historic for Scotland. The world’s attention will be focused upon the nation not only as the hosts of both the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, but for a historic referendum which could pave the way for the fragmentation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain which was created by The Act of Union of 1707.

The Act of Union states that the two nations of Scotland and England ‘for ever after be United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain.’ Despite Scotland being an integral part of British cultural and political identity, the Scottish National Party (SNP) are asking the Scottish electorate to remove one set of pieces from the game.

The Lewis Chessmen are an interesting example of the complicated joint history of both Scotland and England. Found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1831, the set currently consists of 93 chess pieces carved from walrus ivory and whale bone. They were featured at number 61 in the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, highlighting how important this collection from the 12th century is to world history.

Of the set, 82 pieces are housed at the British Museum, London while the remaining 11 are in the National Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland. However, SNP leader Alex Salmond was quoted in The Independent as saying that he will ‘continue campaigning for a united set in an independent Scotland’.

Alex Salmond at athe launch of his 2011 manifesto calling for an independence referendum.

Alex Salmond at athe launch of his 2011 manifesto calling for an independence referendum [Ewan McIntosh]

The full collection of chessmen, which are thought to have been made in Norway, may boost the tourism industry of an independent Scotland because of their historical importance, but experts have questioned how beneficial they will be. The SNP say that funding on museums and culture will be increased if they become independent, but with the spiralling costs associated with independence, will Scotland be able to afford to insure and secure the full collection?

A reunited set housed in an independent Scotland may be a cultural victory for Alex Salmond and the SNP, but the chessmen will not single-handedly deliver the much-needed boost to an economy burdened by the extra costs of independence.

What is unclear, however, is how the SNP will mount a legal challenge against the British Museum’s ownership of the collection. Dr David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland believes that the SNP have no case for repatriation as the collection in London was purchased legitimately.

“I frankly think it’s important that major museums, whether they’re here or in North America or in Greece or wherever else, ought to be able to show to their people and their visitors human endeavour in different parts of the world. The British Museum is a major international museum and lots of people see them there, and that is the name of the game,” said Dr Caldwell.

The return of the pieces would also force The British Museum Act of 1963 to be amended. The act forbids the removing of pieces from the museum except in a few special circumstances and has prevented the return of, among others, the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

The Lewis Chessmen are, however, mere pawns in the battle for independence. If the referendum in 2014 is successful, the independence settlement is expected to take years, not least over the removal of the Trident nuclear weapons system from the Clyde Estuary.

Almost regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the status quo is unlikely to remain. Westminster may be forced to concede additional powers of self-governance even if the Scottish electorate wish to remain in the United Kingdom. This is most likely to be the further devolution of financial raising powers, with perhaps greater participation in policy in the EU and more influence in foreign policy.

These measures might quell the desire for independence in the short term, but the issue will likely return to the political debate at some future point. Independence has been a significant part of Scottish political identity particularly for the SNP since their first electoral win in 1967, so it seems improbable that the matter would be removed from the party’s agenda.

The referendum agreement that Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed in October 2012, however, could set a precedent for other separatist groups around the world to take a legislative rather than a violent route in achieving independence.

There is a cultural argument that the Lewis Chessmen should be returned to Scotland, the land in which they were discovered, like many items within the British Museum collections, not least the continuous debate about the Elgin Marbles.

Scotland will be seeking some large concessions from Westminster if they become independent. Agreements will have to be made over intelligence sharing and the splitting of the military to allow for a separate Scottish force, as well as the creation of a Sterling monetary union. In the grand scheme of things, is the repatriation of the Lewis Chessmen’s to Scotland really that important?

What is almost certain is that the debate over the return of foreign treasures housed within the British Museum as well as other Museums and Art galleries will continue almost irrespective of the result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

As Emanuel Lasker is credited to have said, the laws of chess do not permit a free choice: you have to move whether you like it or not, and given that Scotland has now been granted the power to hold the referendum by Westminster, the Scottish public have been given the right to play the next move. The rest of Britain must now sit and wait for this historic move to be played, and the consequences that will result. The game will continue.

Berry Burnett

Berry has recently completed her second masters at Brunel University, London. She currently works as a Documentation Assistant for a small local museum, but her long-term homes are to progress towards a career in Westminster.

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