A thoughtful piece by Ian Jack appeared in the Guardian, examining the cultural brouhaha that has erupted over Alex Salmond's declaration that the Lewis Chessmen should be removed from the British Museum and repatriated to Scotland. Salmond made the statement in a speech about preserving Gaelic language, and implied that the game pieces are historically central to Scottish identity: "I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland."
As Jack points out, the chessmen are not exactly scattered: the British Museum possesses 82, the National Museum of Scotland 11. It is difficult to fold these little guys into an easy narrative about enduring national identities. Chess originates in India and became a truly international game in the Middle Ages. These walrus bone pieces beautifully intermix the Christian and the secular, the transnational and the regional. The figures may have been carved in Norway in the twelfth century, and perhaps were headed for a princely purchaser in Ireland or the Isle of Man when they were buried in the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago that served as a medieval mixing bowl of peoples, bridging numerous lands. To enshrine the figures as emblems of Scottish identity is to request that they stay put in a way that their history resists. Can there be repatriation without an originary patria?