Constantia Diary: Stornoway


A few of the Lewis Chessmen (93 in all); picture credit National Museum of Scotland.

We’re staying a couple of days in Stornoway, and getting acquainted with the place. Learning to operate the washing-machines at the Crew Centre, visiting the shops where Harris tweed and kilt outfits are abundant. A little town like this one is habitually centered around its church… here the stranger easily gets confused when spotting another Church or Free Church of Scotland with almost every turn around the corner. Having passed four or five of them, I end up at the Nicholson Institute, where – marvelously! – just now, the whole hoard of 12th century Lewis Chessmen are on display. Made in Norway, they traveled to the Isle of Lewis where they were hid, and lost, to reappear some six or seven hundred years later.  Stornoway is almost their hometown, not far from the site where they were found. Or not… the stories differ, and guesses are many.
Each piece is skillfully and caringly formed into a distinct individual; expressions vary from pensive to gloomy, to angry (just look at the berserk warders biting their shields!) or benevolent…

I spend some time with them before our leaving, but certainly not enough. I’m lucky, though; on our scheduled depart, strong winds causes a major outburst of seasickness among the trainees on board. Captain Sören and his mates kindly decide to return and await a calmer sea before leaving for Orkney and Shetland. I’m doubly grateful.

Having paid another visit to the Nicholson Institute, I continue to the Council Chamber of the Western Isles, where Doctors Jonathan Benjamin and Andy Bicket from Wessex Archaeology (Coastal and Marine Department) give a presentation. Their theme is “marine archaeology in submerged coastal areas” – which turns out to be fascinating. A scientific map of this area some 10 000 years ago shows the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland to be a landmass more or less connected. Those “submerged coastal areas” are nothing less than the lost landscapes of European pre-history; the forests and fields of mesolithic people in Northern Europe, now buried underwater. This was long before the Lewis chessmen – they are but one link in a much longer chain. The public is listening closely, and when the lecture is finished by a call for local knowledge on sites and traditions, there is ample response.
Walking back to the harbour, I see the waters disappearing into darkness. I belong to an ancient family. This is our home.

110716 from Stornoway; watercolour on paper, 15 x 15 cms

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