Lews Castle

Lews Castle

Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen


Located in a modern purpose built extension to the restored Lews Castle the new Museum nan Eilean opened on 14 July 2016. Exciting new galleries look at the stories of the Islands and Islanders. Visitors can discover how the distinctiveness of the Outer Hebrides is shaped by a unique combination of land, sea and people. Hear details about different people’s lives; the diversity of experience, opinion and perception of living life on an Island. Examine how people have lived and worked from the earliest times to the present day, how their culture is expressed through the Gaelic language, religion and community life. Significant loans from National Museums Scotland and the British Museum, including the world-famous Lewis Chessmen, alongside unique objects from the Comhairle’s collection set the modern culture of the Islands in their historic context. The ground floor of Lews Castle has been restored to its Gothic Revival grandeur, and as well as the carefully renovated rooms, visitors can enjoy the Storehouse café and Outfitters shop run by Natural Retreats.


A royal manor existed on the site in the 12th century. This was replaced by a fortification known as 'the Peel', built in the 14th century by occupying English forces under Edward I. The site of the manor made it an ideal military base for securing the supply routes between Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle. The English fort was begun in March 1302 under the supervision of two priests, Richard de Wynepol and Henry de Graundeston. The architect Master James of St George was also present. In September 1302, sixty men and 140 women helped dig the ditches; the men were paid twopence and the women a penny daily. A hundred foot-soldiers were still employed as labourers on the castle in November and work continued during the Summer of 1303.


Lews Castle (Scottish Gaelic: Caisteal Leòdhais) is a Victorian era castle located west of the town of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. It was built in the years 1844-51 as a country house for Sir James Matheson who had bought the whole island a few years previously with his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade. It was designed by the Glasgow architect Charles Wilson. In 1918, the Lewis estate including the castle was bought by industrialist Lord Leverhulme from the Matheson family. He gave the castle to the people of Stornoway parish in 1923. During World War II the Castle was taken over as accommodation for air and ground crew of 700 Naval Air Squadron, who operated a detachment of six Supermarine Walrus aircraft from a slipway at Cuddy Point in the Grounds. The base was referred to as HMS Mentor. After the war, the Castle was also used for accommodation for students of Lews Castle College in the 1950s.


Sir James Nicolas Sutherland Matheson, 1st Baronet FRS (17 October 1796 – 31 December 1878), born in Shiness, Lairg, Sutherland, Scotland, was the son of Captain Donald Matheson, a Scottish trader in India. He attended Edinburgh's Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh. After leaving university, Matheson spent two years in a London agency house before departing for Calcutta, India and a position in his uncle's trading firm, Mackintosh & Co.


Matheson was entrusted by his uncle with a letter to be delivered to the captain of a soon-to-depart British vessel. He forgot to deliver the missive and the vessel sailed without it. Incensed at his nephew's negligence, the uncle suggested that young James might be better off back in England. He took his uncle at his word and went to engage a passage back home. However, a chance encounter with an old sea captain instead saw Matheson departing for Canton (Guangzhou). Matheson first met William Jardine in Bombay in 1820. The two men later formed a partnership which also included Hollingworth Magniac and Daniel Beale. At first the new firm dealt only with trade between Canton, Bombay and Calcutta, at that time called the "country trade" but later extended their business to London.


In 1827 Alexander Matheson lent James a small hand press for the printing of the Canton Register which James founded as the first English language news sheet in China, which was edited by William Wightman Wood, an American from Philadelphia who would later work for rival trading house Russell & Co.On 1 July 1832, Jardine, Matheson and Company, a partnership, between William Jardine, James Matheson as senior partners, and Hollingworth Magniac, Alexander Matheson, Jardine's nephew Andrew Johnstone, Matheson's nephew Hugh Matheson, John Abel Smith, and Henry Wright, as the first partners was formed in Canton, and took the Chinese name 'Ewo' ("Yee-Wo" Literally Happy Harmony). The name was taken from the earlier Ewo Hong founded by Howqua which had an honest and upright reputation. In 1834, Parliament ended the monopoly of the British East India Company on trade between Britain and China. Jardine, Matheson and Company took this opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the East India Company. With its first voyage carrying tea, the Jardine clipper ship Sarah left for England. Jardine Matheson began its transformation from a major commercial agent of the East India Company into the largest British trading Hong, or firm, in Asia from its base in Hong Kong.


Jardine wanted the opium trade to expand in China and despatched Matheson to England to lobby the Government to press the Qing government to further open up trade. Matheson's mission proved unsuccessful and he was rebuked by the then British Foreign Secretary the Duke of Wellington. In a report, he complained to Jardine over being insulted by an "arrogant and stupid man". Matheson expressed his views plainly, contemporaneously describing, "... the Chinese [as] a people characterised by a marvelous degree of imbecility, avarice, conceit and obstinacy..." Matheson returned to Asia in 1838 and the following year Jardine left for England to continue lobbying.Jardine's lobbying efforts proved more effective than his partner's and he succeeded in persuading the new British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston to wage war on Qing China. The subsequent First Opium War led to the Treaty of Nanking which allowed Jardine Matheson to expand from Canton to Hong Kong and Mainland China. After Jardine died a bachelor in 1843, his nephews David and Andrew Jardine assisted James Matheson in running the Hong as Tai-Pan. Matheson retired as Tai-Pan during the early 1840s and handed over to David Jardine, another nephew of Jardine.


Matheson married Mary Jane Perceval on 9 November 1843. Her father, Michael Henry Perceval (1779–1829), was the illegitimate son of assassinated British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, Commissioner of the Port of Quebec from 1826 and a member, from Spencer Wood, of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada. The Mathesons had no children. Matheson bought the Scottish Isle of Lewis in 1844 for over half a million pounds and built Lews Castle, near Stornoway. In 1845, he began a programme of improvements on the island, including drainage schemes and road construction. He increased the programme during the Highland Potato Famine and by 1850 had spent some £329,000 on the island. Between 1851 and 1855 he assisted 1,771 people to emigrate. When in London Matheson lived at 13 Cleveland Row. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846.[14] As a result of his actions during the Highland Potato Famine, Matheson was awarded a baronetcy in 1850. He became Member of Parliament (MP) for Ashburton from 1843 to 1852 on William Jardine's death, (the previous incumbent) and for Ross and Cromarty from 1852 to 1868. He led an active public life into his eighth decade, and for many years served as chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.[12] His nephews succeeded him in directing Jardine Matheson and Matheson & Company.


The Lewis chessmen (or Uig chessmen, named after the bay where they were found) are a group of distinctive 12th-century chess pieces, along with other gaming pieces, most of which are carved in walrus ivory. Discovered in 1831 on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, they may constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets, although it is not clear if a set as originally made can be assembled from the pieces. When found, the hoard contained 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen and one belt buckle. Today, 82 pieces are owned and usually exhibited by the British Museum in London, and the remaining 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The British Museum claims the chessmen were probably made in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th century, although some scholars have suggested other Nordic countries. During that period, the Outer Hebrides, along with other major groups of Scottish islands, were ruled by Norway.


Almost all of the pieces in the collection are carved from walrus ivory, with a few made instead from whale teeth. The 78 pieces consist of eight kings, eight queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks and 19 pawns. The heights of the pawns range from 3.5 to 5.8 cm, while the other pieces are between 7 and 10.2 cm. Although there are 19 pawns (a complete set requires 16), they have the greatest range of sizes of all the pieces, which has suggested that the 78 pieces might belong to at least five sets. All the pieces are sculptures of human figures, with the exception of the pawns, which are smaller, geometric shapes. The knights are mounted on rather diminutive horses and are shown holding spears and shields. The rooks are standing soldiers or warders holding shields and swords; four of the rooks are shown as wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields with battle fury. Some pieces bore traces of red stain when found, indicating that red and white were used to distinguish the two sides, rather than the black and white used in modern chess. Scholars have observed that, to the modern eye, the figural pieces, with their bulging eyes and glum expressions, have a distinct comical character. This is especially true of the single rook with a worried, sideways glance and the berserkers biting their shields, which have been called "irresistibly comic to a modern audience." It is believed, however, that the comic or sad expressions were not intended or perceived as such by the makers, to whom these images instead displayed strength, ferocity or, in the case of the queens who hold their heads with a hand and have a seemingly pensive expression, "contemplation, repose and possibly wisdom."


The chessmen were discovered in early 1831 in a sand bank at the head of Camas Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. There are various local stories concerning their arrival and modern discovery on Lewis. Malcolm "Sport" MacLeod (Scottish Gaelic: Calum an Sprot) from the nearby township of Pennydonald discovered the trove in a small stone kist in a dune, exhibited them briefly in his byre and sold them on to Captain Roderick Ryrie. One reported detail, that it was a cow that actually unearthed the stash, is generally discounted in Uig as fabrication. After the Isle of Lewis was purchased by Sir James Matheson in 1844, Malcolm Macleod and his family were evicted and the district was transformed into sheep farms. They were exhibited by Ryrie at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, on 11 April 1831.


Both the museum and the castle grounds are fully wheelchair accessible. There are disabled toilet facilities for visitors. The ground floor of the castle is level and accessible with assistance. Assistance dogs are welcome.


Location : Museum nan Eilean, Lews Castle, Castle Grounds, Stornoway HS2 0XS

Transport: Inverness (National Rail) then coach to Ullapool and Ferry. Bus Routes : W1, W2, W3, W4, W5, W9 and W10 stop near by.

Opening Times: Tuesday to Saturday, 1 April to 30 September, 10:00 to 17:00;  1 October to 31 March, 13:00 to 17:00, Saturday open at 10:00

Tickets : Free

Tel. : 01851 822746