Burning issue

Should the Lewis chessmen be brought back to Scotland?


Margaret Hodge, UK culture minister

I AM delighted to see the impact that my argument against returning the Lewis chessmen to Scotland has had. I was keen to provoke a debate, and did my best to stir the pot by stretching the argument for returning them to ever more absurd lengths. I was not entirely serious in suggesting that Mr Salmond would turn his sights next to stripping out the pink granite of the Albert Memorial and shipping it back to Mull. But you never know…

But beneath the banter, I was trying to draw out a real point about culture – and our feelings for it – in the shrinking world of the 21st century. In a nutshell, what I believe is that culture – whether it's works of art, great literature, music or fine craftsmanship – should be available for all. And this is because it enriches everyone. Its relevance and impact is universal. It is part of what defines us as human beings and, crucially, provides a tangible link between our present and our past. It should not primarily be an instrument of the tourist industry, nor an icon of nationalism, although it can support both. No, culture is what ties us together. I believe that those who would pull everything back to its alleged point of origin are working against this. It is insular, it excludes, it divides us, and it is wrong.

Just as Scottish museums and galleries are enriched by the diversity of the heritage they display, so, too, are other national and regional museums. The Lewis chessmen are seen and enjoyed at the British Museum by millions who would never have the chance if they were removed. Their home is in London as part of a permanent world collection, and this is how it will stay. Today and forever.


Angus MacNeil, SNP MP for the Western Isles

FR tailisg Leodhais – the Lewis chessmen – I think that the name says it all. Magnificent as they would be anywhere, placed in London something is wrong – almost like a rook moving diagonally on the chessboard.

It would surely be a strength of somewhere like the British Museum to be less centralist in its approach, as well as lending things, to be co-operative in returning artefacts.

No doubt, when some artefacts, though obviously not all, turned up at the British Museum, they did so for the best of reasons. However, that was in the 19th century. The 21st-century Hebrides are more than capable of looking after the chessmen.

Most opponents of this effort will shout that it is all political posturing by SNP. Well, they seem to shout that about everything else, so it seems a safe assumption.

I have long been a supporter of moving the chess pieces to Lewis, and that even predates my membership of the SNP.

So keen was I that, when I worked at BBC Radio nan Gaidheal, my work colleagues fabricated a press release with the intention of sending me round Inverness looking for a mythic and peculiarly named Swedish professor called Jurgen Header, who was also alleged to support the idea and, crucially, was willing to do an interview.

The chessmen in Lewis would have a massively disproportionate beneficial impact, which is more than they do in London. With Scotland maybe having claim to 10 per cent of the contents of the museum, perhaps they would be a good, devolved down payment.

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