Chessmen 'will never come home'

THE deputy chairman of the British Museum all but closed the door on the complete return of the Lewis chessmen to Scotland yesterday, even as a 16-month tour of 30 historic pieces to four venues north of the Border was unveiled.

Broadcaster and playwright Bonnie Greer said she and fellow board members believed the historic pieces should "absolutely" be retained by what she called a "museum for the world".

She spoke as details of a Scottish tour of 30 of the iconic early-medieval chess pieces – to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Shetland and Stornoway – were announced.

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Scottish culture minister Michael Russell said it would "give people access, across the country, to some of the most significant archaeological artefacts ever discovered in Scotland".

But more than 18 months after First Minister Alex Salmond stoked a cultural row by backing calls for the chessmen to be returned, Mr Russell said the Scottish Government and the museum had "agreed to disagree" over their eventual fate.

Ms Greer stressed the British Museum (BM) loaned out 2,669 objects around the UK last year.

"The BM's credo is that we are a museum for the world and that is not just a motto," she said.

Online forum: Should Scotland compromise on the return of the Lewis Chessmen?

On the chessmen's future, she added: "As far as I'm concerned on a personal level, they will always remain at the British Museum – they will always be available for everyone in the world to see them, they will always go on tour, they will always be ambassadors for Scotland."

Asked if fellow trustees agreed, she said: "Absolutely. No question."

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Ms Greer's remarks mean both the museum's board, its influential Scottish director Neil McGregor, and the UK government have spoken out in unison on nationalist claims.

The chess pieces, thought to have been made in Norway in the 11th or 12th century from walrus ivory and whales' teeth, were discovered in Lewis in 1831. An initial 82 ended up in the British Museum, while another 11 went to the National Museum of Scotland.

The Scottish exhibition of 24 pieces from the BM and six from the NMS opens in Edinburgh on 21 May next year. It moves to Aberdeen Art Gallery in October, the Shetland Museum and Archives in January 2011, then on to Stornoway's Museum nan Eilean from April to September

The Scottish Government awarded 75,000 of funding for the free exhibition. "This will be an exhibition of international significance and we expect this will be a major attraction not just for the people of Scotland, but actually will bring people to Scotland," Mr Russell said.

It will include other gaming pieces, as well as Scandinavian art, and explore the new research on the chessmen's origins.

The exhibition is not a complete set of chessmen but will include all the major pieces. It is designed to leave some pieces on show in both London and Edinburgh.

The BM has loaned the chessmen around the world, but usually only about ten pieces. It last sent 13 pieces to Stornoway and Edinburgh in 2000.