Don’t drop those walrus tusks

Thursday morning’s bookfest event featured a talk between Barbara Henderson about her version of the Lewis chessmen and Dr Alice Blackwell from the ‘local’ museum who also knows a lot about them. The one keeping the ladies in order was dinosaur professor Steve Brusatte, who’s no dinosaur, but he knows about them, and they are even older than the chessmen.

It’s always good when grown-up academics can demonstrate so much enthusiasm for children’s fiction on a subject they might know a lot about. It’s not just me who rather liked The Chessmen Thief.

Barbara started off by reading from the beginning, where her hero does his best not to drop the walrus tusks. They will break into smithereens if you do.

She has long been fascinated by Vikings, and by board games, and the fact that not only did they carve these chess pieces nearly nine hundred years ago, but they actually played chess!

When it became impossible for Barbara to travel to Shetland for research, she re-routed to Orkney instead, which is why her characters stop by Orkney on their way from Norway to the Western Isles which they called the Southern Isles. It’s all relative. And when they got there, the much older Callanish stones were already waiting, although they were not necessarily as ancient as the dinosaurs…

Alice took over and talked about the chessmen in her museum. They have eleven of the 93 pieces found, and the British museum have some of the rest. Because we – they – don’t know everything about the chessmen, they lend themselves well to be used in fiction like this. They’re not all walrus; some pieces are carved from sperm whale teeth. Alice is their carer, and when some of the pieces are lent to other museums, she gets to travel with them.

There were questions, both from our dinosaur expert (on Skye, you should always keep your eyes open in case you find a bit of dinosaur) and from the audience. Barbara has plenty of new plans, with an eye on the Forth Bridge, and not forgetting Mary Queen of Scots.

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