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Talking Location with Barbara Henderson, author of The Chessmen Thief – SCOTLAND

2nd May 2021

Barbara Henderson, author of The Chessmen Thief#TalkingLocationWith… Barbara Henderson, author of The Chessmen Thief set in SCOTLAND – #Lewis #Hebrides #Orkney #Norway

‘There are dolphins leaping alongside the ferry! Literally! Look!’

It was true – I followed my daughter’s outstretched arm. The waves of the Minch crashed into the ferry, but the effortless acrobatics of these most graceful of creatures went a long way towards soothing my seasickness. Soon afterwards, we arrived – the Isle of Lewis and all its magic beckoned.

It’s in the wildest parts of our country that we find the boundaries between past and present thinnest, I think. To be honest, there was an ulterior motive to this trip for me. Yes, I was here to relax with my family, but always with half an eye on a new story possibility. The Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland had remained under Norse control for much longer than mainland Scotland, and I really fancied writing a Viking book. Perhaps, on this trip, something would spark the story. I waited for the story sprites to ambush me as they usually did.

Barbara Henderson, author of The Chessmen Thief

The Isle of Lewis

I didn’t have to wait long. The only sizeable town on the Isle of Lewis is Stornoway (you know, with banks and traffic lights…). It was the natural place to start exploring the island. The museum, housed in the impressive Lews Castle, became our first stop.
And inside a glass case they were waiting for me: the famous Lewis Chessmen, priceless treasures from the Norse world, accidentally discovered on a beach on the remote Uig peninsula in 1831. I took a closer look – and was smitten. The craftsmanship! The raw materials (walrus ivory)! The facial expressions!

Barbara Henderson, author of The Chessmen Thief

The Bishop

The 12th Century pieces deserve their iconic status. Only a handful are exhibited in the Western Isles, a few more in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but the vast majority of the 93 figures are on display in the British Museum in London. What a privilege to get so close! I was well and truly hooked. Driving around the island for the next fortnight, I attempted to see the world a thousand years ago. Looking out over the deserted sea, I now saw highways with passing longships, sails fluttering in the breeze. Instead of ruins, I saw settlements, a world of sea-trading and hacksilver, torn between the old mythology and a new religion. Next stop: Orkney.

Reading about the figures had now revealed that their likely place of origin was Trondheim in Norway. How did they come to Scotland? There were two options: There was a busy trading route between Norway and Ireland, taking in Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides on the way.

Uig Sands where the Chessmen are rumoured to have been found

The second one was the church. A new Archdiocese had just been established in Trondheim in the 1150s. Its new Archbishop would have had responsibility for Orkney and Shetland as well as the Hebrides and may well have made the trip or sent gifts. Meanwhile, Christian Crusades went hand in hand with Viking-style raids. One stormy weekend in February 2020, my husband and I set off to Orkney with our good friends. It was a privilege to explore the ruins of the Earl’s Bu in Orphir, to walk in its round church and look out over the bay. In the book, my boy protagonist, a slave who unexpectedly finds favour with the Archbishop’s right-hand-man, learns to play chess here. Soon he will play for his life.

I loved every minute of writing this adventure of a boy who longs to return to the land of his birth. I also remain fascinated with the Chessmen, the real-life objects which become his only hope of survival and freedom. But the greatest privilege was to visit real places where history seeps from the very stones, where the past and present blur – and then to revisit again and again in my mind. What a privilege to be a writer and have this world to explore!

Five settings in The Chessmen Thief to visit:
1. Trondheim, Norway (its old name is Nidaros). The spectacular Trondheim Cathedral is a key setting.
2. The Earl’s Bu and Orphir Round Church, Orkney. Sven Asleifsson, the villain who stages an ambush here in my book, is drawn from the Viking Orkneyinga Saga. Orphir still houses the Orkneyinga Saga Centre, although it is little more than a small building with some display boards.
3. The Callanish Standing Stones. Possibly the best-known monument on the Isle of Lewis and location of the book’s dramatic climax
4. The Uig region of the Isle of Lewis. For a long time, the figures were assumed to have been found in the expanse of Uig Sands, although archaeologists now suspect that Mealasta, a little way down the coast, may be the more likely location
5. The Isle of Lewis offers many beaches. My hero and his companions land at Bosta on Berneray, but the whole west coast of Lewis and the brooding Atlantic effortlessly rowed me back in time. I cannot wait to return.

Barbara Henderson, author of The Chessmen Thief

Barbara Henderson, author of The Chessmen ThiefBarbara Henderson: Inverness-based Barbara Henderson is the author of historical novels Fir for Luck, Punch, Black Water, The Siege of Caerlaverock and The Chessmen Thief as well as the eco-thriller Wilderness Wars. Her energetic school visits have taken her across Scotland and beyond – and as a Drama teacher, she loves to get young people on their feet.

Barbara shares her home with one teenage son, one long-suffering husband and a scruffy Schnauzer called Merry.

barbarahenderson.co.uk | @scattyscribbler

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