For today’s Norse News, I am simply going to share the link to this BBC Radio 4 programme. It’s an 15 minute listen about one of Britain’s most iconic treasures and the subject of The Chessmen Thief: The Lewis Chessmen. Enjoy!
As I write this, we are entering the last hour of #InternationalWomensDay in the UK. Today, I wanted to flag up an amazing lady who I just couldn’t resist writing into The Chessmen Thief: Margrét the Adroit ( or Margrét hin haga), an Icelandic carver. She is mentioned in the Saga of Bishop Páll.
I have played slightly fast and loose with the timeline in my book – my events take place in the 1150s, while Margrét the Adroit is more likely to have been at the height of her fame in the early 13th century. Some have linked the Lewis Chessmen with the Icelandic carver and craftswoman working at the highest level. She was married to a churchman.
Archaeologists and historians have debated whether the chess pieces were created in Trondheim (there are parallels with local artwork and it is generally accepted as the most likely theory) or perhaps by this Icelander, Margrét, who carved in walrus ivory and was extraordinarily skilled.
I am lucky – I write fiction! The opportunity to include a woman at the heart of this origin story for the Lewis Chessmen was just too good. I created a fictional visit, so that Margrét would have found herself in Trondheim at the time of the commission.
Inclusion of legendary lady – check! One happy writer.
The Chessmen Thief cover has a barn owl on it. Everyone loves an owl, right? I certainly do. I’ve only seen a barn owl in the wild once, but barn owls felt right for my story. They screech rather than hoot for a start – they are majestic. but with a sense of menace too.
As I finished the manuscript, I realised that, sporadically, I had written a barn owl into the story, usually at significant moments in Kylan’s tale. Ghostly white, nocturnal, mysterious and merciless hunters, barn owls made a good wee motif to thread through the tapestry of the tale. Nesting in old ruins is what they do, so their appearance at the end of the book also made sense in the context of the Chessmen’s final resting place at Mealasta (although this is merely a theory, it may have been elsewhere in the Uig region of the Isle of Lewis).
The best place to find out more about these fascinating creatures is the RSPB website. Check out their species profile HERE.
I love a story set at sea. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a landlocked area. The Norse culture I am describing in The Chessmen Thief, however, was defined by its relationship with the sea. Yesterday’s #NorseNews concerned itself with Viking ships, but let’s think about the route for a moment. There are some real dangers my sailors have to face on their voyage from Trondheim to the Isle of Lewis.
The waters around Orkney are notoriously dangerous and stormy, plagued by strong and often unpredictable currents. On my research visit to Orkney, I saw for myself how forbidding the conditions could be at any time of the year.
In the Pentland Firth, a dangerous strait my characters have to navigate, there is a natural tidal whirlpool called The Swelkie, also called The Sea Witch’s Wheel. It’s just to the north of Stroma. It would be remiss of me as a children’s author not to throw my characters into mortal danger there, don’t you think?
Isn’t this illustration by Sandra McGowan gorgeous? I absolutely love her beautiful chapter headings, and my favourite is this one, of a Viking ship!
In The Chessmen Thief, Kylan travels with the Archbishop and his entourage from Trondheim to Orkney and then to the Western Isles. The men sleep on deck by night and navigate by ‘the wheel of stars’.
When our oldest was just a baby around 20 years ago, my husband and I travelled to Norway to visit friends. We were lucky enough to see the famous Oseberg Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. A recent discovery, however, has led to new ship excavations. Exciting, right? You can read more in the BBC article here.
I am posting this on World Book Day. What better day to celebrate the two books which enabled me to write The Chessmen Thief?
This book allowed me to write with more certainty about the carving process, the Viking world at the time, the political and church context and the possible personalities to feature in the Norse Scotland of the 12th Century.
Orkneyinga Saga, a roughly contemporary collection of stories about the Norse Earls of Orkney, provided me with a rich source of story material. It supplied my villain, Sven Asleifsson (I have simplified the spelling for my young readers), as well as the Earl Ragnvald Kali Kolsson and his household. I had thought that an old saga, written in Icelandic by a 12th Century skald, would be hard to read. Not so! I flew through it! There you have it – two more books to celebrate on World Book Day!
The Lewis Chessmen are famous as well-preserved examples of Norse workmanship. The fact that they feature BISHOPS is also unique – they are the earliest known chess sets to do so – previous versions had ‘runners’ or similar.
In The Chessmen Thief (which you can pre-order now :)) we encounter a strange hybrid of a society. The old religion and its myths were still kept alive in the countryside, but the Norse kingdom was firmly Christian, complete with cathedrals, bishops, archbishops, Crusades and all. In fact, the establishment of the brand-new, shiny Archdiocese of Nidaros (the old name for Trondheim in Norway) became the catalyst for my story. The chess sets made a point of featuring bishops in an influential position. The figures resemble the carving style found in Trondheim Cathedral, and researchers think that a connection between the chess sets and the church is likely.
So, I thought, what if the new Archbishop (I even know his name: Jon Birgersson) decided to visit the islands under his care: Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles? What if he commissioned some gifts to be brought? Chess sets, perhaps? But with an added flair: bishops as part of the game. And what if the slave in the carving workshop, desperate to return to the island of his birth, contrived a way to join the travelling party? What if, what if, what if – that’s how stories start!
The Isle of Lewis is a wonderful place to set a book, but most people do not realise that it was under Norse control for much longer than the Scottish mainland. Alongside Shetland, Orkney and Caithness on the north coast, it was part of a travel corridor to Ireland and to the Isle of Man, both important trading centres at the time. The seas were like modern day highways, with a lot of traffic. I found it fascinating that the old Viking ways were still alive in the 12th century, with many Norsemen taking the opportunity to fit in a bit of raiding on their journeys!
Initially, I called my main character ‘Lewis’ too (there is a record of this name in the 12th century) to create the link with his ancestral home. In the book he is a slave in Trondheim, which is in Norway, but he was captured on a raid in the Hebrides. However, this became confusing as the story unfolded, so I had a bit of a vote to choose the best name with my Book-Penpal schools St Joseph’s Stepps, Comely Park and Crossford, and also my Scottish Book Trust residency school at Findochty. The children opted for Kylan, a name that features in medieval records of the Isle of Lewis, so it feels authentic.
And what a beautiful place to hang out in my head!
Today’s behind-the scenes pic takes us to Uig. The wide expanse of Uig Sands could well have been the resting place of the Lewis Chessmen, but new evidence suggests it could also have been a few miles down the coast at Mealasta. In The Chessmen Thief I have opted for the latter, but no-one knows for certain. There are many stories about how the figures could have been discovered, but what we do know is that they were first exhibited in April 1831, 190 years ago this spring.
On the day that I visited the tiny museum in Uig and walked on the gorgeous wide beach of Uig Sands, the winds were really blowing hard – our poor Schnauzer got a bot of a horizontal sandblasting, but it was easy to imagine Viking ships in a place as wild and mesmerising as this. Perfect story material!
For my next #NorseNews snippet, here is a recent and interesting article about a Norse Creation myth poem called Völuspá, which is actually featured in #TheChessmenThief. In my wee book, a skald – a Viking bard, poet or storyteller – recites it at a feast, and my hero Kylan is utterly spellbound by his delivery.
You can read it HERE.