Bringing them all back home Part 2

To pick up, after a fashion, from where I left off in Part 1:

Glasgow City Council’s Working Group on the Repatriation of Artefacts was still on the go in 2015 as I found a reference to it then.  I also found a decision it made in 2005 to return the preserved heads – yes, heads – of 3 Maori chiefs killed in 19th century battles.  One had been bought from a Liverpool menagerie in 1906 and the other two were donated in 1951 by an Archibald Shanks who had bought them from a museum in Dalry in 1901.  They had not been displayed in Glasgow as under Scots Law, human remains cannot be “owned”.

The current council leader, Susan Aitken, was quoted in the Sunday National on 14 June this year saying that they had “… also appointed a specialist curator to look at the city’s collections to see if we have things that we shouldn’t have and should be returned.  We have returned things in the past, and we’re willing to do that again.”

So, good for Glasgow.  But what about museums and councils in other parts of Scotland? In particular, what about the stuff that’s in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh that could be displayed much closer to where it was found?   I can just about thole the Traprain Law treasure being in Edinburgh though I see no reason why it can’t be in Haddington or Dunbar.  This is a hoard of Roman silver which was found in 1919, having been buried for about 1,500 years on Traprain Law.  Part of the hoard was temporarily on display in Haddington last year, but why can’t part or even all of it be seen there all of the time?

Part of St Ninian’s Isle treasure

And now, much as it grieves me, I have to agree with Tavish Scott MSP!  He wants the St Ninian’s Isle treasure returned to Shetland’s new museum from the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. This hoard of Pictish silverwork consists of 28 items: bowls, jewellery, parts of weapons; it  dates from about 800 CE.  After discovery in 1958, it was taken to London initially and then to Edinburgh.  Twice, it was displayed in Shetland – in 1966, and again in 2008 when the new museum opened and I can understand how galling it must have been when it was then returned to Edinburgh.


migdale anklet Hughland Historic Environment Record
Bangle or anklet from Migdale Hoard, decorated with vertical incised strokes – Highland Historic Environment site

More modest maybe, but dearer to my heart is the Migdale Hoard, also kept in Edinburgh.  This is a collection of early Bronze Age items dated to about 2000 BCE: an axe head, hair ornaments, bangles / anklets, beads, fragments possably from a headdress and carved buttons made from jet or shale.  It was found around 1900 when workmen were blasting a granite knoll on a hillside overlooking Loch Migdale in East Sutherland.  Theories suggest it may have been hidden to prevent enemies getting hold of it and then the owner was killed or captured or it could have been an offering to the gods either seeking help or as a show of repentance.

An article about the Migdale Hoard on has these suggestions and also provides more information about the items themselves.  “The axehead had been tinned, giving it a silvery appearance and making it extra special.  Tinning was a technique used by the early metalworkers of north-east Scotland to enhance the appearance of axeheads.”  What they call the “dress accessories” are similar to those found in central and northern Europe from about 2250 to 1950 BCE so they reckon the owner was a person of high status who had links across the North Sea.  Of the six buttons, five were made of shale  and one of jet; when analysed, it was revealed that the jet was from near Whitby in Yorkshire and had been taken or traded northwards.

The first report on the items was written by a J. Anderson in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 35, page 266.  It’s called “Notice of a hoard of bronze implements, and ornaments, and buttons of jet found at Migdale, on the estate of Skibo, Sutherland, exhibited to the society by Mr Andrew Carnegie of Skibo.”  The items were donated to the National Museum of Scotland in the mid-1960s by Andrew Carnegie’s daughter – Mrs M Carnegie Miller of Connecticut – though how long they’d been in Edinburgh before that, I’m not sure.

Between January and June 2004, the Migdale hoard was displayed in Inverness Museum and in a Northern Times report on 29 January that year, Patricia Weeks, an archaeologist from the museum was quoted as saying: “Intriguingly, some of the pieces found with the hoard never made it to the National Museum.  Smaller artefacts were apparently picked up at the time by local children and it’s possible some of the missing pieces may still be in the area.”  Oh how I hope this is true! And if so, I hope they’re being cared for and passed down the generations, along with their story.

While I’d love to see the Migdale Hoard on display in one of the now-empty rooms off Bonar Library, I don’t suppose this is very likely.  However, why can’t they be displayed at HistoryLinks in Dornoch or in the Tain Museum?  Or at the very least, back permanently in Inverness?  Why do these items have to be kept in Edinburgh, which has no connection to Migdale – or to St Ninian’s Isle for that matter?  Why can’t they be displayed as near as possible to the place where they were found and where they might now help to provide some income for local people?  I’m sure security considerations could be overcome and so what if slightly fewer folk see them?  There’s plenty to be seen in Edinburgh and the genuinely interested would make the effort to go north, possibly appreciating them even more by also seeing the landscape of which they were originally a part.

The Uig Chessmen, or Fir-Tailisg I think in Gaelic,  are probably more widely known.  They were found at Camus Uig on Lewis by Malcolm Macleod from Pennydonald in 1831, though a cow grazing on a sandy bank has maybe not been given the credit she deserved for uncovering them.  They were sold to Roderick Pirie from Stornoway for £30; later, they were put on show at the Society of Antiquities in Edinburgh before being passed on to a dealer.  The British Museum bought 82 pieces, believing that was the full number but 10 of them were sold privately to a member of the Society and one was bought on Lewis; these 11 pieces have been in the National Museum of Scotland since 1888. More recently, one was found in a drawer in Edinburgh; it had been bought for £5 in 1964 and it sold for £735,000 in July 2019.

The four sets of chess pieces (five are missing) are made from walrus ivory or whale teeth and are possibly 12th century.  The most common theory is that they were carved at Trondheim in Norway because part of a chess queen, similar in style, was found there in the 19th century.  However, the alternative view is that they came from Iceland and supporters of this latter theory even have a name for the artist: the 13th century Marget the Adroit who carved “so skilfully that no-one in Iceland had seen such artistry before”.  This is a quote from Christopher Klein who wrote an article for in September 2018 called The Enduring Mystery of the Lewis Chessmen.

The pieces may have been on their way to Dublin when their ship was wrecked off the Outer Hebrides.  They could have been buried by a merchant to avoid paying taxes but there’s a local story that they were brought ashore by a sailor who made the big mistake of telling a local boy what he had; the boy murdered the sailor and hid the chess pieces.  He supposedly confessed to this before being hanged in Stornoway for other crimes and the bones of a young boy were later discovered in a cave in the hills.

Whatever their origin and wherever their intended destination, the only certainty in the story is that the chess pieces were buried and then discovered on the island of Lewis. Lewis is a whole lot closer to their Viking beginnings in every sense than London is and I’m sure, if they were all returned there,  some of them could be loaned from time to time to Iceland and to Norway.

Twenty years ago, 13 of the Uig pieces were loaned for an exhibition in Edinburgh and Stornoway.  Then in 2010 /2011, 30 of them were displayed in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Lerwick and Stornoway; 24 came from the British Museum and 6 from the National Museum of Scotland.  When the new Museum nan Eilean opened in July 2016 in Stornoway, 6 of the chess pieces were loaned to it on a long-term basis but what this means in practice I do not know.

I think that it’s time for Peat and Diesel to be writing a song about this, coming down very firmly on the side of return.

On 10 March 2010, starting at 4pm (if you want to check Hansard), Angus MacNeil MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar secured a debate in the House of Commons on the return of the chess pieces to Lewis. He was, naturally, arguing in favour but was strongly opposed by Margaret Hodge who was then Minister of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  She said that “beautiful artefacts should be enjoyed as widely as possible”; she believed that many people came to London in order to visit the museum; folk in Lewis and elsewhere could see the artefacts online (as so presumably could folk in London when the chessmen are all back in Lewis).

She was not against a loan but was against splitting the collection: “the whole collection should be held together and not pulled apart”.  She felt it was a matter for the British Museum and not for politicians but that didn’t stop her from pontificating about the possible Trondheim connection. (I note however she was not proposing sending them to Norway; it was just a distraction.)  Then I was absolutely gobsmacked to read that William Cash MP  –  yes, that Bill Cash whom I’d previously believed to be just an evil Tory  –  intervened to ask if she would want the Bayeux Tapestry back in the UK on the grounds that it was “made by nuns in England”.  She wouldn’t.  Mr Cash said he had “considerable sympathy with the idea there should be some return” of the chess pieces to Lewis.

I didn’t expect any better from Margaret Hodge but I certainly did from Bonnie Greer, then Deputy Chair of the British Museum Board of Trustees.  Ms Greer was quoted in the debate as saying about the Uig chessmen: “As far as I’m concerned on a personal level, they will always remain at the British Museum”.  This is the same Bonnie Greer who in January and February of 2020 curated a series of events called “The Era of Reclamation”.  On the museum’s website, she writes that it would provide a “challenging, thought-provoking and radical forum for debate around one of the most vital issues facing museums and cultural spaces in the UK and globally”.  In addition, “Reclaiming is at the heart of many of the great questions and movements of our part of the 21st century.  From the return of African objects to their places of origin, all the way to the renaming of our very selves.”  Her events would provide “a time for conversations around ownership, not only of ourselves and our identities but of what we believe belongs to us.”

On 8 June 2020, she’s quoted as saying: “Museums and cultural institutions must now sit down, not just with activists, but with The People (?)  We need to start again.  And who knows where this journey will end.”  Well, gaun yersel Bonnie! But are there no bells ringing for you over what you said ten years ago?

It’s not just Lewis that wants its stuff back from London.  Elsewhere in the UK  there are calls for the British Museum to relocate King Raedwald’s Anglo-Saxon warrior helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial back to Suffolk or the Lindisfarne and St Cuthbert Gospels from the British Library  back to Northumbria, specifically to the Bede Museum in Jarrow.  The writer of the 20 February 2020 blog post Restitution should start at home? on the Returning Heritage site anticipates that security considerations will be cited to stop these returns, along with environmental and conservation factors, not to mention the British Museum Act of 1963 which prevents “deaccessioning from the nation’s collection”.  However, it doesn’t prevent loans – and never ending ones at that.  Or we could change the law.

James Barr on the UnHerd site wrote Forget the Marbles – give the North East its treasures back.  He describes a list of treasures that were “hoovered up by the museums of one of the richest cities on the planet” and says that “London should return the relics it robbed from the regions”.  Now that’s a fine use of alliteration but he’s on the geographically-challenged side – and maybe historically and politically as well: in his article, he writes ” The famously grumpy Lewis chessmen, found on the west coast of the Hebrides island in 1831, are feet away from Raedwald’s helmet ….. but 600 miles away from Uig, where they were found.”  I’m forgiving him however because of this show of solidarity.

Finally, on 9 June 2020 Catherine Hickley wrote a beezer of an article on The Art Newspaper site: ‘Time to give back the swag, guys!  British Museum unleashes Twitter storm with statement on Black Lives Matter. On 5 June, the director Hartwig Fischer put out a statement claiming the British Museum “stands in solidarity with the British Black Community, with the African American Community, with the Black community throughout the world.”  The museum was also “aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere”.

Now, I don’t take to do with Twitter (though it’s very much the preserve of The Loon) but I was delighted to read in Ms Hickley’s article that this museum statement brought forth a torrent of negative replies, for example describing it as “empty and hypocritical”.  Oh yes!  Other responses referenced looted Ethiopian treasures, stolen Elgin Marbles and the need for the permanent return of the Benin Bronzes – 3,000 objects taken from the royal palace in then-Benin by British troops in the 19th century.  It was pointed out that  large parts of the museum collection are “the direct result of looting African and South Asian treasures”.  As Ms Hickley points out, the museum statement made no mention of repatriation or restitution but it did make reference to Bonnie Greer’s Era of Reclamation debates.  In conclusion, the writer quotes a Twitter user who points out that the British Museum statement is not “working out how they thought it would”, adding “Time to give back the swag, guys!”

I could not agree more and I’ll even overlook – on this one occasion only mind – the use of the word “guys”.









4 thoughts on “Bringing them all back home Part 2

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