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Highland author Barbara Henderson says writing The Chessmen Thief helped her cope with lockdown chaos

By John Davidson

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Barbara Henderson with her new book, The Chessmen Thief.
Barbara Henderson with her new book, The Chessmen Thief.

Finishing her latest novel for young readers during lockdown was a way of keeping control for Highland author Barbara Henderson.

The Chessmen Thief, aimed at eight to 12-year-olds, tells the story of Kylan (12), who hatches a plan to escape from his Norse captors, and return to Scotland to find his mother.

The precious Lewis Chessmen pieces – which he helped carve – hold the key to his freedom, but he needs all his courage and wit to triumph against Sven Asleifsson, the cruellest Viking in the realm.

Barbara explained that she first saw the famous Lewis Chessmen, a collection of 12th century ivory carved chess pieces, at the British Museum in London when she lived in the city for a short time.

"I remember seeing them there and just being intrigued by them," she said, "but I think it really was when I saw them on the Isle of Lewis – they have a handful of figures there in the museum and you were able to get so close to them, it was a much more intimate kind of experience to see these objects from all angles because you could walk right round them in a big glass display, and I was completely mesmerised by that.

"The Vikings had always been of interest – who doesn't love a good adventure story with some Vikings? – so the idea of these brutal people celebrating violence and raiding and looting everywhere they went, and then having a very sophisticated chess set, where they play each other by the rules. It just seemed such a juxtaposition and I was intrigued by that."

Intrigue is a word Barbara, who originally hails from Germany but has lived in Scotland so long – around 30 years – that she says she had forgotten she was foreign until Brexit came along, uses regularly. It explains where her desire to write historical fiction comes from.

She said: "You've got the bare bones of something but you've no idea how it happened, and I think the 'how' is what I find the most interesting; filling in how these figures could have got from their likely origin place in Trondheim to this remote beach on the Uig peninsula in Lewis.

"I did lots of research to find out what scholars thought and then tried to fill in the gaps with a bit of imagination and adventure."

Her research for the book began in 2019 when she travelled to Lewis, followed by a pre-lockdown visit to Orkney in February last year.

"None of us had any idea what was going to come after that, that everything was going to lock down," Barbara said.

"For me, the writing was a coping mechanism to be absolutely honest with you. So much was changing and I had no power over it, so keeping my writing routine going was a way of holding onto a little bit of my past life."

  • The Chessmen Thief, published by Cranachan, is launched on April 29. The event will be livestreamed from Lewis at e-sgoil.com from 2pm.
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