The Chessmen Thief

The Chessmen Thief

By Author / Illustrator

Barbara Henderson


Historical Fiction

Age range(s)



Cranachan Publishing Limited




Paperback / softback




From the moment 12-year-old Kylan hatches a plan to escape from his Norse captors, and return to Scotland to find his mother, his life becomes a dangerous game.  The precious Lewis Chessmen-which he helped carve-hold the key to his freedom, but he will need all his courage and wit to triumph against Sven Asleifsson, the cruellest Viking in the realm.  One false move could cost him his life.

Barbara Henderson has woven a thrilling origin story around the enduring mystery of the Lewis Chessmen, their creation in Norway, and how they ended up buried in the Hebrides before being discovered on Lewis in 1831.



The Chessmen Thief is the latest exciting novel by Inverness-based author Barbara Henderson. Set across the Western Isles, Orkney and Norway, the story follows 12 year old Kylan, a slave for a Norseman of Trondheim who was taken as a young boy from his island home on the Isle of Harris . Longing to return home to the island and his mother, Kylan hatches a daring plan to get him back there when his owner receives a commission to carve ornate chess pieces which will be taken to the Western Isles. The plan has to work and Kylan knows one wrong move could cost him his life. So begins an epic adventure where Kylan will need all his faith, courage and cunning to survive.

What an engaging and entertaining story this is - I enjoyed every bit of it! The story pulled me in straight away and I was rooting for Kylan to succeed throughout the book with all its twists and turns, history and adventure. There is a lot to like and enjoy with this story whether following Kylan and his plans, to the adventures at sea (the battle with the whirlpool left me exhausted!) and the brilliant cast of characters in the book like Sven Asleifsson - a cruel and feared Viking and Jarl Magnus who is a troubled man! While the story intrigues like some of the moves in a game of chess, it's certainly not as complex and the author gives the right about of detail, description and cliff hangers to keep the reader engaged while the story moves along like a longship cutting through the sea on a Viking raiding mission! And that makes The Chessmen Thief such an enjoyable read.

The use of the drawings of some of the Lewis Chessman pieces at the start of chapters relevant to the chapter really appealed to me, giving the reader a visual on what Gunnar and his fellow carvers were creating. The use of other historical people (who knew Margret hin haga was a famous Icelandic carver from the 1100's?) and places relating to this part of the Norse empire has sparked my interest to find out more about them and this era of Scotland's history.

This use of historical people and places makes this a great book to use as the basis of a project (upper primary to S1 classes) looking into the part of Scotland's history. The glossary at the back is a handy inclusion too, helping to explain Norse and other words used in the book, and if you don't know these parts of Scotland grab and atlas to help you follow the adventure!

We may never know how the Lewis Chessmen came to be buried on the Isle of Lewis, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy speculating about this, and Barbara Henderson has certainly given us an excellent novel that that gives a voice and story to these most enigmatic of Scottish archaeological treasures.

200 pages / Reviewed by Stephen Leitch, school librarian

Suggested Reading Age 9+


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