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One rule for us, another for everyone else

I WAS SPEAKING RECENTLY to a distinguished ex-pat Scot, a former senior diplomat and foreign affairs expert who has worked at the highest levels of government. "What is it about Alex Salmond that his administration seems to have achieved such a revered status amongst you Scots?" he pondered.

 

And it does seem to be true. The SNP seem still to be in their honeymoon period where they can get tacit support for almost any position no matter how daft. A favourite trick of the SNP is to tweak the tail of the English, and as a nation we still tend to look the other way in slightly embarrassed amusement when this is attempted.

 

So when the SNP administration declared that they want the repatriation of the Lewis chess pieces back to Scotland, and dispatched Linda Fabiani to lobby the British Museum in London, most of the reception among Scottish opinion was supportive.

 

These remarkable chess pieces - which were made in Norway around 1200 - were discovered in 1831 on a beach on the Isle of Lewis, and were sold to a dealer in Edinburgh. The British Museum bought 82 of them, quite legally, and they have been a very popular exhibit there since, seen by millions of visitors. The other 11 pieces are owned by the National Museum of Scotland where they have pride of place in Edinburgh.

 

It is not as if the British Museum is jealously holding on to these pieces. In the last 10 years these 'wee men' have packed their 'wee suitcases' quite regularly: they have gone to New York and Washington; to Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle; to 10 cities in the Far East; and, yes, to Edinburgh and even up to Stornoway.

 

So what is the justification for the repatriation of these Norwegian artifacts, shipwrecked or hidden on the Isle of Lewis at a time when Lewis wasn't even part of Scotland? I guess the only justification is that they were 'found' there.

 

This kind of attitude might have been good knockabout stuff when the SNP were in opposition, but they have to remember that now they are in government they have become the legal custodians of the great collections in our Scottish Museums, many of which have been acquired from around the world.

 

For if we were to follow this logic through, the Museum of Scotland would have to repatriate the Boulton and Watt Steam Engine back to Birmingham where it was made, or to London, where it was used. The Napoleon silver tea service would go back to Paris, to be reunited with the rest of the collection which is in the Louvre.

 

The Kelvingrove in Glasgow would have to send its fantastic Egyptian objects all the way back to Cairo - including many pieces which are on long-term loan from the British Museum.

 

And the amazing Burrell Collection in Glasgow would be completely emptied - almost nothing bought by Sir William Burrell was actually Scottish.

 

Hey, while they are about it, maybe the SNP should also put in a claim for the British Museum's Elgin Marbles, which the Greeks have long claimed were 'stolen' from Athens.

But the man who was responsible for brutally hacking these off the Parthenon was the 7th Earl of Elgin who was born in Fife. Maybe we should ask for them too.

 

The Lewis chess pieces are famously gloomy, and, of course, they are mute, but I would like to think that they would take a very dim view of being used as the pawns in this misguided political game.

 

Ian Ritchie is a Trustee of the National Museums Scotland. These views are his own.

 

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