Hnefatafl in Scotland

The monastery in the eastern part of Scotland where the first examples of Scottish Gaelic were written down in the so-called Book of Deer disappeared about 1,000 years ago.

The Book of Deer is an illuminated gospel from the early tenth century and the oldest Scottish and Gaelic language manuscript in existence.

A recent archeological discovery in Aberdeenshire not only shows finds of the lost pictish monastery, but also of pieces of the Hnefatafl game. It points to Norse presence in this part of Scotland in the tenth century.

It might even be the reason of the sudden disappearance of the monastery. That the western coast of Scotland was already a part of the Scandinavian world is proven by many archeological finds. The Lewis Chessmen (twelfth century), found in Lewis, are indisputable of Scandinavian origin.

There were strong links between the western isles of Scotland and the Norwegian towns, particularly Bergen and Trondheim. The link between chess and hnefatafl is also obvious. Hnefatafl was very popular in the Scandinavian world long before chess was introduced there (sometime in the 11th century, most likely due to Scandinavian contacts with the Arabic, Byzantine and Orient world).

Hnefatafl is a strategic game about a besieged king and his men trying to break out. The Norsemen brought the game along on their travels. Gaming pieces have shown up across Europe.

The discovery in Aberdeenshire is intriguing. So far, there was no direct evidence of Scandinavian presence in North East Scotland during the Viking Age. Recent excavations at a Pictish fort may  show a Viking raid and subsequent demolition of the monastery.

The pieces of the Hnefatafl game show striking similarities with the Lewis chess pieces of one century later.