Tour & Author Feature: The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson

The Chessmen Thief Barbara Henderson

I am so delighted to be hosting a stop on the blog tour for The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson and even more so to be hosting content from the writer herself! 

Barbara Henderson is a champion of both children’s historical fiction and Scottish history and heritage. Whilst my own close heritage is largely from England & Ireland (there’s more but its complex!) I am especially drawn to and adore the stories, the history and folklore of Britain’s regional nations; perhaps hungry in envy or more so mournful of those of my closer heritage that have been erased and overwritten by pomp and jingoism. 

Barbara’s writing is exciting, evocative and entwines beautifully researched details into engaging fiction breathing life and wonder into what may originally be from ‘dry’ historical notes to a child and beautifully juxtaposes Kylan’s clinging to his Gaelic heritage and immersion in Norse culture as the book reflects on his life and the journey of his heart, skills and mind with more than a nod to the frameworks of a Norse saga tale, but always with the central truth that his freedom and return to Lewis is worth much more..

I am clearly enthralled by her tale of a Gaelic Thrall’s saga to return to his land of birth. 

Enthrall: (archaic) 

in thrall the state of being in someone’s power, or of having great power over someone.

Thrall: (archaic) 

From the Old Norse Thræll A slave or captive. 

The Chessmen Thief Barbara Henderson

Kylan was taken as a child from the Isle of Lewis to be a thrall to master craftsmen in the Viking settlement of Trondheim and whilst he has adapted to Norse language and culture, even loving some aspects, he has never forgotten this is not his homeland, and that he wishes to be free. When an accident involving walrus tusks meets a chance covetable commission from the Archbishop for his impending visits to the Southern Islands, Kylan finds himself hurtling towards the possibility of returning to the land of his birth.

A Viking-Gaelic saga that can be devoured in a few hours this book is thrumming with history and lyrical action as Kylan battles his fears, the sea, and warriors and finds who he truly is once he sets his sight on home. 

‘That night, my heart began to carve the beginnings of a plan.’

What’s Left? Exploring the ruins which come to life in The Chessmen Thief

I stand in front of the interpretive sign, my hair whipping my face. Down by the bay the waves crash onto the pebbles. I incline my head a little and squint. Yes, I’m beginning to see it in my mind’s eye now.

The Chessmen Thief Barbara Henderson
Barbara outside the Orphir Round Church – Image thanks to Barbara Henderson

Imagination is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Walls rise from mere outlines, fences criss-cross mere contours of the earth. It was here: the Earl’s Bu, residence of Ragnvald Kali Kolsson in my book The Chessmen Thief. The ruined site is looked after by Historic Environment Scotland now, but the famous 12th Century Orkneyinga Saga describes a drinking hall right here where I am standing, and I can almost hear the clicking of drinking horns, the sloshing of the ale and the scraping of swords against scabbards. In my story, an ambush happens in this bay. After a visit to the tiny Round Church in the grounds, it is time to head down to the shore and imagine some more. Viking ships, feigning peaceful departure only to return in the dead of night, with murderous intent.

I am lucky to have been able to visit at all. Orkney was the last of my research trips and I visited in February 2020, blissfully unaware of the pandemic that was to come. Sailing the waters of the Pentland Firth on a ferry was surely more comfortable than on a longship, battling the currents and the infamous Swelkie whirlpool, also called The Sea Witch’s Wheel.

The Standing Stones of Callanish The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson
The Standing Stones of Callanish – Image thanks to Barbara Henderson

The previous summer, a different monument had captured my imagination. I visited Norse sites aplenty on the Isle of Lewis during our summer holiday there, but surely the Standing Stones of Callanish, already ancient to the Vikings, would have to feature in some way in my book. They were iconic! I decided to set the climax of the final chase among the imposing monoliths, tapping into that summer’s memories of the atmosphere, the air, the birdsong. I tried to imagine the stones at night, illuminated only by moonlight. Yes, that was the atmosphere I was after!

barbara exploring a norse mill on the Isle of Lewis The Chessmen Thief Barbara Henderson
Barbara exploring a Norse mill on the Isle of Lewis Image by Barbara Henderson

The seat of the real Lewis Lord Ljotolf is not known, although he is mentioned in Orkneyinga Saga and is likely to have existed. I had free reign of where to place him and opted for Bosta on Bernera where there is a reliable record of a Viking settlement (there is also an Iron Age house, reconstructed on the same spot, which you can visit). It had a beautiful beach, although little of its Viking past is visible to the naked eye.

However, one place I feature in The Chessmen Thief is almost entirely intact, although it has changed a bit since the 12th Century: Trondheim Cathedral in Norway, also called Nidaros Cathedral after Trondheim’s Norse name. It was built from 1070 onwards and is the most important Gothic monument in Norway. It also was Northern Europe’s most important pilgrimage site for Christians during the Middle Ages. The oldest parts still in existence date from the middle of the 12th century, exactly the time when the events of The Chessmen Thief take place.

barbara's picture of the lewis shore The Chessmen Thief Barbara Henderson
The shore of the Isle of Lewis – image thanks to Barbara Henderson

The author Neil Gunn once referred to ‘the memory of stones’. Looking around the ruins all around us, I have to agree – the past still seeps from these stones.  Glimpses of days gone by lurk wherever you care to look. There is an inbuilt desire in us all, an urge to speculate and see beyond the here and now, I am convinced of it. We are hardwired for story.

And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘There is such magic in a story well told, such strength’

Thank you so much Barbara for your insights and wonderful photos!! 

This book is ideal for those who enjoyed Dr Janina Ramirez’ Riddle of the Runes or Way of the Waves and for those looking to enrich their studies of Viking History. 

Please check out the other stops on the tour as they reveal more insights into this amazing and evocative book.

The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson

The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson is published by Cranachan Books

Thank you to Cranachan and Antonia for my copy!! 


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