Sir Walter Scott and Chess

Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on August 15, 1771, descended from one of the most ancient families of Scotland.  He was a Scottish lawyer, sheriff, journalist, novelist, playwright, and poet.  His works contains many references to chess.  He wrote a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte which contained several chess references.  As a novelist, he probably mentioned chess more than any other novel writer.

Scott was the first English-language author to have an international career in his lifetime.

His most famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Waverly, The Heart of Midlothian, and The Bride of Lammermoor.

In 1788, Walter Scott was ill and confined to bed as a result of an earlier polio infection.  Chess was recommended to him during his confinement.  He played many games with his friend, John Irving, who later became a writer to the Signet in Edinburgh. 

Walter Scott’s cousin, Hugh Scott,  married Henrietta, the daughter of Count Hans von Bruehl (1736-1809), the famous chess player who played Philidor.

Walter Scott often played chess with one of his companions in his office when he was an apprentice law clerk for his father, and had to conceal the board when he heard his father’s footsteps.

When Scott traveled, he cut branches from a tree with the intent in carving chess pieces out of them, each having reference to the place where it was cut.  He made the chess kings from a visit to Falkland and Holyrood.  He made the chess queens from Queen Mary’s yew-tree at Crookston.  He made the chess bishops from trees found from abbeys or Episcopal palaces.  He made the chess knight pieces from baronial residences.  He made the rook pieces from trees found near royal fortresses.  He made the chess pawns from places of historical note throughout Scotland and Britain.

Later, Walter Scott preferred backgammon to chess because it was more relaxing.  He wrote that in chess, a man got angry and ashamed when he was beaten, but in backgammon, a man could blame it on  the roll of the dice.

In 1812, he wrote Minstrelsey of the Scottish Border, describing a minstrel who knew the game of chess.  Chess was also mentioned in an old ballad, but Scott thinks that the word should have been jess, the name of a hawk’s bell.

His first novel was Waverly (1814).  There were frequent references to chess in his Waverly novels.  His second novel in the Waverly series was Guy Mannering (1815) with several chess references.   The father, Mr. Hazelwood, and Lucy Bertram play a game of chess.  The daughter asks his father if chess is a very interesting game.  He replies “I am told so,” and Julia Mannering replies “I should think so, from the attention Mr. Hazelwood and Lucy are bestowing on it.”  In a later edition, Frederick Gilbert illustrated portions of the novel.  One illustration is entitled “Hazelwood and Lucy at Chess,” illustrated by Gilbert and engraved by Anton Kirchner.

In 1816, he wrote The Antiquary.  In this novel, a chess player says, “Francie was, therefore, foiled in his assaults upon the fidelity of the mendicant, and, like an indifferent chess-player, became, at every unsuccessful movement, more liable to the counter-checks of his opponent.”   He tells the tale of Snuffy Davie (Davy Wilson) buying Caxton’s The Game of Chess, 1474, the first book printed in England for two pence and selling it for 20 pounds.   The next buyer sold his copy for 60 guineas, then the next sold it for 170 pounds, etc.

In 1816, he also wrote The Black Dwarf.  Scott describes a quarrel being carried down between two families from father to son, like a Spanish game at chess.  He was describing the Ruy Lopez opening.

In 1819, he wrote The Bride of Lammermoor.  In one passage, Bucklaw addresses the Master of Ravenswood: “Oh, confusion to your state tricks!  Your cold calculating maneuvers, which old gentlemen in wrought nightcaps and furred gowns execute like so many games at chess, and displace a treasurer or lord commissioner as they would take a rook or pawn.  Tennis for my sport, and battle for my ernest!”

Also in 1819, he wrote A Legend of Montrose.  He describes the Highland gentlemen and chiefs of small branches amusing themselves with chess.

In 1821, he wrote Kenilworth.  Scott described Queen Elizabeth I presenting Sir Walter Raleigh with a jewel of gold in the form of a chess piece (most likely a knight) to wear around his collar.  It was a token of her appreciation after Walter Raleigh threw his cloak upon the ground for the queen to walk on and not get muddy.  In his notes, he described some of the furniture at Kenilworth castle, including two chess board of ebony.  However, the real story is that Queen Elizabeth rewarded the chess piece to Sir Charles Blount (1563-1606), and not to Sir Walter Raleigh.  The story came from Anthony Bacon, the elder brother of Francis Bacon.

In 1823 Scott wrote in his biography of Samuel Richardson “If every assault were skillfully parried, and every man played with ability, life would become like a trial of skill with foils, or like a game at chess.”

In 1824, he wrote an elaborate dissertation to the poem Sir Tristrem (Tristram), published in Warton’s History of English Poetry.  He included over a dozen references to chess on his preface to the poem.  He describes the history of chess and references chess in ancient romance works.   He notes that Tristrem has learned that the captain of a Norwegian vessel had challenged anyone to play a game of chess with him, for a stake.  Tristem plays the captain and wins six hawks and one hundred pounds.  The Queen of Ireland visits Tristem and his skill in chess astonished the Queen and the bystanders.  He then teaches the princess how to play chess.  Later, the Queen is playing chess with her husband.

In 1826 he wrote Woodstock.  The Cavalier, Roger Wildrake devotes himself to Sir Henry Lee by playing chess with him in his old age. 

In 1828, he wrote The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Scott mentions that Napoleon “wanted to see more clearly upon his chess-board.”

In 1829, he wrote Anne of Geirstein.  In his notes, he wrote that the word exchequer was “derived from the French word echiquier, a chess-board; and its use in this connection came from an ancient custom of making the top of the chess-table resemble a chess-board, that the squares might assist the reckoner.”

In 1830, Scott wrote Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, addressed to J.G. Lockhart.  He mentions a domestic spirit that points out the fittest move to be made in chess.

His home in Abbotsford had a corner shaped like a rook (castle).  He had a library of over 9,000 volumes, including several chess books.  If he had a chess friend over his house, he would play chess.  He wrote, “I was plunged into the great ocean of reading without compass or pilot; and unless when someone had the charity to play at chess with me, I was allowed to do nothing, save read from morning to night.” (Preface to the Waverly Novels, Abbotsford Edition by Sir Walter Scott)

When the Lewis chessmen were found and some of the pieces were sent to the British Museum in October 1831, Sir Walter Scott thought about buying the set for 100 pounds.  He went to the museum to inspect the chessmen with its curator, Sir Frederick Madden (1801-1873) and noted they were all damaged by the salt water.  Eleven of the pieces were purchased by Sir Walt Scott’s friend, the writer Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (1781-1851), who later sold them to Lord Londesborough (1805-1860) in 1851.  The pieces are now in the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.

In 1832, Sir Walter Scott asked David Brewster, a Scottish physicist, to investigate The Automaton chess player.  Brewster included a chapter on Kempelen’s Automaton chess player in his 1832 book, Letters on Natural Magic.

In volume I of his memoirs, published in 1837, he wrote “It was a shame to throw away upon mastering a mere game, however ingenious, the time which would suffice for the acquisition of a new language.  Surely chess-playing is a sad waste of brains.”  Scott observed that a person could learn another language with less strain to the mind than learning chess.

Scott mentions chess in his memoirs on three different occasions.  He mentioned that he played chess while on sea journeys.  As he got older, his eyesight became worse, making it more difficult for him to play chess.

Sir Walter Scott died in Melrose, Scotland on September 21, 1832 at the age of 61.

In 1842, an article entitled, “The Prince Regent (future King George IV) and Sir Walter Scott” appeared in the Chess Player’s Chronicle.  It was an anecdote the Sir Walter Scott told about the Prince Regent playing chess with Lord Justice Clerk Braxfield, a friend of Scott’s.

Sir Walter Scott’s wooden chess set and board is on display at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh ( see ).



  • 4 years ago


    I like it. Vert interesting.

  • 4 years ago


    Scott slightly missed Burns by a generation but did meet him. Burns in Tam Lin:

    Four and twenty ladies fair
    Were playing at the chess,
    And out then came fair Janet,
    As green as onie glass.
  • 4 years ago


    Ivanhoe was best.

  • 4 years ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    For some reason this article reminds me that I once found various chess positions recorded in Robert and Clara Schumann's joint diary.  They appeared to be composed puzzles/studies, authorship uncertain.  Has anyone else ever seen/mentioned these before?

    If not, I may try to check it out again and post the positions - I can't remember them exactly at the moment.

  • 4 years ago


    Vert interesting. Thanks!
    I wonder if Mary Shelly played the Frankenstein-Dracula var. of the Vienna game?

  • 4 years ago


    Lordy Byron probably did not play chess.  He once remarked, "Life is too short for chess."  Mary Shelley mentioned that she played chess with her friends several times in her diary.

  • 4 years ago


    Nice article.  I love the historical side of chess.  I never knew about this side of Sir Walter.  Any chess to dish on Lord Byron or Mary Shelley?

    I also liked your post about TV & chess.  You do good work Mr. Wall.

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