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19 September 2014
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The Bird Man of Stirling
Stirling WallsThe court of King James IV was home to some extraordinary individuals, but none so fascinating as John Damian de Falcuis, an Italian alchemist who charmed the King with promises of creating gold from base metals.

Damian, known to many in the court as the 'French leech', was not only given the post of Abbot of Tongland, Galloway, he also had his harebrained experiments, along with copious amounts of 'aqua vitae,' financed by the King.

Having failed to enrich the King with home-made gold Damian's next trick, in September of 1507, was to fly like a bird from the walls of Stirling Castle and soar southward through the skies towards France. It seems by all accounts (particularly the account of Damian's biggest critic, the court poet William Dunbar) that the alchemist didn't quite make it to France, but did get as far as a dunghill below the castle walls. Damian, with a freshly broken leg, explained his failure to the King by blaming the the hen feathers in his winged contraption. According to Damian, the feathers had apparently been so strongly attracted to the dunghill below that it had made him crash.

Despite repeated failure in his experiments James catered well to the needs of his alchemist, giving him a pension of 200 ducats when he retired from the Abbey at Tongland in 1509. He worked on at the court until 1513.

Perhaps he amused the King, or perhaps James had faith that one day he would strike gold. It was an age when the court opened itself out to the mysteries of the world, when the imagination was let loose on a newly enlarged universe. One has to remember that a certain friend of Damian's, Leonardo da Vinci, was also the inventor of an ill-fated flying machine. Ironically, his work is celebrated around the world to this day.

A Bizarre Island Experiment

Inchkieth IslandInchkeith Island, in the midst of the Firth of Forth, was the setting for one of the most bizarre scientific experiments in Scottish history. In 1493, according to the historian Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie, King James IV - a enthusiastic promoter of the latest intellectual Renaissance ideas - directed an experiment to discover what the primitive or original language of mankind was.

James had a deaf and dumb woman transported to the solitary island of Inchkeith with two infant children. She was to nurse the infants until they came to the age of speech. It was hoped that when the children learnt to speak, free from normal human communication, they would reveal the original tongue - the language of the gods.

The whole story may well be a tall tale. It wouldn't be the first, a similar one is told about the court of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th Century. However, both courts were centres of intellectual activity.

Lyndsay of Pitscottie reported,
"Some say they spoke good Hebrew; for my part I know not, but from report."

The novelist Sir Walter Scott, recounting Lyndsay’s tale, added: ‘It is more likely they would scream like their dumb nurse, or bleat like the goats and sheep on the island.’

In 1497 the island's relative isolation was used once again when sufferers of a disease known as ‘grandgore’, which had broken out in Edinburgh, were shipped there to be kept in isolation

Famous Last Words of a Poet?
Robert Henryson was one of the greatest of the Scottish Makars ( or poets) in the 15th century. His last words are recounted in a merry tale from the 17th Century.

Henryson, dying of diarrhoea or fluxe as it was then called, had been consigned to death by all the physicians he could muster. As he lay drawing his last breath an old woman, whom many held to be a witch, came to him and asked whether he would like to be cured. Henryson willingly agreed, whereupon the old crone said: ‘There is a whikey tree in the lower end of your orchard, if you go and walk but thrice about it, and thrice repeat these words "whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this fluxe from me", you shall presently be cured.’

He told her that he was extremely faint and weak and that, besides, there was extreme frost and snow outside, making it impossible for him to go. The old woman replied that unless he did so it would be impossible for him to recover. Henryson, then lifting himself up and pointing to an Oken (oak) table that was in the room, said : ‘Gude dame, I pray ye tell me, if it would not do as well if I repeated thrice these words: "oken burd oken burd garre me shit a hard turde"’. Seeing herself derided the woman ran out of the house in a great passion. Henryson’s wit could not save him. A few minutes later he departed life.

Here's a couple more dying quips from great poets.

The last words of American Poet, Allen Ginsberg

‘Either that wallpaper goes or I do’.
Last words of Oscar Wilde as died in a drab Paris bedroom.
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