Bird Man of Stirling
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
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
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 Lyndsays 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
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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