John Damian, alchemist, attempted self powered flight from the ramparts of Stirling Castle on the 27th of September, 1507.
At the beginning of the 16th Century in Scotland, John Damian became the Alchemist in Chief to King James IV. Back in those medieval days, science was a mixture of the known and the unknown, with the latter being the subject of many a wild imagining. Difficult to imagine that nowadays, with all the wonderful advancements made by scientists across the world, but folks still believe in gods and fairies at the bottom of gardens. In any case, throughout Europe, as counterpoint to the apothecaries, who knew what they were doing, were the alchemists, who knew what they wanted to do. Amongst these shadier figures, you can number some famous personages, such as Nostradamus and even Leonardo da Vinci.
The alchemists were seeking a much sought after object – the Philosopher’s Stone. The subject would make a great movie, perhaps something on the lines of ‘Romancing the Stone’ or an episode from the ‘Indiana Jones’ series. The ‘Stone’ was a magical, mythical artefact, said to possess the ability to change base metals into gold. It could also, if mixed judiciously with wine, produce the ‘quinta essencia’ – the ‘quintessence’ or the ‘fifth essence’ or, in other words, the ‘Elixir of Life’. Come to think of it, maybe H. Rider Haggard wrote the book. Anyway, the main ingredients for the Philosopher’s Stone were known to be gold, silver and quicksilver and the elusive ‘Elixir’ was said to provide a cure-all for most illnesses.
James IV shared in the superstitions of the age and his romantic nature led him to encourage the study of alchemy and the occult sciences. King James patronised various alchemists, one of which was John Damian, who was referred to as “the French leich (leech)” by the poet, William Dunbar, in his ‘Remonstrance’. Dunbar, who was reckoned to be the chief poet of Scotland before Burns and was himself patronised by James IV, denounced the luxury and vice of the clergy and other charlatans, albeit a trifle hypocritically, as his own life was no great example. Maybe Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount found some inspiration from Dunbar? In addition, there are Treasury accounts from the period that show numerous payments for the ‘quinta essencia’, including wages to the persons employed and sums paid for various kinds of utensils and materials.
Also in existence is a letter from James IV to a Master James Inglis, in which is stated, “We graciously accept your kindness, by which in a letter brought to us you signify that you have beside you certain books learned in the philosophy of the true Alchemy, and that although most worthy men have sought them from you, you have nevertheless with difficulty kept them for our use, because you had heard of our enthusiasm for the art. We bring you thanks …and we have sent our familiar, Master James Merchenistoun, to you, that he may see to the transfer hither of those books which you wish us to have.”
James IV, an otherwise intelligent monarch, was clearly interested, if not excited, by the potential of alchemy and that led to his appointing John Damian to his Court. Damian was a foreigner, who came from somewhere in mainland Europe. John Read, in ‘Humour and Humanism in Chemistry’ described Damian as an “ingenious and personable foreigner” who came from “either Italy or France”. Under the patronage of James IV and at no little cost, Damian set up a laboratory in Stirling Castle, sometime around the turn of the 16th Century. It was the first such laboratory in Scotland; the first for which there is documentary evidence, in any case, but as the activities of alchemists went on in secrecy, for the most part, there were likely several more before, during and after.
Damian and his like, who were known to many Courtiers, such as Dunbar, for example, were disliked. It’s probably stretching it a bit to say Damian had made enemies at Court, but in those days, petty jealousies often gained more substance than the bare facts suggest should’ve been the case. There were vast sums of money sunk into Damian’s and the King’s pet project. According to a 2006 article by Diane Maclean, ‘The Alchemist who thought he could fly’, meticulous treasury accounts show payments for a damask gown and a tapestry bed, along with flasks, cauldrons, glass and ingredients. Those ingredients included gold, silver and quicksilver as well as several other substances, expensively imported from elsewhere in Europe. Damian also had a fondness for ‘uisge beatha’ – in other words, Scotch whisky, which figured on his regular expenses.
You can deduce from all of that, Damian had a fairly decent lifestyle in addition to the outgoings occurred purely by virtue of his eccentric pastime. Maclean pointedly suggests he was clearly “spending copiously in his desire to find the ‘Elixir of Life’.” James IV held Damian in such high esteem that he appointed him to the position of Abbot of Tongland and that between 1502 and 1508, he was given periodic leave of absence to travel the Continent, visiting other centres of alchemy, in a bid to extend his knowledge. It may have been during one of those trips that Damian got the idea of man powered flight. It has been suggested that he was influenced by his fellow Italian (unless Damian was French), the man himself, Leonardo da Vinci.
Whatever the source of his idea, on the night of 27th of September, 1507, appropriately under a full moon, John Damian was ready to have a go at flying. He must’ve been fairly well obsessed with the notion of mechanical flight and sufficiently convinced to risk his life in experiment, but such was the nature of ‘questers’. Damian had fashioned a pair of wings, just like Icarus, and similarly taking a leap of faith, he threw himself from the battlements of Stirling Castle. The gods of alchemy must’ve been on Damian’s side as he miraculously survived – have you seen where Stirling Castle is situated? Damian suffered a broken thigh bone, bad enough, but not fatal. In a description of the incident, Bishop Leslie wrote, “This Abbot tuik in hand to flie with wingis …and to that effect he causet mak ane pair of wingis of fedderis,” and finished off with a gleefully unkind comment about his broken leg.
Damian blamed the inclusion of hen feathers in his ‘wings’ and bemoaned the lack of the eagle plumage that he had ordered. Guess what, Damian was of the opinion that the hen feathers were attracted to the ground and not to the sky like those of the eagle. Separated by several centuries, John Read was more complimentary than the Bishop, applauding Damian for having attempted “the first serious flying experiment ever made in Scotland, if not, indeed, in the whole history of experimental flight.” Obviously, Read had never read of Icarus.
In 1508, Damian was financed for a five-year leave of absence on the Continent, but by the time he got back to Scotland, his patron was dead; killed at. the Battle of Branxton Moor. James’ death on Flodden Field put paid to Damian’s quasi-scientific experiments, for the good of the Treasury, if not for anything else.