The alchemist who thought he could fly

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IMAGINE a mysterious forbidden door inside Stirling Castle at the beginning of the 16th century. Only a privileged few are allowed entry. One of them is James IV, the other is the shadowy figure of John Damian – alchemist to the Scottish king.

Science in medieval times was a mixture of the known and the imagined that strikes us today as faintly preposterous. Alongside the ordered wisdom of the apothecaries were the altogether shadier figures of the alchemists, who hunted for the most sought-after object of the day - the Philosopher's Stone. This mythical, magical article was said to possess the ability to change base metals into gold and could also, if mixed judiciously with wine, produce the Elixir of Life – a comprehensive cure-all for most illnesses.James IV, an intelligent monarch with an interest in medicine and a working knowledge of surgery, was acutely excited by the potential of alchemy and the possibilities of alchemical research. To this end he brought a foreign alchemist to his court whom he hoped would provide him with the most extraordinary treasure of the time.

Writing in his 1947 book Humour and Humanism in Chemistry, John Read describes how this "ingenious and personable foreigner who had been attracted to the Scottish Courts from either Italy or France," set up a laboratory sometime around 1500 – the first to be made mention of in the history of Scotland.

This laboratory, and the experiments that went on in secret within it, brought Damian the friendship of the king, but also made him enemies. The court poet William Dunbar referred to him as "the French leich (leech)", on account of the vast sums of money sunk into the project.

Treasury accounts from the time give an insight into the workings of the secret laboratory hidden away in Stirling Castle and the growing cost of the venture. Meticulous notes show payments for a damask gown, a tapestry bed along with flasks, cauldrons, glass and ingredients.

From these lists we can see that Damian, under the watchful eye of the king, was spending copiously in his desire to find the "quinta essencia" or quintessence – in other words, the Elixir of Life.

The main ingredients for the Philosopher's Stone were known to be gold, silver and quicksilver – but Damian required other ingredients too, expensive imports. He also travelled the Continent visiting other alchemical centres in a bid to extend his knowledge.

James IV held Damian in such high esteem that he appears to have treated him with extraordinary leniency. He appointed him to the position of Abbot of Tongland and amongst the other items listed as being bought for the alchemist there includes plenty of "aqua vite" – or whisky. We know that for alchemists whisky represented a sort of Holy Grail – the mixture of two elements, fire and water. Whether Damian used the whisky purely for research is open to speculation. He certainly ordered plenty.By 1507 Damian had found a new project when he became obsessed with the notion of mechanical flight. True to the spirit of a quester of the time, he concluded that the only way to test out the theory was by experimentation. So, on 27 September 1507, the alchemist prepared to fly. Damian based his design around bird flight and fashioned a pair of wings. Then, taking a great leap of faith, he threw himself from the top of Stirling Castle.

Bishop Leslie, writing of the experiment in a contemporary manuscript, began his account by criticising the money spent by the king in encouraging his alchemist before noting that:

"This Abbot tuik in hand to flie with wingis…and to that effect he causet mak ane pair of wingis of fedderis (feathers)." Leslie describes the flight, relishing in his description of how Damian jumped, but quickly fell breaking his thigh bone.

Damian's response to the failure was optimistic, blaming the inclusion of hen feathers in his wings instead of the exclusively eagle plumage that he had ordered. It was his opinion that the hen feathers were attracted to the ground and not to the sky like those of the eagle.

Later observers offer a charitable account of Damian's failed flight. In his book Read writes that "the man of metal was also a man of mettle, endowed with the courage of his own convictions." Read goes on to applaud what he calls "the first serious flying experiment ever made in Scotland, if not, indeed, in the whole history of experimental flight."

Perhaps it was this courage that impressed the king, for this failed experiment did little to dampen James' enthusiasm for his alchemist. Treasury records note that expenses continued to flood into the laboratory and that in 1508 Damian was given money and a five-year leave of absence to travel throughout the Continent once more.

He returned to Scotland in 1512 and would no doubt have continued his search for his quintessence but for the tragic death of King James on the field of Flodden. The king's demise cast science into the shadows where it would remain for another two centuries.

An interesting addendum to the life of John Damian is the question of where the inspiration for flight came from. We know that Damian was travelling Europe in 1502 and may well have returned to his probable homeland of Italy. A couple of years prior to his visit a famous Italian had written a book Codex on the Flight of Birds. In 1502 this same man painted his Bird's Eye View of a Landscape. Which makes you wonder whether Damian was working to his own specification when he made his attempt at flight, or if he was influenced by his Italian compatriot - none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself.

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