NOT MANY Scots appear in Dante's Inferno – that extraordinary 13th-century poem by Dante Alighieri depicting hell, purgatory and heaven. But there is one, deep down in the eighth circle of hell, undergoing gruesome torture and condemned to eternal torment amongst the other sorcerers. This Scot is none other than Michael Scott, scholar, tutor to the Pope and wizard.
Scott was born in 1175, some say in Fife, others believe in the Borders. Both places lay claim to him and "mythologise" him in fantastical ways. Border folk remember him as the man who split the Eildon Hills near Melrose, a story that is recounted in the work of Sir Walter Scott. In Balwearie, Fife, he is gifted with the ability to spin rope from sand. This man of mystery has come down to us as one of the most illustrious magicians of our past. Dr Gavin Bowd, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, has written about Scott and finds both the stories and the known facts fascinating, not only because of his reputation but because of his manifest talent.
"What people forget is that he was a real man," says Bowd. "He was a very important philosopher and theologian - the most significant intellectual in Europe in the Middle Ages."
Scott studied mathematics, philosophy and theology at Oxford University and then Paris. He travelled throughout Europe, building his knowledge and gaining status as a brilliant translator. His reputation was made in the Spanish city of Toledo, a Moorish stronghold, where he translated many Arabic books into Latin.
In Scott's time the memory of the Crusades was still relatively fresh in people's minds. The East was feared and it is probable that Scott's darker reputation developed from his passion for the East and Arab literature. From his time in Toledo he dressed in Arab clothes and it is little wonder that in this xenophobic time, the person who carried and understood Eastern knowledge was feared.
Alongside his interest in mathematics, Scott was obsessed with the occult. His true loves were alchemy, astrology and sorcery. He had a reputation for prophesy and was headhunted by Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, to be his astrologer.
Frederick's court in Palermo, Sicily, was a glittering, exciting, dangerous place to be. Frederick was a searcher of knowledge and gathered round him all the great thinkers of the day.
"Sicily was at a crossroads, near to North Africa and Arab and Jewish influences," says Bowd. "It was a cosmopolitan think-tank. Frederick was an intellectual powerhouse of the time during which a medieval renaissance flourished."
Scott's position in the court was sealed when he accurately predicted the outcome of a war with the Lombard League, a northern Italian alliance, based on his astronomical observations. He was also reputed to be well-versed in medicine and cured the emperor of a number of ailments.
His reputation grew so great that his influence stretched even beyond his death. He was Dante's favourite astrologer. Yet despite the high regard in which he held him, Dante was also in favour of the Pope. He punished Scott for associating with the twice-excommunicated Frederick by damning Scott to hell in his famous book The Divine Comedy.Scott was said to have foreseen his own death, from a small pebble falling on his head. To protect himself he wore an iron cap at all times. According to Border legends, Scott was taking mass in Melrose, having returned home from foreign courts. He took off his hat and, as he had predicted, a small pebble fell on his head. He became ill and died in 1235.
His legend lived on becoming more and more colourful over the years. He is credited with using his magic staff to change the course of the River Tweed. He appears in James Hogg's book The Three Perils of Man and again in Walter Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel.
In Balwearie stories of his witchcraft abound. He was believed to have ridden to France in one night on his famous black steed and later to have used witchcraft to fight pirates.
Walter Scott wrote that the wizard's heart was buried under a cross near Melrose Abbey. This can only be speculative, as no-one knows for certain even whether he died in Scotland or in Italy.
One thing is certain: This man who enjoyed such a powerful reputation as a wizard, was, if nothing else, perhaps one of the most intellectually glittering men to have come from Scotland.
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