HE WAS considered a brilliant man. His role in Scotland and the impact he had across the Continent were great. He was a mathematician, inventor, laird, as well as a devoted and deeply religious family man.
He was also a noted wizard.
In fact several members of John Napier’s family – respected and wealthy participants of Edinburgh society - were commonly known to be wizards or sorcerers. Their necromantic power was feared by nobles as well as peasants from far and wide.
Digging through the digital archive of The Scotsman, one comes across a story from 1910 that is steeped in mystery, magic and intrigue. It involves the Napier family of the 16th and 17th centuries, a time in Scotland’s history when superstitions and the occult were popularly accepted. The newspaper account of the Napiers' magical links makes for interesting reading, even if it was written more than 200 years after the fact.
The family wizardry started with Napier's father, Sir Archibald, seventh Laird of Merchiston, who successfully predicted when Mary, then the former Queen of Scotland, would leave Lochleven Castle, where she was imprisoned. The story goes: "Claude Nan, the Queen's secretary, wrote that 'the Laird of Markyston (Sir Archibald), who had the reputation of being a great wizard, made bets with several persons to the amount of five hundred crowns, that by the 5th of May Her Majesty would be out of Lochleven." Mary escaped on 2 May 1568 – and the senior Napier was presumably wealthier for his prediction.
Sir Archibald married Janet Bothwell, sister of Adam, Bishop of Orkney, who the paper said was "a notorious necromancer", so that their son, the future mathematician, inherited "a double inclination towards the magic arts". This might explain some of John's odd behaviour.
Tenants who lived on the vast Merchiston estate south-west of Edinburgh thought John to be a bit mysterious at times. As the paper reported, Napier would be seen many evenings wearing a long gown, pacing outside his tower chamber, a private work area where he often would pass many long hours alone.
John was recognised by his fellow lairds as being a man of extraordinary powers. Logan of Restalrig offered Napier a challenge to find a hidden treasure reputed to be on Logan's grounds in Berwickshire. The project apparently was never undertaken, but it reveals the respect Napier had earned with people of his generation.
Another Napier - John’s nephew, Richard - was known as the Warlock of Oxford. Richard, in his role as rector of Lynford, Buckinghamshire, is said to "cure" his sick parishioners through the powers of his magical, eye-catching rings. It is also reputed that several years earlier Richard successfully predicted the hour of his death in 1634.
Meanwhile, the mantle of wizardry was passed from John to son Robert, an author and mathematician like his father. No other family members carried the torch of wizardry, ending a mysterious period in the Napier family but no doubt leaving an indelible and mysterious mark on those associated with them at the time.