Best viewed in
The Birdman of Sterling
The 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 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
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