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Updated 06/20/2013


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 until 1513.

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 this day.