Scotland boasts some of the world’s most romantic castles. Maybe you’ve had the privilege of visiting one: Edinburgh, Dunvegan, Urquhart, Holyrood, Eilean Donan, Glamis. The names alone conjure the passion and power of clans and kings.
Of all Scotland’s castles, however, Stirling Castle wins the prize for the most eccentric resident. Sometime around the year 1500, John Damian, a penniless adventurer of either Italian or French origin, arrived at Stirling Castle, claiming to be an alchemist, on the verge of discovering the secret of turning base metals into gold.
Fortunately for Damian, King James IV–arguably the most successful of the Stewart monarchs–was keenly interested in the new scientific discoveries of the Renaissance. He was even more interested in possessing an inexhaustible source of gold to fund his frequent military campaigns. And wealth wasn’t the only blessing John Damian promised. Not only would he produce the most sought-after object of his day, the Philosopher’s Stone–that mythical and magical substance needed to transform lead into gold–but he also offered the king an even more precious prize. The Philosopher’s Stone, when mixed with wine, was said to produce the Elixir of Life, curing all illnesses and granting the drinker eternal life and youth. Not bad, right?
With these tantalizing possibilities in mind, King James IV provided John Damian with a hidden laboratory in the castle, along with such luxuries as damask fabric for clothing, a fine bed, tapestries, plenty of “aqua vitae” (whiskey), and all the equipment–flasks, cauldrons, glass, and chemicals–he needed to conduct his experiments.
When years passed and no gold was forthcoming, court gossips began whispering about fraud. Damian, sensing that a spectacular demonstration of his powers was called for, announced he had discovered the secret of mechanical flight. On September 27, 1507, he strapped on a pair of bird-like wings and leapt off the highest tower of Stirling Castle. He dropped like a stone. Lucky for him, he landed (so the story goes) on a dung heap, breaking only a thigh bone. Damian blamed the failure on the castle poulterers who had mixed hen feathers in with the eagle feathers he had called for–and we all know hens can’t fly.
James must have bought the story for he continued to fund Damian’s “research,” right up until his own death in 1513 at the Battle of Flodden. And John Damian disappeared.
Do you have a favorite castle? A favorite legend? I’d love to hear about it!