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The Birdman of Stirling Castle

During the reign of King James IV of Scotland (a theme in my recent blog posts it seems!), around the early 16th Century, there was a court member by the name of John Damian de Falcuis – dubbed The Birdman of Stirling.

Image: Stirling Castle. viewed from Raploch Road, Stirling
Image Credit: DeFacto, Wikimedia Commons

An Italian alchemist, John Damian seemed to have been very popular with the King, including being given a substantial amount of financing to partake in several alchemy experiments. He made a large amount of medieval alchemical elements such as aqua vitae, in attempts to make the ‘5th element’ of quintessence (or aether).

Damian was also being made an Abbot of Tongland Abbey in Kircudbrightshire, Dumfries and Galloway.

However, something John Damian became somewhat renowned for was his supposed flying experiment at Stirling Castle around 1507.

It is alleged, due to not being successful in making either quintessance or home-made gold for the King through his alchemy work, Damian would show his other abilities by trying to fly from atop Stirling Castle, soaring his way to France using ‘alchemically enhanced’ wings of his own making, made from birds feathers.

Sadly, John Damian de Falcuis did not succeed in his flying attempt, but he did survive the fall, having only have broken a thigh bone. It was later said that he blamed the failure on using the wrong types of feathers…

The Scots poet William Dunbar (who I have also mentioned in my previous post), based one of his satirical poems on John Damian entitled Ane Ballat of the Fenyeit Frier of Tungland (A Ballad of The False Friar of Tongland).

Written as a dream vision, Dunbar’s poem ridicules the alchemist by giving the reader a somewhat harsh biography of his character followed by an account of his attempt at trying to fly. Possibly exaggerating the image of some birds attacking Damian after the attempt –

The bissart, bissy but rebuik,
Scho was so cleverus of hir cluik
His bawis he micht not langer bruik,
   Scho held thame at ane hint.

‘The buzzard, acting without rebuke, piercing with her claws balls; use in a grip’ – sounds a bit sore. Dunbar was clearly attempting to humiliate Damian in his poem.

A bishop and historian from the time, John Lesley (not to be confused with the somewhat disgraced Scottish TV prsenter), also described John Damian in a slightly more gracious account than that of Dunbar’s.

There is evidence that John Damian did exist and practiced alchemy within King James IVs court, with financial accounts noting that he received money from the King. But Dunbar and Lesley’s accounts are the main indication that this entire episode did indeed happen.

It is purported that Dunbar was not a fan of alchemy, so this possibly helped in the exaggeration of John Damian’s character! Although clear exaggeration in the poem, the Stirlingshire, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments, Volume 1, 1963 shows within its pages that in 1688 a contractor, a James McClellan, noted that his repairs within the castle included the addition of a door in the area “commonly called where the devill flew out“. Could this possibly related to John Damian de Falcuis and his flying attemp? Who knows.

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