Strathard Heritage Digital Archive

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Stirling in flight-1. The flight of a special advisor John Damian.

It is hard to imagine that Stirling features in the history of flight. After all, the city has no airport. It might surprise therefore, that it can boast a proud place in the account of aviation development.  A series of articles will attempt to trace the history of flight within this area.

The first record of attempted flight in Stirling, begins at a surprisingly early date, in the year 1507 to be exact. It took place during the reign of James IV of Scotland, who was born in 1473, at Stirling Castle. Following the death of his father in battle, James was crowned at Scone before ascending the throne of Scotland in June 1488. He quickly proved to be both an effective ruler and a wise king. He took special pains to avoid costly wars by pursuing favourable diplomatic relations. For example, in 1502 a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England was sealed by his marriage to Margaret Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII. James appreciated the importance of strong maritime defences for his kingdom. He founded two new dockyards and acquired a total of 38 ships for the Royal Scots Navy. His flagship, the ‘Great Michael’, launched in 1511, was, at the time, the largest ship in the world.

James could thus spare time and resources for the promotion of cultural and intellectual activity. One figure within his court was a William Dunbar, the court poet. James himself was blessed with an inquisitive mind and balanced his interest in the arts with that of science. For this reason, a courtier named John Damian, (either a native of Italy or possibly France), was engaged by the king as his special scientific advisor.

Damian’s name first appears in the Castle records in 1501, when he requested royal funds to build furnaces and, thereafter, requested a great deal more for the purchase of chemicals. He was pursuing a popular goal of the time, the quintessence, that is, the discovery of a substance in its purest and most concentrated form.  Damian, if successful, hoped to discover a means of turning metal to gold. Unsurprisingly, his research proved fruitless. As an ever-increasing overhead of the King’s court, Damian in time, fell victim to the withering pen of the less well-paid court poet, Dunbar. Concerned for the continuance of royal patronage, the ever-resourceful Damian diverted His Majesty’s interest to another experiment, that of flight. In 1507, James’ ambassadors were about to embark on a visit to Turkey. Damian, either with supreme confidence or in desperation, announced he would fly to the French coast and there join the party for the remainder of the journey. Having donned feathered wings, and before a large crowd, Damian launched himself from the castle battlements.  Seconds later, only a cesspit beneath the walls, saved him from otherwise certain death. He escaped with just a broken thigh bone. William Dunbar’s delight knew no bounds, and thereupon, he composed a ballad about a certain pretentious courtier.

Stirling Castle. Source: Murray Cook.

Damian though, remained unbowed by Dunbar’s ridicule. He explained that inadvertently, chicken feathers had been substituted for those of an eagle. Did Damian make a subsequent attempt to fly? History does not record, but Stirling Castle Exchequer Records do. Damian it seems, had no further need to risk life and limb to retain his place at court. From that point on, he made a more than adequate living, relieving James’ purse by playing cards against the monarch. The wily Damian also successfully placed bets on the results of archery competitions. He eventually retired from court, but not before securing his ‘golden handshake’ of two hundred gold ducats.

Dunbar too lived long enough to extract a not insubstantial pension of eighty pounds Scots per annum from James’ court.   Damian remains almost forgotten, but Dunbar’s work lives on in a selection of his poetry recently republished.

Richard Grosse March 2021.