John Damian lived from about 1470 to about 1530. He was an Italian-born alchemist and favourite of King James IV as well as a pioneer aviator. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Little is known of John Damian's origins and early life. He appears to have spent some years practicing medicine in France before turning up as court physician to the court of King James IV of Scotland in 1501. He seems to have had considerable influence with the King and was referred to be some at court as the "French Leech".
Amongst Damian's numerous sidelines was alchemy, and it is possible that the King's main interest in him flowed from the hope that one day he might succeed in turning base metals into gold. In order to allow Damian the resources and time to pursue his experiments, James IV appointed him Abbot of Tongland, a Premonstratensian abbey near Kirkcudbright.
John Damian never succeeded as an alchemist, and is best remembered for what might be seen as an attempt to keep up the possibly flagging support of the King. In September 1507 Damian announced he would use a pair of wings made of birds' feathers to fly from Stirling Castle to France. He duly launched himself from the castle walls, only to crash immediately afterwards into a dunghill 70ft below, where he broke his leg.
In what might be regarded as the world's first aviation accident investigation, Damian later reported to the King that the failure had been caused by the accidental incorporation of some hen feathers into the wings: the problem being that hens could not fly.
Damian appears never to have tried to repeat his feat, and despite his serial failures was given a large pension by James IV when he retired as Abbot of Tongland in 1509. He continued to work at the court until 1513, when he accompanied James to inspect gold mines in south-west Scotland, but nothing is known of his later life or his death.