History has confirmed his genius – John Napier, the 7th Laird of Merchiston – born in 1550, resident of Merchiston Tower, and inventor of logarithms and Napier’s Bones, both of which paved the way for substantial further scientific discovery by facilitating the computation of complex calculations. But there has also been a suggestion of a darker side to Napier – accused by some of his contemporaries as being in league with the devil. Quite how much truth lies in these claims is lost in the passage of time. Perhaps more likely it was accusation borne of suspicion of a highly intelligent man, clearly not ordinary, and therefore a threat to a narrow-minded populus?
By all accounts Napier was prone to odd habits – with late nights walks around his lands at Merchiston Tower in his dark cloak and hooded cap – adding to the locals unease. He was also the owner of a black rooster which was at the centre of the plot of one of the tales that lead to cries of wizardry. When he found that servants had been pilfering he made it known that the cockerel could find the culprit. He instructed the men to go one by one to a building where the bird was placed and to run their hands along its tail – the crow of the cockerel would alert them to the perpetrator. Napier was able to deduce the culprit with some help the bird and an examination of the men’s hands – he had covered its tail in soot and the guilty party, fearful of the cockerel’s magic power was the only one whose hands were soot free!
Another tale of strange powers (or higher intelligence) at play revolves around a neighbouring laird whose pigeons were partial to helping themselves to Napier’s corn seed. Napier’s threat to impound the offending birds was met with retort that he should do his worst and capture them if he could. Allegedly, the next day Napier’s men did indeed bag most of the neighbours birds as they lay helpless on the ground. Whilst the locals were agog at the latest of his spells the true cause of the birds state was apparently more to do with their consumption of alcohol laced seed used as bait by the Merchiston laird.
The fact that Napier survived such accusations, was spared a fiery end and prospered speaks volumes for the power and reach of the Napier family. These were violent times – Scotland was in the midst of sectarian based civil strife. Even those of us who have been challenged by the complexities of trigonometric and algebraic exam questions should be grateful for that!