- Michael Scott the Wizard (? - 1236?)
The Eildon Hills, Scottish Borders, from "Scott's View".
The two deep clefts in the hills were said to have been made by his wizardry.
Michael Scott or Scot was an important philosopher at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor, whose writings and translations were valued around Europe in the 13th century. His involvement in alchemy, astrology and astronomy gave him a reputation for being a "wizard" which entered the mythology of Scotland, particularly in the Border area. Sir Walter Scott enhanced his reputation when he wrote about him in his ballad "The Lay of the Last Minstrel". Read on for more facts - and fiction.
Where Was Michael Born?
We have to admit that Michael may not have been born in Scotland, even though he became such a well known "character" here. There are suggestions that he was born in Durham in England, of Borders parentage. But others argue that he was from Fife. The Folk Museum at Ceres in Fife claims firmly that he was from Balwearie near Kirkcaldy. His date of birth is also unknown but as he arrived at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor around 1220, a qualified scholar, he must have been born in the late 12th century. It is not known for certain that his surname was in fact "Scott" or "Scot" as this may have been appended later as he travelled round Europe.
Education and Working Life
Michael Scott is believed to have studied at Oxford and Paris Universities. Graduates often went on cultural tours to other centres of learning (a kind of early PhD). After arriving in Toledo in Spain in the first decade of the 13th century he gained sufficient knowledge of Arabic to translate works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle from Arabic into Latin. The translation was passed to Oxford and other universities where it was new to them as they had been lost for centuries.
He then went to Sicily and became known in papal circles. He worked for both Honorious III and Gregory IX. One of them offered him a "non-resident church living" in Cashel in Ireland. Michael declined on the basis that he did not speak the local language!
His scholarly works eventually reached Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor who invited him to his court. While working for Frederick II he produced a "Guide for the Perplexed" which had been written in Arabic and translated into Hebrew which Michael (with the help of Jewish and Arabic scholars) then translated into Latin. Frederick was seeking a "detailed description of the universe" and posed a series of questions which Michael attempted to answer - sometimes with a bit of a smoke screen - "If it is asked where resides the god of Gods and Lord of the rulers of the universe of earth and heaven, we reply that, although He is everywhere potentially, yet He is substantially in the intellectual heaven".
By this time Michael had a reputation not just for translations but also in astrology, alchemy and medicine. He was able to cure some of the Emperor's illnesses and his theories of astrology were of great interest to Frederick II. Michael studied the subject for many years but, to his credit, was somewhat dubious about its reliability, saying that there were too many variables. But he did use astrology to successfully predict the outcome of the Lombard war.
On one occasion, the Emperor asked the Scot to measure the distance between the top of a church tower and Heaven - a task which was duly accomplished. The Emperor then secretly removed a few inches from the top of the tower and asked for another measurement. Michael obviously deduced what was going on and commented afterwards that either Heaven had drawn further away from the earth - or somehow the tower had grown smaller.
Michael had a reputation for being vain about his work and proudly proclaimed that he had witnessed the transformation of copper into silver. Although Michael Scott's fame rests on his scholarly works and his invaluable translations which added to the store of knowledge in his day and later, his skills in astrology and alchemy later earned him the title "wizard".
Where Did Michael Die?
According to Italian traditions, Michael died in Italy at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor (supposedly from being hit by a piece of masonry falling from a church). But there are also strong beliefs that he returned to Scotland for the last few years of his life, died in the Scottish Borders and was buried in Melrose Abbey (pictured here) - a story which Sir Walter Scott later embellished.
Sir Walter Scott's Contribution
Michael Scott's reputation as a "wizard" entered into the myths and legends of Europe and especially in the Scottish Borders. Writers such as Dante and James Hogg (the Ettrick Shepherd) added to his fame by embellishing the few facts known about him and perpetuating the "wizard" element of his reputation. Never one to pass over a good local legend when he saw one, Sir Walter Scott> also picked up on the stories and wrote extensively about him in the "Lay of the Last Minstrel". It was Sir Walter who wrote that Michael "cleft the Eildon hills in three and bridled the river Tweed with a curb of stone". The "Scott's View" of the Eildon Hills is named after Sir Walter Scott rather than his wizard namesake. Sir Walter also describes in graphic detail in his poem that Michael Scott and his book of wizardry were buried "on a night of woe and dread" in Melrose Abbey - and who would dare argue?
Return to the Index of Famous Scots>
Where else would you like to go in Scotland?
News & Views>
All Features Index>
Search This Site>
Scottish Pictorial Calendar>
Places to Visit>