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Marvellous Merchiston

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

If your home was garrisoned by soldiers and under threat of bombardment, you might pick somewhere else to get married. But 22 year old John Napier, namesake of Edinbugh Napier University, signed his wedding contract with his 16 year old bride at home in Merchiston Tower in just those circumstances in April 1572.

The hobbyist mathematician and seventh Laird of Merchiston would probably have preferred to be remembered for his works of theology. He changed the world, but not in the way he imagined - his invention of logarithms is the work for which he is most celebrated.

Merchiston Tower
Merchiston Tower

John Napier was born at Merchiston Tower (now one of Edinburgh Napier University’s campuses) in 1550. We don’t know what he studied but he went to the University of St Andrews at the age of 13. There is no record of him graduating from there; he most likely finished his education in Europe, arriving back in 1571, aged 21, when Scotland was in the grip of a civil war in which his family was reluctantly involved.

Four years previously, Napier’s maternal uncle Adam Bothwell, the Bishop of Orkney, had performed the coronation of baby James VI after his mother’s forced abdication, and civil war ensured between supporters of the deposed Catholic queen and supporters of the baby king (or rather, of the Regent who ruled in his minority). Merchiston Tower, being in a strategic location, was garrisoned by the Regent’s men to prevent supplies reaching the Queen’s supporters holding Edinburgh. The Tower was severely bombarded by the Queen’s men in May 1572 in a failed attempt to gain control. Archibald Napier, John’s father, whose loyalties appear to have been ambiguous, probably stayed in the tower throughout, although it is unknown if the rest of the family did.

John and his new wife moved to Gartness Castle (on the western edge of Stirlingshire today). He took the task of running the Napier estates very seriously. He was known in Edinburgh as “Marvellous Merchiston” as he was always working on ideas to improve productivity. He experimented with salt fertiliser, invented an apparatus to remove water from flooded coal pits, and built land surveyancing devices. Part of the inheritance was the title of the King’s Poulterer, and the “Pultrielands” at Dean Village - a plot of land for raising poultry to be supplied to the king on request.

But Napier considered himself first and foremost a theologian. The Reformation in Scotland was young, it was a time of religious and political turmoil and he was a fervent protestant. In 1593 he published what he considered to be his most important and urgent work, “The Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John” - detailed exposition that the Pope was the Antichrist. He sought to alert the king to “the apparent danger of Papistry arising within this Island… .” fearing, like many, threat from Catholic Spain.

Following the publication of the “Plaine Discovery” (which gained him international recognition) Napier worked on designs for various instruments of war - “designed by the Grace of God, and the worke of expert craftsmen.” He was covering all bases, evidently, in the case of a Spanish invasion - if the theological writings didn’t head off the catholic threat, he wanted to make sure Scotland had some new weaponry! It included two kinds of burning mirrors, a piece of artillery, and a metal chariot from which shot could be fired through small holes.

At this time, Napier also turned his attention to developing a means of simplifying the very long and complicated calculations he needed for his work on astronomy. From 1594 he worked on a methodology, finally publishing what he called logarithmic tables twenty years and seven million calculations later, in 1614. It was a mathematical breakthrough immediately taken up enthusiastically by scientists as it saved them years of calculations and allowed radical progress in astronomy and navigation.

Logarithms allowed the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler to show that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe but revolved around the sun. This breakthrough underpinned Newton’s theory of gravity.
He made other signification contributions to mathematics including promoting the use of decimals, and "Napier's bones" - numbering rods for multiplying, dividing and taking square roots and cube roots. Made of ivory, they looked a little like bones, hence the name. He also described a method of using metal plates in a box to rapidly perform multiplication and division problems - the earliest known attempt at using a type of calculating machine.

For Napier, though, mathematics was a hobby, a means to an end that he worked on as and when he had time besides his theological work. The Statistical Account of 1795 says: “Adjoining the mill at Gartness are the remains of an old house in which John Napier of Merchiston, Inventor of Logarithms, resided a great part of his time (some years) when he was making his calculations. It is reported that the noise of the cascade, being constant, never gave him uneasiness, but that the clack of the mill, which was only occasional, greatly disturbed his thoughts. He was therefore, when in deep study, sometimes under the necessity of desiring the miller to stop the mill that the train of his ideas might not be interrupted.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly he cut an eccentric figure. The Statistical Account also records he “used frequently to walk out in his nightgown and cap. This, with some things which to the vulgar appear rather odd, fixed on him the character of a warlock.” But stories of his supposedly magic powers have been exaggerated over time. With James VI on a fanatical quest to eliminate witchcraft, had Napier seriously been suspected of anything he would not have been spared. It’s more likely that the nightgown was academic garb, and that his incredible and diverse output led him to appear eccentric and misunderstood.

When Napier had a problem with pigeons eating his grain in the fields at Merchiston, he solved it by scattering grain laced with alcohol on the fields; the drunken birds were then easy to capture - a feat which no doubt fuelled the stories of his magical powers in an age of superstition.

He moved back to Merchiston with his family on the death of his father in 1608, until his own death in 1617.

I visited Merchiston Tower last month to wander through the rooms and get a feel, if possible from this distance in time, of the building that was first and foremost a family home but swept up in turbulence. Its matter-of-fact integration into the Napier University campus, with a modern corridor running right though it, somehow echoes for me way the Archibald Napier carried on business as usual; the marriage in the garrisoned home; and how John Napier’s monumental invention of logarithms was almost incidental to what he considered his main life’s work. One thing is for sure, he would be very happy to see his home part of a place of higher education.

First published in Konect February 2018

Author: Helen-Jane Shearer


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