THE National reported last week that Margaret Thatcher was facing Scottish opposition in the "Face of the Fifty" race to be named the new character figure on the Bank of England £50 note, overleaf from Her Majesty the Queen. For a member of the public had nominated Michael Scot, known to legend as a "wizard", as the scientist to be honoured by the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. I was promptly asked to provide more information on a man who, by any standards, was one of the most extraordinary figures in Scottish and indeed European history.

I first mentioned Scot in this column in August last year when I wrote about his occult reputation: “Scot was a real man of genius who served Popes and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the early 13th century. He was a polymath, a translator, and both an astronomer and astrologer at a time when these disciplines were combined, while his studies of alchemy gained him the reputation of being a wizard.” Nothing I have discovered since makes me want to change a word of that opinion.

The first thing to say is that Scot was a far greater scientist than Thatcher, who may have been a chemist by virtue of her second-class degree in the subject, but never progressed in the profession beyond researching food additives. There is no way the Bank of England should give Thatcher the recognition being sought for her mostly by a bunch of her right-wing acolytes. It would be a travesty if she were to even make the shortlist.

Being honest, I do not think Michael Scot should make the shortlist either for the simple reason that we do not really know a great deal about his scientific achievements, other than his feats in astronomy and mathematics. Some of his "science" was also of the voodoo variety such as astrology and alchemy. Other Scottish scientists on the long list of 800 nominees – Alexander Graham Bell and Alexander Fleming, for instance – have a much greater claim to be the "Face of the Fifty".

I nevertheless find Scot to be endlessly fascinating. For who else in our history could be linked to Aristotle, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Fibonacci, Dante, Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, John Buchan and that very fine actor Peter Mullan – I will explain those links later. Unlike so many Scottish figures from the Middle Ages, we know quite a bit about Michael Scot and his works. Maddeningly, however, there are certain details about his life which have been lost in time. For example, we know that he was born around 1175, but we do not know exactly where. It was certainly in the Borders but his exact birthplace is unknown and the precise line of the border between Scotland and England was itself a matter of some debate both then and afterwards.

We do know that Michael himself, and those who knew him, considered him to be Scottish for he was long known as Scotus and he never disputed the name. Later in the 13th century the Scotus name was applied to a truly great Scottish philosopher, John of Duns, now recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as Blessed John Duns Scotus – perhaps he was given the name Scotus to follow on from his intellectual predecessor.

The earliest known surviving biographical material about Michael Scot was by Bernardino Baldi of Urbino, who was born in 1553. Baldi had studied medicine at Padua, but mathematics and mathematicians, and especially the history of mathematical developments were his forte.

Baldi became Abbot of Guastalla in the Italian area of Reggio Emilia in 1586, and before his death in 1617 it was there that he wrote "De le vite de Matematici" (Of the Lives of the Mathematicians) which included the brief biography of Scot.

“Michele Scoto, that is Michael the Scot, was a Judicial Astrologer, in which profession he served the Emperor Frederick II. He wrote a most learned treatise by way of questions upon the Sphere of John de Sacrobosco which is still in common use. Some say he was a magician, and tell how he used to cause fetch on occasion, by magic art, from the kitchen of great Princes whatever he needed for his table. He died from the blow of a stone falling on his head, having already foreseen that such would be the manner of his end.”

The National:

THE first thoroughly researched biography of Scot came three centuries later and was published in Edinburgh. It is called An Enquiry into the Life and Legend of Michael Scot and was written by Rev James Wood Brown, who is largely forgotten now but was a popular author in the late 19th century and wrote such works as An Italian Campaign, The Builders of Florence and The Covenanters of the Merse. Wood Brown’s life of Scot is a trifle verbose but contains all the known facts about the man who was educated at Durham before studying at Oxford University and then moving to Paris. There is little doubt that Scot came from a family of standing for he was well-educated and that cost a lot of money in those times.

Wood Brown states correctly that it was in the French capital that Scot began to become famous for his scholarship and gained the nickname Master Mathematicus, while he may have begun to study theology – tradition has it that he became a monk or priest not long afterwards.

Scot moved from France to Italy and entered the service of Don Philip, a courtier of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, at Palermo on Sicily. It was there that he probably became tutor to the young king because the two men developed a lifelong relationship.

By now fluent in Latin and Greek as well as speaking French and Italian, Scot went to Toledo in Spain to learn Arabic and begin what became the work for which is most noted – translating Arabic works about Aristotle.

To put that achievement in context, the works of the great Greek philosopher had been "lost" to the western world for centuries, but they had been preserved in Arabic literature with commentaries by Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna (Abu Ali Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rush).

Scot’s authorship of the translations has been doubted, and students of the era suggest that he was working with a group, but his work Abbreviatio Avicennae bears a dedication to Frederick: "O Frederick, Lord of the World and Emperor, receive with devotion this book of Michael Scot, that it may be a grace unto thy head and a chain about thy neck.”

Frederick II had to have Scot at his court, because the Scotsman was now considered the leading intellectual of the age. He had learned astrology – it should be noted that the people of those times did not distinguish between astrology and astronomy – and was also experimenting in both mathematics and chemistry, or to be more accurate, alchemistry.

WE know, for example, that Scot influenced the work of Fibonacci, the great Italian mathematician for he dedicated a book to Scot. Intriguingly it has been suggested that Scot helped Fibonacci with his famous Sequence and that makes sense because they were both in the court in Palermo and Fibonacci’s greatest impact was in his persuading people to use the Arabic numerals we still have today.

Scot’s written works above all gained him fame. Wood Brown states his Liber Introductorius was “the first book he wrote for the Emperor, that to which the Liber Particularis was a sequel.”

To prove Scot’s authorship of that seminal work, it commences thus: "Here beginneth the preface of the Liber Introductorius which was put forth by Michael Scot, Astrologer to the ever August Frederick, Emperor of the Romans, at whose desire he composed it concerning astrology, in a simple style for the sake of young scholars and those of weaker capacity, and this in the days of our Lord Pope Innocent IV.”

Scot was only just beginning to hit his stride. He worked hard on the science of Physiognomy and tackled the subjects of alchemy and the occult which is probably why he gained his reputation for wizardry – yet his work on these subjects were scholarly and, as far as they could possibly be, quite scientific in nature.

Successive Popes asked him to carry out astrological works for them and they really wanted him on their side because he was offered the archbishoprics of Cashel in Ireland and Canterbury in England, but he turned them down to concentrate on his science and translations.

The philosopher Roger Bacon recorded that in 1230, “Michael Scot appeared [at Oxford], bringing with him the works of Aristotle on natural history and mathematics, with wise expositors, so that the philosophy of Aristotle was magnified among those who spoke Latin.”

This was part of the tour of European scholarly institutions made by Scot, and we can be pretty sure that without his translation of Greek philosophy and thinking via Arabic, there might not have been the great disputations involving Duns Scotus and St Thomas Aquinas which dictated the course of philosophical thought for centuries.

It was after his death in around 1234 that legend grew that Scot had been in Scotland at the time and was buried in Melrose Abbey, whereas it is more likely that he was in Italy where Italian tradition has placed him. His true burial site is unknown.

The legends of his genius and wizardry just exploded. In Dante’s Divine Comedy Scot appears in the 8th Circle of Hell and is introduced thus: "That other there, his flanks extremely spare, Was Michael Scot, a man who certainly knew how the game of magical fraud was played”

In Scotland, the legends grew apace – that he diverted the River Tweed and split the Eildon Hills in three, and much more.

Sir Walter Scott included Scot – rendered as Scott – in his Lay of the Last Minstrel putting these words in the mouth of the Monk character:

“In these far climes, it was my lot

To meet the wondrous Michael Scott;

A wizard of such dreaded fame,

That when, in Salamanca’s cave

Him listed his magic wand to wave,

The bells would ring in Notre Dame !

Some of his skill he taught to me ;

And, Warrior, I could say to thee

The words that cleft Eildon hills in three,

And bridled the Tweed with a curb of stone :

But to speak them were a deadly sin;

And for having but thought them my heart within,

A treble penance must be done.”

John Buchan is just one of a number of novelists and writers to use Scot as a character, and Peter Mullan played him in television’s Shoebox Zoo in 2004. Of all the legends about Scot the one I like best is that he introduced whisky to Scotland. You would presume that to be nonsense because the first mention of the Water of Life in Scotland dates back only to the late fifteenth century, more than 200 years after Scot’s death. But then you learn that the earliest records of distilled alcohol as a potent drink, the Aqua Ardens, date from the mid-12th century at the University of Toledo, where Scot studied and taught a few decades later.

Could it have been that, with his scientific knowledge, Scot improved on the Spanish hooch and brought the secrets of the dram home to Scotland? In which case we can only thank the alchemist and campaign for him to be the "Face of the Fifty".