The tiny island of Inchkeith, which lies around 3 miles north of Edinburgh in middle of Scotland’s Firth of Forth, has had a long and turbulent history. In the 12th century, the island was first used as a stop-off for boats and ferries sailing from Edinburgh to Fife. Two centuries later, Inchkeith’s position made it strategically useful during the Scottish Wars of Independence, and it was repeatedly attacked by invading English troops during the lengthy Anglo-Scottish Wars. In the 15th century, it was used to quarantine the sick during an outbreak of the “contagious sickness callit the grandgor” (syphilis) in nearby Edinburgh, and again during an outbreak of the plague 100 years later. But the most unusual event in the island’s history may have taken place in 1493, when the Scottish king James IV chose to use the island as the location of a bizarre and cruel language deprivation experiment.
Of all Scotland’s kings, James IV is remembered as a true Renaissance man: well-educated and naturally inquisitive, he was fond of history, art, poetry, and literature, and interested in medical advancement and scientific enlightenment. During his reign he became patron to a number of notable Scots writers and makars (bards), studied dentistry and surgery, licensed the first printworks in Scotland, and funded several court alchemists and apothecaries to carry out their experiments under his supervision. One of James’s best known alchemists, John Damian, is even supposed to have used the king’s funds to construct a set of man-sized chicken-feather wings, which he used to launch himself from the parapets of Stirling Castle, claiming that he would be able to fly to France; needless to say, he failed, and was reportedly left with a broken leg after plummeting into a dung heap several stories below.
Of all the king’s intellectual interests, however, his love of language was perhaps the most significant. James is reputed to have been the last Scottish monarch to have spoken Scots Gaelic as well as English, but he was also fluent in Latin, French, German, Italian, Flemish, and Spanish, which the Spanish envoy to Great Britain, Pedro de Ayala, informed King Ferdinand of Spain that he spoke “as well as the Marquis, though he pronounces it more distinctly.”
It was James’s love of languages, combined with his natural inquisitiveness and empiricism, that apparently led him to conceive of his peculiar experiment: In 1493, the king ordered two newborn babies to be sent to live on the isolated island of Inchkeith to be raised by a deaf mute woman. His aim was to see what language (if any) the children acquired, because with no other linguistic input, he believed that this language, whatever it might be, must surely be the innate, God-given language of mankind.