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Significant Scots - John Napier

He was ‘the person to whom the title of great man is more justly due than to any other whom this country has produced’. In this simple pronouncement, the Scottish intellectual David Flume summed up his fellow countryman John Napier.

Yet most Scots know little or nothing about the 16th-century mathematician, philosopher and inventor who, from his secluded tower in Scotland, produced the vital tool needed by mankind to explore the globe and fathom the universe. Without Napier's invention of logarithms and the decimal notation for complex fractions, the discoveries of others such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton would have been hindered by years of long and complex calculations.

For decades Napier wrestled with mathematics in the privacy of his home, while his superstitious neighbours grew convinced he was involved in sorcery and witchcraft. Dressing in a long, black gown to match his thick, black beard, he did nothing to dispel their illusions. He achieved one of the greatest mathematical discoveries of all time while living through one of the most violent and turbulent periods in Scotland’s history with his home town of Edinburgh embroiled in civil war and ravaged by the plague.

For centuries his reputation remained almost as obscure as the location of his unmarked grave somewhere in the capital. But his name now lives on at Napier University in Edinburgh, this year celebrating the 450th anniversary of his birth in 1550.

Last month an honorary degree was conferred on Brigadier General John Hawkins Napier II, who travelled from his American home to receive the honour bestowed upon him thanks to his illustrious ancestor.

Now the university is setting its sights on education and encouraging the mathematical inquisitiveness which so characterised the esteemed man from whom it takes its name, as it prepares to launch John Napier’s Mathematical Challenge for Schools, to run over the coming months.

Best known in his lifetime as author of a Protestant theological work that probed the prophecies of the Apocalypse to prove the Pope was the Antichrist, Napier was far from the modern idea of a mathematician - he was a late-Renaissance man whose powers of lateral thinking took in everything from agricultural improvement to devising engines of war.

There was plenty of conflict brewing when he was born at Merchiston Castle outside Edinburgh, the son of Sir Archibald Napier, a Scottish judge and wealthy landowner.

Three years previously, Napier’s grandfather had been slain while fighting in the army of Mary Queen of Scots against the English at the Battle of Pinkie. John Napier would spend most of his life trying not to get involved in the sectarian strife that swept Scotland. He was not always successful — at 17 he was forced to study abroad, having left St Andrews University prematurely after his friendship with a Catholic student was thought inadvisable in such sensitive times.

Returning to Edinburgh in 1571, he found the capital plunged into civil war with constant skirmishes between the forces of Mary attempting a Catholic comeback.

Napier returned to find his father imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle by the Queen’s party, while the family home at Merchiston was occupied by the forces of the Regent, then besieging Edinburgh. The following year, when Merchiston was bombarded by the guns of Edinburgh Castle, Napier sought refuge on one of the family estates at Gartness in Stirlingshire. Edinburgh Castle is visited annually by approximately one million people - if we except the Tower of London that is more people than visit any other ancient monument in the United Kingdom. Every visitor - particularly those on a restricted itinerary - should visit the Castle, not only because of the historical interest of this remarkable fortress and former royal residence, but because it offers such splendid panoramic views of the city. It is from these battlements, for example, that the traveller immediately appreciates the dramatic topography of Edinburgh, situated between sea and hills. Within the confines of the Castle, there is much to see. It was the seat (and regular refuge) of Scottish Kings, and the historical apartments include the Great Hall, which now houses an interesting collection of weapons and armour.