The Bizarre Inchkeith Language Experiment Commissioned by King James IV

Inchkeith Language Experiment
King James IV of Scotland. Image: Royal Collection Trust.

The island of Inchkeith boasts a peculiar and chequered history. During both world wars, this craggy outcrop in the Firth of Forth formed part of a defensive network which protected shipping and kept watch for elusive German U-boats.

Featuring bunkers, artillery positions and anti-aircraft guns, the island was a fortress and would likely have been a formidable obstacle for the enemy in the event of an incursion into the Forth.

Those structures now lie empty, and the island is somewhat of an uninhabited wasteland, abandoned to contend with the elements and falling deeper into disrepair with each storm that batters the weathered rock.

It hasn’t always been this way, however. Over the years, there has been much activity on Inchkeith.

In the late 15th century, the island was used as a quarantine site for people with ‘grandgore’, an old Scots term for syphilis. Many unfortunate syphilis-ridden Edinburgh residents were forcibly quarantined on the island, which under the Grandgore Act was made a place of ‘Compulsory Retirement’ along with Inchgarvie.

The exact number of sickly folks exiled to the island is unknown, and so too is the eventual death toll. Given the conditions on the island and the state of medical care during this period, it is likely that most patients died there.

Nearly a century later in 1589, the island was once again used as a quarantine site – this time for ships carrying passengers with the plague.

Inchkeith Language Experiment
Inchkeith from Portobello, Edinburgh. Image: Lee Kindness.

Admittedly, the history of Inchkeith isn’t exactly glamorous. An island once used to house all manner of sickly folks and prevent the spread of lethal pathogens is far from an ideal location – and I’ve visited the island during my brief time in the navy cadets as a child.

But for all its ills, Inchkeith does boast one of the most bizarre stories in Scottish history. A 15th century experiment examining the link between basic human nature, linguistics and spiritualism.

The King James experiment

By the standards of the time, King James IV is believed to have been quite the intellectual and was noted for his keen interest in language.

He is said to have been fluent in English, Scots Gaelic, Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish – with his command of the latter commended by Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala.

Acting on this linguistic curiosity, James IV sought to push the boundaries of science and learning, and in 1493 commissioned an experiment to establish what the “original” language of humanity was.

To achieve this, he is said to have had two infants and a mute woman housed on Inchkeith to determine which language the isolated children would eventually speak.

King James IV was noted for his multilingual abilities.

The inspiration for this experiment was founded in the belief that the original, God-given language of humanity was Hebrew. By isolating the children and restricting contact with the outside world, the pair would learn Hebrew in a natural process and provide a definitive answer on humanity’s innate language.

This type of language deprivation experiment has been conducted before, perhaps most notably by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. And it has been suggested that James IV sought to replicate this.

Other similar experiments are also said to have been conducted as far back as the 7th century BCE.

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Writing more than half a century after the experiment is said to have taken place, Scottish chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie described the setup.

“The king ordered a mute woman to be put on Inchkeith and gave her two young children in company with her, and provided them with everything they would need for their nourishment, food, drink, fire and candle, clothes, and all other kinds of necessities needed by man or woman.

“He was desirous to discover what language the children would speak when they came of proper age.”

What happened to the children?

There appear to be a number of theories on what happened to the children after the experiment, with two popular accounts.

One notes that they both succumbed to illness and died on the island while another suggests that they eventually re-joined society and, for a brief while, were something of a celebrity duo. Indeed, Lindsay’s account alludes to the fact that they returned to the mainland.

“Some say they spoke good Hebrew,” Lindsay wrote. “But I myself know no more than my sources say.”

Several centuries later, novelist Sir Walter Scott also commented on the tale, suggesting that “it is more likely they would scream like their dumb nurse, or bleat like the goats and sheep on the island”.

Notably, there are no contemporary records or accounts detailing this experiment, and many modern historians consider the story to be false.

In 1502, King James IV is known to have travelled to the island from Leith before sailing on to Kinghorn. This brief visit still fuels speculation.

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