LAST weekend, I was lucky to be invited to a historic Italian city. It was a lifetime dream, so I accepted, especially as I could take my family.

It was a long journey for such a short stay, but worth it. I was left with deep and lasting impressions on this, my first, joyful, visit to Italy.

When I returned to Scotland on Monday, the weather was depressingly cold and very wet. The heat and atmosphere of Italy was a memory. But I knew I was home.

As the rain drenched me, I thought of an Italian visitor who came here in 1435 and experienced the same culture shock, but from the opposite perspective. His name was Aeneas Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini. He was originally from a town near Siena.

He arrived at Dunbar, traumatised and exhausted by the weather. The ship he had been a passenger on had been battered by violent storms which had threatened to sink the vessel in the freezing winter sea. At one point, hope seemed lost, and Aeneas fell to his knees and made a desperate prayer to the Virgin Mary, in which he promised if she saved him and the vessel from the storm, he would walk barefoot to the nearest shrine devoted to her and give thanks.

Miraculously, the storm seemed to ease soon after his prayer, and the captain could finally turn the ship towards land. When the rugged and rocky coast of Scotland came into view, there were new dangers, so Aeneas continued to pray.

Finally, the ship limped into Dunbar under the gaze of the medieval castle. It was an impressive sight and, when Aeneas finally set foot on dry land, he collapsed onto his knees in thanksgiving.

His joy was soon dampened when he discovered that the nearest shrine was at Whitekirk, about eight miles away. Normally this distance wouldn’t pose a problem, but it was wintertime, the ground was frozen, and he’d promised to walk barefooted.

But a promise is a promise, especially to the Virgin Mary who had just saved him from a terrible watery fate. And so off he set to the shrine.

It was the longest eight miles of his life. When he arrived at Whitekirk, his feet were cut, bruised and frozen. After he had completed his promised devotions, the numbness in his feet wore off and they ached in a manner he’d never experienced.

He realised he couldn’t walk without excruciating pain. So he was carried in a litter for the rest of his journey to Edinburgh. This was an early form of a sedan chair and was probably no more than two poles with a chair fixed between them, very likely created in haste. The account does not say if it was men or horses who had the job of carrying him in this contraption, but we can safely assume the journey, in a Scottish medieval winter, was less than comfortable.

When he finally arrived at Edinburgh, he was warmly greeted by his host, the King of Scotland, James I. Sat beside a roaring fire, Aeneas could at last defrost and enjoy royal hospitality. But his feet would never be the same again. For the rest of his life, he suffered from severe bouts of rheumatism which he blamed on Scotland’s climate.

Why did Aeneas visit Scotland in the first place? His family were of noble ancestry yet also poor. So he had to work. He had been sent on this mission by a cardinal of the Council of Basel. What the purpose was we will never know for sure, but probably it was to persuade the Scottish King to aid France by attacking England.

This trip was all about progressing his career, and the apparent divine intervention that saved his life must have reinforced his self-belief that he was destined for great things.

He was still a layman when he visited Scotland and 11 years later was ordained into the priesthood. He got swift promotion and became Pope Pius II in 1458 – not bad, perhaps Mary had his back all the way.

He was an interesting character, a man of letters, and a key literary figure of the Renaissance. While he was in Scotland, he took the opportunity to observe how different everything was, and he later wrote about it. It makes fascinating reading and that’s what made me think of him on my return to Scotland from Italy.

He was intrigued when he saw Scots burning “black stones” in their homes, and was appalled by the cold and inhospitable weather, as well as the wretched living conditions of the poor, compared to his native Tuscany.

He described the homes of common folk as turf roofed with ox hides for doors and wrote that Scotland was “rude, uncultivated and unvisited by the winter sun”. Only one star on medieval Tripadvisor, then, although he did have compliments (worded in predictably sexist terms) for Scottish women, at least one of whom he left pregnant.

When his mission had finished, the captain of the ship which had brought him to Scotland offered him the same berth for the return trip. But the trauma of that sea voyage was still with Aeneas and he concluded that, since he had been saved once from death in the northern sea, he should not tempt fate a second time. So he decided to travel as far south as possible by land.

He had to go in disguise but it was a wise decision, for the ship sank soon after leaving port, and the captain and most of the crew drowned within sight of the shore. This no doubt confirmed Aeneas’s belief that fate had saved him for a higher purpose.

Needless to say, he was happy to leave Scotland. When he saw Newcastle, he felt he had finally reached the civilised part of the world again. No comment from me on this, I know Newcastle well.

But Aeneas left a unique, although culturally prejudiced, account of what he saw in Scotland, as well as his other travels. If you get the chance, look him up and read his observations.

I was interested he’d also written about the barnacle goose myth. This says there are trees in Scotland which grow on the banks of rivers, or by the sea, and produce strange-shaped fruit which fall into the water and then transform into barnacle geese.

This story was widely believed throughout Europe and Aeneas had heard versions of it ever since he was young. But when he asked where he could find such a tree, he was told they grew further north in Orkney. Given his experiences with the Scottish weather, he wasn’t going to venture there.

How did this myth originate and why did people believe it?

Well, that’s for another time.