The Edinburgh hot air balloon eccentric whose life ended in utter tragedy

The gravity-defying feats of ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ James Tytler would cause great excitement in his own lifetime, but the Angus-born polymath’s rightful status as the country’s first aviator today is barely recognized and his name little known outside of Scotland.

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As the pilot and architect of Britain’s first manned aerial ascent, Tytler, surgeon, writer, publisher, composer and poet, among other things, deserved universal and lasting fame – but fate would have other plans.

Encouraged by the world’s first manned balloon flights of the French Montgolfier brothers in late 1783, Tytler set out to create his own.

The following June, Tytler unveiled his “Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon” and held a demonstration of his new invention in the still unfinished dome of Robert Adam’s Register House.

Fueled by heating the air in the balloon with a stove, the balloon was barrel-shaped and was 40 feet high and 30 feet in diameter.

Tytler was an eccentric and unlucky character, described by poet Robert Burns as an “obscure, but extraordinary body”, and both his epic flight and his other great achievement – ​​the eight years he spent compiling the second edition in 10 volumes of the Encyclopedia. Britannica – are both largely overlooked.

He worked as a surgeon and apothecary, wrote many books and articles, published periodicals and a newspaper, invented a printing machine and a process for bleaching linen, and composed songs, poems and tunes for the bagpipes. None of these activities made much money – he was paid a pittance of £16 a week to write the Encyclopaedia – although a number of them made money for others, and he was banned as a debtor at least twice.

james tyler
James Tytler – preacher, surgeon, aeronaut. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Pioneer Flight

Weather conditions prevented the first flight attempt, but on 27 August, at Comely Gardens, an open area northeast of Holyrood in Edinburgh, Tytler tried again.

Wearing only a cork jacket for protection, he sat in a small wicker packing crate attached to the base of the balloon. When the ropes holding the balloon were released, it climbed 350 feet, traveled half a mile, and landed in the village of Restalrig.

Tytler found the flight “most enjoyable without vertigo” and he “enjoyed watching the onlookers below”.

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This first flight was performed in front of a small number of people early in the morning, but news of its success made the next appearance of the “Fire Balloon” four days later a major public event.

A large paying public gathered in Comely Gardens, and the slopes of Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill were packed with people eager to witness the historic occasion.

At 2:00 p.m. the balloon was inflated for half an hour and, with Tytler again in the basket, rose 100 feet, cruised over the pavilion, and gradually descended on the other side.

This “jump” was not particularly remarkable but the spectators were delighted. However, all subsequent displays of the “Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon” have been disasters.

One newspaper considered that enough time had been “wasted on that misshapen smokebag” and in the excitement of the highly successful balloon ascents of the flamboyant Vincenzo Lunardi in 1785, the hapless James “Balloon” Tytler was forgotten.

Vincenzo Lunardi
Vincenzo Lunardi was far more successful – and popular – than Tytler. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The tragedy

In 1792 Tytler fled Edinburgh for Ireland, after being arrested for producing anti-government pamphlets, and three years later emigrated to Salem, Massachusetts.

There, on a stormy night in January 1804, the first British aviator drowned on his way home.

In August 1984, to mark the 200th anniversary of Tytler’s historic flight, a hot air balloon festival was held at Holyrood Park.

You can still find traces of Tytler in Edinburgh, in the little street called Tytler Gardens near Holyrood.

For more fascinating capital stories, check out Secret Edinburgh by Jack Gillon.