A lot of hot air
15 August, 2013
Edinburgh becomes the centre of the cultural world during August, thanks to the various festivals that fill the city with performers and their audiences. No trip to the city should be complete without a walk in Holyrood Park– and a climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat to appreciate the magnificent views over the city and as far as the Highlands.
In August 1784 – 163 years before the Edinburgh Festival was born –Holyrood Park was full of visitors, hoping to enjoy what was then a completely new and exciting spectacle. The slopes of Arthur’s Seat were covered with people hoping to witness Britain’s first ever balloon ascent.
The intrepid aviator was a Scottish polymath – surgeon, writer, publisher, composer and poet James ‘Balloon’ Tytler. Tytler had been inspired by the successful flights of the Montgolfier brothers in France, in 1783.
In June 1784, he exhibited his ‘Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon’ in the uncompleted dome of Robert Adam’s Register House, at the east end of Princes Street. The Fire Balloon was barrel-shaped: 40 feet high and 30 feet in diameter.
The balloon was heavy and somewhat cumbersome, but Tytler managed to generate enough heat from a cast iron stove to make a number of short flights.
Tytler rivalled the pioneering Montgolfier Brothers, and his ascent in Edinburgh came almost a month before another French rival, Vincenzo Lunardi, flew a hydrogen balloon in London. Despite this, Tytler was overshadowed by the showman Lunardi, the self-styled ‘Daredevil Aeronaut’.
Lunardi later carried out a number of much more successful flights in Scotland that created a ballooning fad and inspired ladies’ fashions in skirts and hats. The ‘Lunardi bonnet’ is mentioned in Robert Burns’s famous poem ‘To a Louse’.
Tytler’s life after ballooning was no less dramatic. With mounting debts, he was required to stay in the Holyrood sanctuary and later emigrated to Salem,Massachusetts. Sadly he was forgotten and died an ignominious death. He drowned in the sea returning home after a drunken night out.