Sunday, 2 April 2017

Forgotten Sons of Angus: The First British Balloonist, James Tytler

For a pioneer in both flying  and literature, James Tytler is sadly neglected figure, but one whose life was sadly inconsistent for all his intelligence and striving.  Born in the manse in the upland Angus parish of Fearn, James died, near dissolute, in the United States of America.  He led a restless, unsuccessful life which serves as a warning to those who similarly drift from one intellectually challenging but unfulfilling task to another.  Sir James Fergusson notes that Tytler lived a life of ‘occasional notoriety but general obscurity’. Tytler was, at different times, a chemist and apothecary, surgeon, printer, mechanic, journalist, inventor, songwriter, editor, poet and pamphleteer.  He was, in essence, the classic 'lad o' pairts' gone wrong.  His claims to fame rest on his ferocious energy in editing the second edition of the Enclyclopedia Brittanica and the fact that he was the first person in Briton to ascend in a hot air balloon.  For the latter accomplishment he was ridiculed rather than lauded and derisively nicknamed ‘Balloon Tytler’.

   Tytler’s father George had migrated to Angus from Aberdeenshire and young James (born in 1745) should have led a similarly sedentary life.  He first tried out a career as a preacher, then went into medicine, studying at the University of Edinburgh.  In 1765 he accompanied a whaling ship named the Royal Bounty from Leith, serving as its medical officer, but he curtailed his studies on his return, forced by the necessity of supporting his wife to set up business as a chemist.  This business was not successful and he fled into England, running from creditors, and his problems were exacerbated by an alcohol problem.  He had five financially demanding children by the time he dared return to Edinburgh, but he was hardly more successful during his second period in the capital than he had been previously. 

   Forced by the demands of sustaining his family, Tytler turned to writing.  This was hardly more lucrative than previous careers at first and he ended up in debtor’s sancuary in Holyrood.  But in the newly intellectually exploding Auld Reekie, James Tytler preferred the low company in the alehouses and shebeens to any of the new luminaries making themselves known in the town.  By the mid 1770s he had written several books and was engaged in setting up short-lived magazines as well as reviewing the literary efforts of others.  His wife left him, and for a while he sought debtor’s sanctuary in the Abbey of Holyrood, but soon afterwards he latched onto a secure if not well-paid career of writing articles and editing others for the Encyclopedia.  He was engaged in this work for over six years and the remuneration of 16 shillings a week was hardly princely, even then. His efforts at editing and composing many of the articles in this 9,000 page edition were prodigious and revealed Tytler’s true talent.

   Further ventures into the writing of books, periodical publishing, poetry composition kept him busy and barely fiscally afloat for a few years.  But it was in 1783, according to his biographer Fergusson, that James Tytler became seriously fascinated by balloons.  In October and November that year there were several pioneer flights in France sponsored by the paper-maker brothers Montgolfier.   Since one of Tytler’s failings was that he was ‘incapable of reticence’, his fascination with new fangled manned flight became well known in Edinburgh and his scemes to get airborne himself was a matter of satire long before his plans came to fruition.  As a premininary for his own flight and, as a means of raising funds, Tytler set about demonstrating the ascent of a 13 foot fire balloon in Edinburgh as his published advertisement  in the Edinburgh Courant (on 19 June) states:

On Monday next, the 21st current, will be exhibited
         AT COMELY GARDENS   BYJAMES TYTLER, CHEMIST,A FIRE BALLOON, of 13 Feet in Circumference,  AS A MODEL OF    THE GRAND EDINBURGH FIRE BALLOON, With which he intends to attempt to attempt the Navigation of The Atmosphere. At this exhibition is intended to give the public a demonstration of the principles upon which the Great Balloon will ascend, it is not necessary to Confine it to any particular hour. – The balloon will therefore be repeatedly exhibited from Eleven o’clock forenoon till Three afternoon, and from Four till Seven in the evening...

   Admission for the Edinburgh curious was sixpence, though subscribers to the scheme would be admitted gratis. 

   Due to lack of funds principally the demonstration was postponed until July and took place at a new venue, the Register House in Edinburgh.  Although the somewhat ugly barrel shaped balloon did fill with gas it also filled up with sparks which burned several holes in the fabric, necessitating the spectacle to be curtailed.  News of these initial attempts at elevation was conveyed to his native county  and, on the evening when news of the failures arrived, a group of strolling players was on stage and exclaimed the line:

   ‘What news?  What news?’
   His fellow actor not only fluffed his line, but gave as a response the actual news about     Tytler:   ‘News!  News!  Why Tytler and his balloon have gone to the devil!’
   The audience broke into an explosion of laughter and derisive cheers.  So much for local loyalty.

   A further attempt at elevation, back at Comely Gardens, was similarly unsuccessful, despite his trying to tie in with the excitement of Leith races in August 1784.  The Caledonian Mercury reported the fresh  failure:

A gust of whirlwind, as if sent by divine command to blast the hopes of this devoted projector, attacked the Balloon, drove it hither and thither, and by compressing it on all sides, soon reduced it to a state of flaccidity;  some rent were made, which prevented any further attempt that night.

  A crowd of drunken race goers then descended on the scene and torched some of Tytler’s equipment.  But, after another failed attempted, came the historic breakthrough.  On Friday  27 August 1784 Tytler himself successfully too to the air, the first person in the British Isles to actually fly.  At five in the evening the air filled contraption soared into the air.  The spectators gave a rousing cheer.  James Tytler proudly waved his hat as he floated to a dizzying height of 350 feet.  A second flight happened several days later and several other follow-ups fizzled out.  It was all downhill from there.  By March 1785 James Tytler again sought the refuge of sanctuary at Holyrood Abbey.

   In 1785 there were several ascents in England, but little recognition was given to James Tytler.  Late in that year one of those who made the pioneering English ascents, the Italian Vincent Lunardi, came north and made balloon flights in Scotland.  He met Tytler and made condescending references to his fellow pioneer.  The restless, thwarted Tytler ventured for a while to Glasgow, helped with the third edition of Britannica, went back to Edinburgh and encountered Robert Burns.  By the early 1790s, stirred by revolutionary France and the atmosphere in Edinburgh, Tytler was involved in radicalism.  It caused him to flee to Ireland where he remained for two years.  In 1795 he emigrated to Salem in Massachusetts. 

   This last era was no brighter than the preceding few years.  Tytler and his second family settled on a sparsely settled peninsula called Salem neck and made a small income from preparing medicines for apothecaries.  Still, he tried several other ventures including a treatise on the Plague and was working towards a new geographical work when he met his end.  On Sunday, 8 January 1804 a very drunk Tytler blundered out into a storm and entered the house of a neighbour named Oliver and borrowed a candle from him.  It was his final human venture.  His body was found in the water on the shore on the following Wednesday.  In his eulogy his friend Mr Bentley truly states that ‘he was eccentric.  The incidents of his life had not impaired his industry, and his thirst for universal knowledge varied too often his pursuits.’

Lunardi mets Tytler, according to a contemporary cartoon.  A meeting of equals?


  1. Our family has a flat in Milton Street, Abbeyhill, Edinburgh. Leading off Milton Street - which is largely made up of late 19th century tenements that were built on the site of Comely Gardens - is a new housing development clept, no doubt in honour of the man, Tytler Gardens.
    Another question answered by this great blog.

    1. Must admit I'd barely known anything about the Brechin balloonist myself until recently.