The dream of flight and the conquest of air, haunted successive generations. Over the centuries, elaborate theories of flight were committed to paper. It was left though, to John Damian, King James IV’s advisor, to prove their futility. In 1507, before an expectant crowd, Damian, having donned wings, took off from the ramparts of Stirling Castle. The plan was to fly to Turkey, but the flight ended in the Castle cesspit.
Another four hundred years would pass before the citizens of Stirling might witness flight by a winged object. That is not say the skies remained empty. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, hot-air balloons were being developed. The concept of ballooning was born in France in 1783. No human would at first dare risk life by flying. For that reason, the first balloon ascended with a basket occupied by a sheep, a cockerel, and a duck. They returned unharmed and, emboldened, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and an American, Dr. John Jeffries, crossed the English Channel by balloon in January 1785.
James Tytler was born in December 1745 at Fern, outside Forfar. He was a political and religious controversialist, scholar, journalist, poet, song writer, musician, pharmacist, and surgeon. More notably, he edited the second edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Somehow, he also found time to become the first person in Britain to fly in a hot air balloon. This he achieved in Edinburgh on 25 August 1784 when his balloon eventually rose slightly from the ground. Two days later he managed to reach a height of some 350 feet, travelling for half a mile along the edge of Holyrood Park. Watched by large crowds, he was, by the end of the day the toast of the city. In the following month, Tytler prepared to give a further demonstration to the assembled crowd. However, the balloon would only ascend after he had vacated its basket. The fickle crowd then unjustly branded Tytler a coward.
Truth be told, the affections of the citizens of Edinburgh, had been captured by a debonair Italian balloonist named Vincenzo Lunardi who proceeded to better Tytler’s achievements. Ever the exhibitionist, he styled himself ‘The daredevil astronaut’, and hired St Mungo’s Cathedral in Glasgow to exhibit his balloon, which hung from the roof trusses. He charged one shilling per visitor. The sight of billowing green, pink and yellow silk captivated female visitors, and a craze for balloon flying began. The wily Lunardi took advantage, not only by arranging flights but by promoting a new fashion in ladies skirts and hats. The latter is even mentioned in Burn’s poem ‘To a Louse’. Poor Tytler: alas, this would not be the final time that the dogged efforts of British aviators would be eclipsed by stylish continental rivals.
In October 1785, a large and excited crowd filled the grounds of George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh to witness Lunardi’s first Scottish hydrogen filled balloon take-off. The 46-mile flight over the Firth of Forth ended at Ceres in Fife. A commemorative plaque today marks the landing site. The Scots Magazine reported that: ‘the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle could only be exceeded by the cool, intrepid manner in which the adventurer conducted himself’’.
The weather was fine in the early afternoon of the 23rd November 1785 when Lunardi ascended from St. Andrew’s Square in Glasgow. The following two-hour flight covered 110 miles and passed over Hamilton and Lanark before landing at the feet of trembling shepherds at Hawick.
Dame Fortune did not continue to smile on Lunardi. In the following month, taking off again from Glasgow, bad weather ended a flight after only twenty minutes, at Milton of Campsie. Then, after an ascent from the grounds of Heriot’s Hospital in Edinburgh, Lunardi was forced down into the North Sea. In time, he was rescued by a passing fishing boat which docked at North Berwick. Typically, Lunardi turned the incident to his advantage. He subsequently invented a life-saving device for balloonists called his “aquatic machine”. It was akin to a one-man lifeboat. Disquiet though, had begun to spread concerning safety, particularly after a fatal accident that befell a balloon handler in 1786. The craze for balloons subsided and Lunardi left Britain never to return.
Whether Lunardi’s balloon was ever seen crossing Stirling is unknown. If so, its citizens would have to wait almost a further half century before seeing another. In 1831, it became known that a certain Mr Green would be flying in the vicinity. This was almost certainly Charles Green, the United Kingdom’s most famous balloonist of the 19th century. Green was experimenting with coal gas as a cheaper and more readily available alternative to hydrogen, for lifting power. He originally intended to take off from Stirling and planned to fill the balloon at the town’s gas works. Alas, the capacity of the works, opened in 1826 (primarily to light the streets), proved insufficient. The start was hurriedly transferred to the Alloa Gas Works. The flight must have been well-publicised, because special excursion steamers sailed along the Forth from Stirling. Green’s flight path took him to Blackford, and over the Ochils, and was witnessed from the town. By 1836, Green was able to set a major long distance record in a balloon, flying overnight from London to Weilburg in Germany, a distance of 480 miles.
Despite this achievement, the balloon remained a capricious means of flight. Other means of aviation would need to be found. Remarkably, Stirling would find itself at the centre of a new discovery, but not before the twentieth century had dawned.