What a balloon…!

There are a number of people who have a strong connection with Edinburgh but there is little general public knowledge of their lives and feats.

I thought I would bring your attention to James Tytler.  A great man who worked as a pharmacist/doctor, preacher, artist and editor/contributor to The Encyclopaedia Britannica. But for me the most fascinating thing about Tytler is that he was the first man in the British Isles to fly. He was therefore also known as James ‘Balloon’ Tytler.

James Tytler


Tytler was born a son of the Manse in 1745  in Forfarshire, Scotland. His early life lead him to studying medicine at Edinburgh University. After employment at sea as a doctor and as a pharmacist in Edinburgh’s port of Leith he had run up many debts and moved with his wife to England. He returned to Edinburgh around 1773 with wife and children in tow and took to writing to make ends meet. His personal and working life did not work out well for James and following his marriage failing, things did not look good for him.

However, in 1777 he became the editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica and it appears it was here that he later learned of hot air ballooning and the initial ascent of the Montgolfier Brothers in 1783. His mind seemed to be made up to emulate them in Great Britain and work to raise money and build his Edinburgh Fire Balloon began in earnest. After some difficulty, Tytler succeeded in his plan. The

Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon

early attempts by Tytler to get his plan off the ground (sorry!) were woeful, but he persisted. On 27th August 1784

Queens Park

at Comely Gardens – which is just to the east of Holyrood House, the Royal Residence in Scotland’s capital – the balloon was inflated with hot air and Tytler got on board the wicker basket. The ropes were let loose and up he rose, the first person to fly on and over these islands. He crossed the area now known as The Queens Park or Holyrood Park (above) and into Restalrig Village around one kilometre away. Those that saw this feat were mightily impressed and his next attempt was made from the same area, this time with the public paying a small fee to watch. This second flight was not as successful and the next was a disaster. The local press were scathing, claiming it to be a farce and the public turned against Tytler.

But Tytler was the first to fly. Italian Vincenzo Lunardi – who was much more of a dashing showman – flew his hydrogen balloon over London 23 days later on the 19th September 1784, but was much celebrated for this flight infront of an estimated 150,000 people. Lunardi also came to Edinburgh and on the 20th December 1785 took off from the Heriot Hospital (now George Heriots School) and landed out on the Forth Estuary.

Tyler’s troubles continued, with bankruptcy and divorce visiting him. Following the French Revolution Tytler  reportedly called for a Republican state to replace the Monarchy and had to flee Edinburgh, ending up in Salem, Massachusetts. On 9th January 1804 his body was found on the shore there. He had been missing for two days having left home in an inebriated state. I was in Salem in 2015, but could not find any public notice or indication of his residence there at the turn of the 19th century.

But Edinburgh has not exactly been overly effusive in it’s memory of Tytler. On the site of Comely Gardens, then an open area

Tytler Gardens

I found that one street of relatively new properties had been named after our forgotten hero of flight. We should be doing more……….


The guided walk “Three Volcanoes” by Edinburgh Walks passes this area where the first flight took place. Please have a look on www.edinburghwalks.com for more information.



A Tenacious Dipper

The weather has been very kind to us in Edinburgh of late. Just last week the local newspaper was telling us that we were in for a ‘warm spell – hotter than Madrid, Spain’. It was to hit the dizzying heights of 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit) when it is usually 4 oC (39 oF). Very nice, but ignoring the fact that Madrid is not especially warm at this time of year in any case, so no big deal.

But it gave me the opportunity to walk down by Edinburgh’s main river – aptly known as the Silver Ribbon in the Green – the Water of Leith from Dean Village to Inverleith Park.

Dean Village was an industrial area until not too long ago, and was noted for it’s flour mills in a Royal Proclamation by King David I in the early 12th Century and for it’s noxious smelling tannery’s. Though a lovely place to live now being in the City Centre, these industries along with others helped to kill off much of the life of the river. But the Water of Leith has been recovering in the last 30 years and the walkway adjacent is a pleasant place to take exercise.

On reaching the very popular Stockbridge area which has a relaxed and arty – maybe even bohemian – air, I took the steps by the bridge to go down to the waterside again.

I was especially looking for two creatures that keep me coming back to this spot regularly. One: there have been sightings of an otter on this city centre site. I spoke to someone who saw it crossing the road from one part of the river to reach another. Then I saw a short video of the otter splashing around. But no success today. Two: my favourite bird, The Dipper.

The Dipper is a small, stout little bird with mainly brown and dark plumage and a white breast. As the name suggests it dips whilst standing on the riverbank, looking for its prey. It then goes into the flowing water of a river, goes below and walks on the riverbed against the flow, whilst looking for insect larvae and freshwater shrimp. A fearsome hunter that comes out of the water, then dispatches its catch. And so today, I was successful in spotting a Dipper.

It was sitting on a manmade ledge by a drainpipe only inches from the fast flowing water. The Dipper then jumped into the water and went under. Due to the cleanliness of the water you could just see its white breast moving upstream against the flow, in search for its prey. Up it would come, float downstream, then back in again. Over and over again. What a fantastic sight. (I did manage to get a short video of this, but due to my lack of computer skills can’t get it to load here. Look at my Twitter feed @edinburgh_walks to see it. Sorry!)

Next time you are down in this area – or as part of one of our guided walks with www.edinburghwalks.com – stop by the Water of Leith and have a look for this small, tenacious bird.