This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

December 2003


17 December 1745:   James "Balloon" Tytler, Scottish patriot and early aviator, born.

In this month marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the airplane, we pause to pay tribute to a little-known Celtic aviation pioneer.

By a curious coincidence, his birthday, 17 December, was the very day on which the Wright brothers would make their first powered flight 158 years later in 1903.

A brilliant polymath in the best tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Tytler nevertheless cut an unprepossessing figure as he walked the streets of his native Edinburgh. The poet Robert Burns once described him as “an obscure, tippling, but extraordinary body of the name Tytler,” who “drudges about Edinburgh as a common printer, with leaky shoes, a sky- lighted hat, and knee-buckles as unlike as George-by-the-grace-of-God and Solomon-the-son-of-David.”

Educated at Edinburgh’s preeminent medical school, Tytler was unable to get himself set up in a successful practice as a physician, and instead worked at a variety of jobs, being at various times a pharmacist, a surgeon on a Greenland whaling ship, a free-lance printer, and a hack writer. Living constantly on the edge of destitution and in debt, he became one of the last people in Scotland to claim the medieval right of sanctuary when he fled to Holyrood Abbey to avoid being thrown into debtor’s prison. Making the most of his time there hiding out from the bailiff, he composed a ballad, “The Pleasures of the Abbey,” and designed and built his own printing press to start a new line of work.

In his capacity as a writer, he was hired to contribute to the greatly expanded second edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. While his article on electricity drew particular praise, most of the enormous output he contributed to the encyclopedia went uncredited. To produce a steady flow of articles for the publication, Tytler drew upon the resources of a brilliant mind and a lifetime of voracious reading, even though to write the articles he had to use an overturned washtub as a desk. Exactly how much of the second edition was his work is uncertain, though Robert Burns and others believed it may have been as much as three-quarters of the ten-volume encyclopedia.

The details of his pioneer balloon flight of 27 August 1784 are also uncertain, though the event was witnessed by crowds of people. While his home-made craft is usually described as a hot-air balloon, one contemporary account referred to his lining the balloon fabric with paper to seal in the “inflammable air,” indicating that Tytler may have filled it with hydrogen. Though by one account he only sailed over a garden wall and into a dunghill, his flight is usually described as wafting him all the way to a nearby village, making him the first man in Scotland, or Britain for that matter, to fly.

But his accomplishments as a balloonist and encyclopedist did him little good in the tense political atmosphere of the 1790s. Tytler joined the Friends of the People, an early Scottish nationalist movement, where he drew the attention of the authorities for inscribing what they regarded as seditious placards. Fearing that the sanctuary of Holyrood Abbey might not suffice to shield him from the wrath of an alarmed government, Tytler fled to the United States, settling down as a printer in Salem, Massachusetts. There he died on 11 January 1804, by some accounts from a severe cold, by others from having fallen into a clay pit and drowned.

For more information on Scotland, see the Scotland Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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