On October 5 1785, Vincenzo Lunardi, a minor Italian noble, famously flew from George Heriot's Hospital in Edinburgh to Coaltown of Collange, near Ceres, in Fife. My ancestors were farmers on several nearby farms, and I like to imagine they were among the crowd who saw Lunardi land. He wasn't the first aeronaut in Scotland - that honour belongs to James "Balloon" Tytler - although he was ultimately more successful than Tytler. [As it happens, Tytler and his wife were Glasites, members of a small but radical Presbyterian sect found by John Glas, who was born on October 5 1695.]
The illustration on the left is by celebrated Edinburgh caricaturist, John Kay (1742-1826), from his wonderful Original Portraits.
Lunardi evidently enjoyed the attention his ballooning exploits afforded him, as can be seen from this account of his first Scottish flight, 228 years ago today
"Melville House, October 5 1785
My Dear Friend,
I now proceed to give you the particulars of my late glorious voyage, which in many respects has been the most remarkable I ever made.
At twelve o’clock on Wednesday the 5th of this month, I began the operation of filling the balloon, with one pipe from each of the cisterns, communicating with another to which the balloon was connected: at two o’clock it was sufficiently inflated to carry me, with the ballast, instruments &c, but the wind still continuing to blow from the SW I fastened eight bladders to my car; then, having taken in 60lb of ballast, several ropes, a basket of provisions, sent my by Mrs Corri, and a cork jacket with which I was furnished by Dr Rae. I put on my regimentals, and ordered the machine to be carried quite to the eastern part of the area, that the Ladies might have a better view of the ascension.
Before my departure, I shook hands with Sir William Forbes, and requested him to advertise, that I would make another experiment on the Wednesday following, for the benefit of the Charity Workhouse.
At forty-five minutes past three I left the earth, with a considerable rising power, in order to clear the buildings; but when I had arrived at the height of 1100 feet, and saluted the people below, I thought proper to check this power, by pulling the valve and letting out some of the inflammable air.
At this period I excited some anxiety in the minds of the spectators by lowering my flag, which is 40 feet square, and fastened to a string 300 feet long; this they interpreted as a signal of distress. The barometer now stood at 28, and had fallen an inch since my departure. At this elevation I spent some time in contemplating the beauties of the scene below, which were indeed beyond description! Especially to those who have never been in a similar situation. The hills about Edinburgh appeared like small mounts raised by art, and the extensive labours of the neighbouring farmers as so many gardens, divided into little plots. The city of Glasgow I could plainly distinguish, and also the town of Paisley; as well as all those on both sides of the Forth, the meanders of which, with the highways and rivers in the adjacent country, had exactly the same appearance as if laid down on a map; indeed every object seemed to lessen and recede from the eye much more than it would have done if viewed at an equal distance horizontally.
My attention was taken from these enchanting prospects by observing myself to be perpendicular over the Frith of Forth : I had been so immersed in contemplation that the Balloon had ascended 2000 feet without my perceiving it; and, had not the barometer been suspended as high as my head, I might insensibly have soared totally out of sight.
I had not expended any of the ballast, and still possessed some power of ascension, when I saw two boats together, and another about a gun shot distance, rowing very fast, and, by the dashing of their oars, making the water look like silver all around them: I now recollected the order I had given to Mr. Corri; but perceiving they had not gone out to Largo, according to that order, and that there was a ship near the Island of May, and another at no very great distance, I thought proper to descend, purposely to discharge the boats, and gratify my curiosity about the Island of Inchkeith. The balloon turned on its axis all the time I descended, and having lowered it to within 500 feet of the water, I bid them good bye and told them that it was in vain attempting to keep up with me: then, throwing out a bag of sand, I immediately ascended ; and, after taking some refreshment, flung down a bottle: all this time I observed that the Balloon was rising gently with a direction due east I then opened my basket of provisions, but do not mean to tell you how I thanked the lady to whose politeness I was so much indebted, suffice it to say, that I made a light but not inelegant repast; and then entered a thin cloud, about half a mile in length, after my passage through which I threw out about three pounds of ballast, as the balloon had lost its rising power, and kept turning gently on its axis. Some snow had settled on it; but, upon being re-exposed to the sun beams, this soon dissolved and dropt into the gallery. Being now above the cloud I perceived that it moved slower than the balloon, which, to my view, seemed perpendicularly over two black spots; but I could not determine whether they were dismasted ships, or rocks near North Berwick.
I imagined that the wind would carry me over land again; but, upon fixing the quadrant, found that I was yet at least two miles on the water. The flag did not now remain perpendicular, but included to the east, about 20 yards beyond the balloon, the direction of which leant a little to the west, and the compass with it. Thus I perceived that there were two contrary currents of air; and, as it was very dangerous to remain in that with which I set out, I resolved to try whether it was not practicable to return by the upper one, or at least be carried by it over land. However, to prepare for the worst, I took off my uniform and put on the cork jacket, and then threw out a whole bag of sand, on which the balloon instantly ascended to an astonishing height. At forty minutes after three the barometer stood at 18.5, the thermometer at 34, and the detached one at 32; the balloon and flag in one direction, and by the compass, the wind at east.
When thus elevated I could plainly distinguish all the northern coast of Britain; but the clouds and mists, towards the south and east, prevented my having any distinct prospects in either of those quarters; so that the proud-swelling German Ocean was wholly hid from my view; nor could I tell, by the direction of the wind, whether I was receding from, or advancing towards it.
At four o’clock the balloon began to descend gently and, for two minutes, I was enveloped in a cloud so that I could not behold either the skies, earth or sea. In three minutes I could plainly perceive myself to be two miles from shore; and in another minutes, the barometer had risen, from its lowest station, to 20 inches, on which I three away another small bottle and swept the remainder of the sand off the floor of the gallery: by this means I was able to proceed in an horizontal direction.
I now saw the Island of Inch-Keith on my left; the balloon and flag still continuing in one direction and moving towards Largo: I was overjoyed to find myself so near the completion of my wishes: the most ardent hope could not have painted a more successful journey, to the sanguine eye of busy expectation.
At six minutes past four, perceiving by my quadrant that I was about half a mile over land, I took off my cork jacket with pleasure, put on my uniform, and finding my stomach in some degree affected with the cold, drank a glass of cordial, which I must own at this moment was not at all unseasonable. Descending very gently I had full leisure to contemplate the beautiful prospect: I had not only a charming view of the Friths of Forth and Tay, with the towns on each side of them but could plainly see Arbroath and Montrose on the northern coast; however the distant perspective gradually vanished as I approached the earth and, at 20 minutes past four o’clock, I alighted on the ground as mentioned in my last.
I was instantly surrounded by several farmers, to whom I had spoken for some time through the trumpet: the first in the habit of a gentleman that reached me was Mr Robert Christie, who politely enquired after my safety and assisted me in getting out of the gallery; the next was Mr Mathew, the keeper of the best inn at Cupar; he seemed to be acquainted with me a great while before, and he did a very great service to me; the other was the Reverend Mr Arnot, who, with forty or fifty people, came running quite out of breath. Hah! I am summoned to assist at a little Sacrifice to the Penates; or, to speak in plainer terms, the bell rings for breakfast. You know my custom of rising early, it has afforded me an opportunity of scribbling this enormous letter to you, but now I must for a little while lay down my pen.
I am returned from the happy board of true hospitality, where elegance presides without superfluity, and where the enjoyments of life continually smile without betraying to voluptuousness. Pardon this little digression from my narrative; I will now proceed.
With the assistance of the people who came crowding about me, I soon emptied the balloon, which, with its car, netting &c was conveyed, in triumph, to Cupar Town Hall. I was supplied with a horse by Mr Mathew of Cupar, and took my first refreshment at Mr Arnot’s, from whence, accompanied by the two gentlemen above mentioned, several others, and four Ladies who came in a carriage to meet me, with the multitude of followers every moment increasing, I proceeded to Cupar, where I was received with joy truly inexpressible! The lower ranks of people looked upon me as a kind of superior being: and Hope, in her sweetest strain of delicate flattery, whispers in my ear that Lunardi’s arrival in that country, will be celebrated for many years to come! At night I was splendidly entertained with an elegant supper by the gentlemen of the town.
Yesterday morning I went to see my balloon, and found it torn in several places about the neck. I am strongly tempted here to mention a circumstance which, however trifling it may seem to you, afforded me infinite pleasure! I know you will think me vain; but consider my dearest friend, I am a young man; I have for some time experienced the praises, the caresses, nay even the adulation of all ranks of people! Mounted upon the highest pinnacle of Fame’s temple, with the loud shouts of applause ringing in my ears, can it excite wonder if my head should turn a little giddy? The joys which universal admiration presents are intoxicating; but I cannot voluntary relinquish them. Shall I relate this pleasing incident? I am irresolute: Yes: I will: if either that, or any other passage in my letters appears to much inclined to egotism, you will behold it, through the medium of friendship, and pardon the errors of a heart which, with a frankness too unguarded, yields itself to the sensations of the moment.
I found the town hall full of Ladies, who upon my expressing a desire to have the balloon mended, vied with each other in lending their assistance to repair it; so that, in less than half an hour, it was as complete as ever. Delighted with this mark of attention, I told them, in the gaiety of my heart, that the deserved a reward for their labour; and, cutting a number of small shreds from the neck of the balloon, presented one to each of them; but what was my satisfaction when I beheld these trifling mementos received with the most animated expressions of regard, and placed as little treasures in the pocket books of these fair ones, some of whom honoured me so far, as to promise that they would have them set for rings or lockets, to wear in remembrance of the event which introduced me to their acquaintance.
After this agreeable incident, I was invited to dine with the Provost and Magistrates who presented me with the Freedom of the Town. The hospitality of these people is almost incredible! As one instance of it, I must enclose you the transcript of a letter sent me by Mr Grace, Secretary to the Society of Gentlemen Golfers. I was next honoured with a visit from Lord Balgonie, who, in the name of his Father, Mother and the whole family, invited me to their house, where I have experienced the utmost hospitality and politeness! The people of distinction in Scotland, are blest, with elegance and happiness, and know not that insatiable ambition which, while it swallows up every other comfort and endearment of life, never fails to prove the bane of human bliss: their enjoyments are chiefly those of the domestic kind; a virtuous and lovely Wife, the education and company of their Children, and social joys, participated with their friends, constitute their principal pleasures.
The chaise is ready; I must quite this happy mansion, and set out for St Andrews. On my arrival at Edinburgh I shall write you again: till then adieu! And may the God of Goodness crown all your undertakings with success, equal to that which now smiles upon
Your sincerely affectionate
Lunardi, Vincent (1786) An Account of Five Aerial Voyages in Scotland, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gerardo Compagni, written under the impression of the various events that affected the undertaking by Vincent Lunardi, Esq. London and Edinburgh: (Printed for the Author and sold by J. Bell, Bookseller). pp. 31-39.
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