James Tytler

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"The two first lines of this song [The Bonny Brucket Lassie] are all of it that is old. The rest of the song, as well as those songs in the Museum marked T, are the works of an obscure, tippling, but extraordinary body of the name of Tytler, commonly known by the name of Balloon Tytler, from his having projected a balloon—a mortal who, though he drudges about Edinburgh as a common printer, with leaky shoes, a skylighted hat, and knee-buckles as unlike as George-by-the-grace- of-God, and Solomon-the-son-of-David, yet that same unknown drunken mortal is author and compiler of three-fourths of Elliot's pompous Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he composed at half a guinea a week!" (Robert Burns) [1]

James Tytler (1745-1804), balloonist and writer, was born on 17 December 1745 in Scotland, at the manse at Fern, Forfarshire. He was the son of George Tytler, the minister at Fearn in Angus, and his wife, Janet Robertson. He was an extraordinary man at an extraordinary time in an extraordinary city; notably feckless and debt-ridden, a phenomenally prolific writer, a collaborator of Robert Burns, and the first Briton to make an aerial ascent in a hot-air balloon. He died, drunk, in America, where he had fled from prosecution for his radical political views.


“This extraordinary genius was, perhaps, a fair specimen of a class of literary men who lived in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and were characterized by many of the general peculiarities of that bad era, in a form only exaggerated perhaps by their abilities. They were generally open scoffers at what their fellow creatures held sacred; decency in private life, they esteemed a mean and unworthy virtue; to desire a fair share of worldly advantages, was, with them, the mark of an ignoble nature. They professed boundless benevolence, and a devotion to the spirit of sociality, and thought that talent not only excused all kinds of frailities, but was only to be effectually proved by such. The persons "content to dwell in decencies for ever," were the chief objects of their aversion; while, if a man would only neglect his affairs, and keep himself and his family in a sufficient degree of poverty, they would applaud him as a paragon of self-denial. Fortunately, this class of infatuated beings is now nearly extinct; but their delusion had not been exploded, till it had been the cause of much intellectual ruin, and the vitiation of a large share of our literature.” [2]

After an education at his local parish school, and two or three years as a surgeon’s apprentice in Forfar, Tytler went to Edinburgh to study medicine at the University. The following summer, he worked as ship’s surgeon on the Royal Bounty, a Leith whaler, in which he sailed to Greenland. He married, hastily and could not support his wife; this made it impossible to continue with his studies, so he set up business in Leith as a pharmacist. But business was poor, and in debt he fled to England, out of the reach of his creditors.

He returned to Edinburgh, now with five children, and set about making a living from writing and publishing, for which he built his own printing press. ("In a small mean room, amidst the squalling and squalor of a number of children, this singular genius stood at a printer’s case, composing pages of types, either altogether from his own ideas, or perhaps with a volume before him, the language of which he was condensing by a mental process little less difficult.")[3] About this time his wife, Elizabeth, left him to establish herself as a grocer in the Canongate area; the couple were divorced in 1788, by which time Tytler had been involved in two further relationships. After a spell in the debtors' sanctuary at Holyrood Abbey (where he wrote a ballad called ‘The Pleasures of the Abbey’), he was employed to edit the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He went on to compile the third edition, enlarging it to ten volumes between 1776 and 1784. While he himself earned barely enough to live from this, the proceeds of the third edition amounted to forty-two thousand pounds.


He spent these years at Duddingston, lodging with a washerwoman, whose upturned tub he used as a writing desk. While researching for an appendix on Air Balloons, his interest was piqued by the Montgolfier brothers' successful balloon flight at Versailles in September 1783, and he set about constructing his own ‘Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon’. At that time, Edinburgh had a building nicknamed "the largest pigeon-house in Europe" - the partly built Register House on Princes Street, the unfinished dome of which offered shelter and support for his 40- foot tall, barrell-shaped balloon. He advertised the public ascent, to be held at Edinburgh's Comely Gardens on 6 August 1784, but his attempts were foiled by either technical problems or the weather. The press attacked him, and the mob attacked his balloon.

On Wednesday 25 August, he tried again. He inflated the balloon early in the morning, left the fire burning for another hour, stepped into his basket, and was released. According to the Edinburgh Evening Courant, "the balloon, together with the projector himself, and basket in which he sat, were fairly floated". Two days later, he had even greater success, "navigating the atmosphere" for about half a mile, and on the 31st he made a third ascent, but this time crashed before hundreds of paying spectators. Thus were the first flights from British soil, pre-dating both Vincenzo Lunardi (1759-1806) and James Sadler (1753–1828). [4]

Tytler's life after ballooning was no less interesting, with another stay in the Holyrood sanctuary, more writing and publishing, divorce, another wife and more children. Tytler became interested in the radical politics, and his hostility to William Pitt's government led him to advocate political reform, and he joined the "Friends of the People" society. In December 1792, he was arrested and charged with seditious libel for publishing an anti-Government pamphlet - the first person in Scotland to be arrested under the new Law of Sedition - as part of the government's crackdown on Scotland's radical societies. He fled to Ireland in about 1793 and then to the USA in 1796, where at Cat Cove, near Salem Neck, he published a newspaper - the Universal Geography, an ancestor of the National Geographic. He accidentally drowned while drunk near Salem (Massachusetts), on 9 January 1804.

Published Works

"The mighty call will be obeyed, and men and women always rebel against such weak restrictions: that generous frenzy which invigorates the soul is invincible, and must command. - Why then such incessant clamours against the votaries of love ? Why are the insults of the venal justice, or of the rough-hewn muzzey monarch of the night night permitted ? Their number is rather increased then lessened by persecution, which in this, as in cases of a higher nature, rather contributes to advance than lessen the point at which it aims. No enthusiasm is so strong, so stimulous as that of copulation, it brings its warrant from nature's closest cabinet, and bears even the seal of heaven, "increase and multiply ; " all nature echoes to the general, universal mandate.
If it be a true position, that "Whatever is, is right," why shall the victims of this natural propensity, the volunteers of Venus, the fairest, most amiable of the creation be hunted like outcasts from society, be perpetually griped by the hand of petty tyranny ? Do they not sacrifice their health, their lives, nay, their reputations, at the altars of love and benevolence ? Let the severest virtue reflect with me a little ; and that they are of vast use to the community will surely be allowed.
What villainies do they not prevent ? What plots, what combinations do they not dissolve ? Clasped in the delicious arms of beauty, the factious malcontent forgets the black workings of his soul. Even here the miser feels some throbbing of human delight ; stealing himself, half unwilling from his nature, he for a short space smuggles some small benevolence, and before he departs, is prevailed upon to leave his soul behind - a Guinea. - What a miracle can exceed the opening of a miser's heart ?"
(From the preface to Ranger's Impartial List Of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh[5]

I Hae laid a herring in saut—
Lass, gin ye lo'e me, tell me now;
I hae brew'd a forpit o' maut,
An' I canna come ilka day to woo;
I hae a calf that will soon be a cow—
Lass, gin ye lo'e me, tell me now;
I hae a stook, and I'll soon hae a mowe,
And I canna come ilka day to woo.

Tytler was the author of many anonymous works and of popular songs, including " I ha'e laid a Herring in Saut," [6] or '" I canna Come ilka Day to Woo," and " The Pleasures of the Abbey." His publications include "Essays on the Most Important Subjects of Natural and Revealed Religion," which he set in type without manuscript in Holyrood (Edinburgh, 1772) ; "System of Geography" (1788) ; "History of Edinburgh"; "Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar" (2 vols.): " Review of Dritchken's Theory of Inflammation"; " Answer to Paine's 'Age of Reason'";" On the Excise "; "System of Surgery" ; and "Treatise on the Plague and Yellow Fever" (Salem, 1799)

Tytler is also thought to be the author of Ranger's Impartial List Of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh (With a preface by a Celebrated Wit), anonymously published in 1775 as a guide to the prostitutes of the city.[7]


  1. The Life and Works of Robert Burns‎ - Page 285 by Robert Burns, Robert Chambers – 1857
  2. A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen‎ - Page 393 Robert Chambers, Thomas Thomson - Scotland – 1855
  3. From A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen‎, Robert Chambers, 1855
  4. Balloonists at the Turn of the 18th & 19th Century, The English Flights
  5. Ranger's Impartial List Of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh Ogmios Press (2000)
  6. Broadside ballad entitled 'Lass, Gin ye Lo'e Me'
  7. Ranger's Impartial List Of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh; Facsimile (1979) ISBN: 0904505448; On the trail of ladies of the night The Sunday Times December 6, 2009