The revival of my eighteenth-century balloon-o-mania was inspired after some recent walks around Clachan of Camspie and Milton of Campsie (just north and east of where we live) during which I discovered that that balloonist, Vincent Lunardi, landed in Campsie Glen at the conclusion of his second flight from Glasgow in November 1785.
After wowing huge English crowds with his flights around the country in 1784, the following year Lunardi headed north, to seek fortune, fame and (perhaps most crucially) further funding for his extortionately expensive balloon adventures. Lunardi liked the look of Scotland, enthusing (in characteristically purple prose) in his Account of Five Aerial Voyages in Scotland (1786) about: “rising hills covered with . . . innumerable flocks of sheep; deep but smiling valleys cultivated by the hand of industry and a distant range of almost Alpine mountains rising one behind another and mingling their blue summits with the clouds. I could almost have imagined myself in the enchanted regions of romance.”
Clearly Lunardi enjoyed imagining himself in such enchanted Scottish regions, especially when they seemed to be populated with vast numbers of adoring female fans. His letters do not hold back when it comes to enthusing about Scottish women, whose distinguishing characteristics he describes as: “grace without affectation, frankness without levity, good humour without folly and dignity without pride.” “Nature has made them all lovely,” he wrote to his patron, “what glory to ascend my aerial chariot in their view! To be the object of their admiration! To have all their eyes turned towards me! All their prayers and wishes breathed forth for my safety! and to hear their united acclamations!” “I love them all,” he ardently concluded.
The dashing Lunardi was certainly a hit among the women of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and several wealthy Scottish men rapidly fell under his spell as well: a subscription was established to fund the “expense of the new apparatus” and, after Edinburgh’s fashionable elite supported the cost of a couple of successful flights, Lunardi inflated his new balloon of green, pink, and yellow silk in the choir of Glasgow cathedral where it drew huge crowds, each paying a shilling for the privilege of the spectacle. “By one way or another,” he concluded “money enough will be collected.”
Like many other eighteenth-century visitors, Lunardi was impressed by Glasgow’s broad, well paved streets; its handsome stone buildings, and the warmth of the city’s welcome “I could not help remarking the great friendship and hospitality which subsists in this part of Caledonia.”
Lunardi’s first balloon flight out of Glasgow took place on Wednesday, November 23rd, 1785 and the Glasgow Advertiser recorded the incident thus:
“The concourse of people was amazing. The Green, the tops of the houses, and all places where the sight could be had for nothing were immensely crowded. Many were amazingly affected. Some shed tears and some fainted. . . the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle could only be exceeded by the cool intrepid manner in which the adventurer conducted himself; and indeed he seemed infinitely more at ease than the greater part of his spectators.”
The moment was also captured in verse by local poet, Robert Galloway:
Five thousan’ damsels, chaste as Eve,
Saw him when the yerd did leave;
Their hearts did pant, their bosoms heave,
Case he might fa’
And on the groun’ be seen to rave,
An’ stick it a’
Caught by the breeze, Lunardi flew south, travelled over a hundred miles, lunched on chicken (casually eating cold meats and drinking champagne while ballooning is a key signature of Lunardi’s daredevil nonchalance), and landed safely near Hawick, much to the surprise of local shepherds. Keen to repeat his success, he took to Glasgow’s skies again a few days later. During the initial ascent, a local character reportedly known as “Lothian Tam” became entangled in the ropes and had to be cut free – but Lunardi and his balloon once again rose above the Glasgow rooftops, were caught by the wind, and slowly began to travel north.
A little under an hour later, Lunardi was approaching the Camspie Fells when he felt the balloon “being pressed by two contrary winds,” and begin to spin and tip dangerously “the silk sticking together and driven with the violence of the wind made a terrible and hideous noise . . . the inflammable air escaping very rapidly.” As the balloon was further buffetted and destablised, Lunardi began to “descend with rapidity” into Campsie Glen.
Down below, the appearance of Lunardi’s balloon over the landscape was a cause of huge excitement. “The whole country seemed to be alive,” wrote local minister, the Reverend James Lapslie: “a vast multitude assembled from every quarter. The shepherd forsook his flock, the farmer left his plow and the traveller his journey . . .in passing a little cottage, I heard a weaver expressing the most vehement desire to see this great sight, and crying to his wife to “take care of the bairns.”
Even the prolix Lapslie felt lost for words when witnessing the extraordinary sight of Lunardi’s balloon: “I laboured, as it were, under the grandeur of the object, and strove to compare it to some thing I had seen, but failed” and many of his Campsie parishioners shared his feelings about the unprecedented nature of the sight. “I have seen mony things,” an old man told Lapslie, “. . . about twelve years syne, I gazed o’er by yonder (pointing to the canal) to see ships sailing thro’ dry land; but the likes of this I never saw.”
The Campsie crowd raised their faces to the sky and shouted “yonder he comes!” as Lunardi teetered and tottered towards the fells “whose tops were then covered with blue mist.” Catching the light, and assuming a picturesque appearance from the reflected colours of the surrounding landscape, Lunardi’s balloon “emerged out of the mist and descended in a sunbeam.”
More than happy to bask in Lunardi’s reflcted glory, Lapslie then led his exotic visitor on a procession through the rural highways and byways of the Glen of Campsie to the home of Sir Alexander Stirling, “followed by six stout men bearing the balloon and escorted by a vast number of people of all denominations.” The local female population once again seemed to find the balloonist’s particular combination of Italian glamour and reckless derring-do completely irresistible: “We had to cross over the bridge of Glazert, where about thirty young blooming lasses had ranged themselves on each side to have a sight of this comely adventurer. All of them appeared well pleased.”
In Lapslie, who then “agreeably amused” the assembled company “with a conversation upon aerostatic experiments,” Lunardi had randomly happened upon a man whose appetite for fame, fortune and shameless self-agrandisement was more than a match for his own. A notorious government apple-polisher, who seems to have been willing to do anything to forward his own conservative personal interests (including testifying against former family friend, and important advocate of Scottish political reform, Thomas Muir), Lapslie happily capitalised upon his chance encounter with the famous balloonist to boost his own local celebrity around Glasgow.
One wonders whether Lapslie might have been one of the “braw balloons” that Robert Galloway had in mind in his deflationary conclusion to the poem he wrote commemorating Lunardi’s flight to the Glen of Campsie:
Here we may spy wi’ half an eye,
That a’ Lunardis dinna flie:
For mony a braw balloon we see,
Baith gash and saucy
Until their noddle twin them ree,
And kiss the causey.
…and I also wonder if this poem is one of the first instances of that distinctively Scots insult of which the Dictionary of the Scots Language gives only 20th century citations. I rather like to imagine Lunardi and Lapslie as the unintentional origin of countless subsequent Scottish “balloons”! (If Galloway’s Scots confuses you, the sentiment of his lines might be summarised as: many human balloons float around, full of hot air, but all invariably crash land.)
Lunardi undoubtedly got high on the hot air of his own celebrity while he was in Scotland: “mounted upon the highest pinnacle of fame’s temple, with the loud shouts of applause ringing in my ears, can it excite wonder,” he rhetorically inquired of his patron, “if my head should turn a little giddy?” Lunardi was to an extent aware of his own over-indulgence in “the intoxicating joy of universal admiration” in Glasgow but perhaps less conscious of how the city’s somewhat less demonstrative fashionable elite might find his tendency to propose toasts to himself – “Lundardi, favourite of the ladies” – simultaneously hilarious and offputting.
For Lunardi, as for countless other eighteenth-century figures who rose to rapid fame, the balloon of public opinion proved fickle, fragile, and subject to speedy and absolute deflation. As enthusiastically as they celebrated his feats and flights, as happily as they represented him as the daring and dashing hero of the skies, so the era’s printmakers were just as quick to satirise him as a vagrant with ragged blue coat and torn balloon, begging for coins to “purchase gas to keep his frame alive.”
Lunardi’s final Scottish flight was to end in ignominy, the loss of his balloon, and considerable danger to himself, when he was rescued from the Firth of Forth near Gullane. In stark contrast to the gung-ho tone he strikes after all other descents, Lunardi lamented “the loss of my balloon and its appendages” and his inglorious situation: “heavy with remaining so long in the water, my hands lacerated with clinging to the hoop and every limb wearied, I sate down as well as I was able in a boat full of fish.” Later, one Captain Duncan of Leith, recovered from the sea, “one balloon and net greatly tore, one basket with eight bladders, four pieces of cork, three small lines and a small piece of silk, weather glass (the tube broken), a great blue coat, a hat and cockade.” Lunardi left Scotland, deflated, but not undaunted.
Yet his British ballooning career came to an abrupt end the following year after a young spectator of an ascent in Newcastle became entangled in his ropes and fell to a tragic death.
British Balloon-o-mania was brief, batty, and ebullient. I’m sure if I’d been around in the 1780s I’d have found it just as astonishing and intriguing, just as rich a source of metaphor and inspiration as the eighteenth-century writers like Anna Laetitia Barbauld that I love to read. And I still find it thrilling, even at this distance, that the fearless, fashionable and undoubtedly fairly foolish Lunardi floated, in his balloon, over my home, and Campsie Glen.
Quotations from Vincent Lunardi Five Aerial Flights in Scotland (1786) and Robert Galloway, Poems Epistles and Songs Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1788). There’s more on Lunardi, and balloon-o-mania generally, in my previous post.