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The “Grand Air Balloon”

Samuel Wilson, Digital Content Officer, talks about the antics of “The Daredevil Aeronaut”, Vincenzo Lunardi

A hot-air balloon in the night sky over Edinburgh Castle

I’d love to have witnessed the antics of “The Daredevil Aeronaut”, Vincenzo Lunardi (1754 – 1806) when he came to Scotland in 1785 and orchestrated some brilliant, chaotic scenes which would fit right into a classic adventure story. The flamboyant Italian aeronautic pioneer was on a tour of Britain to demonstrate his “Grand Air Balloon” and it’s safe to say that Scotland was smitten.

Fans paid a shilling a head to see his enormous yellow, green and pink silk balloon suspended in Glasgow Cathedral and crammed themselves into squares in Glasgow and Edinburgh to see him take to the skies. Balloon-shaped head gear became a must-have accessory among fashionable Scottish ladies – you’ll find a reference to a “Lunardi bonnet” in Robert Burns’ poem To a Louse.

Lunardi made five balloon flights in Scotland and caused quite the spectacle on more than one occasion. In Glasgow, a local man managed to get himself tangled in ropes attacked to the balloon and found himself being carried into the clouds against his will. Luckily, he broke free and didn’t have to fall too far! A mishap on a flight from Edinburgh forced Lunardi to ditch in the North Sea, where he was eventually picked up by a passing fishing boat. He’s also said to have terrified unsuspecting farm workers in Hawick and Fife, who for a moment believed the sudden appearance of the enormous, extravagant balloon was a signal for the end of the world!