Meeting Our Ancestor James Tytler

james tytler book
Balloon Tytler Biography

I’ve written about our family history trips before.  In the past though it’s been just my brother, our family historian, and me usually going to South Wales, but this time the whole family came too.

I’ve always taken a keen interest in my brother’s research into our family history.  He started work on it in his teens and was lucky enough to speak to a lot of relatives about it who have since passed away.  He’s a conservative researcher, always seeking a lot of evidence before adding someone onto our family line, and a couple of years ago he made an exciting discovery and found we were directly descended from James Tytler (1745-1804).  That year we all got copies of a book about James Tytler for Christmas.  It’s been amazing to be able to read a biography about the life of one of your ancestors and it really helped bring him to life.

James Tytler is a very interesting character and with two notable achievements:

  • He was the editor of the second edition of the Encyclopedia Britannia and he wrote over three quarters of it himself.  According to Wikipedia, it was ten volumes long and had 8,595 pages.
  • He was the first man in Britain to fly a hot air balloon in 1784, the year after the Montgolfiers, who were the first to fly.

Sadly these remarkable achievements did not earn him much material success and he was poorly paid, often lived in poverty and even had to seek sanctuary from his creditors at times.

Some months back I entered a competition being run by a radio station where you had to answer the question: What would you like one chance to experience? I said that I’d like to follow in the footsteps on my ancestor James Tytler and explained who he was.  One evening, while I was doing the washing up, I had a call from the radio station to say that they’d like me to go on air.  A few minutes later I was speaking on air to the show’s presenter and being told that I’d won the money to make my dream come true.  Amazing!

ancestors of James Tytler
Tytler Gardens Sign

After getting the good news, I started to research how we might go about following in James Tytler’s footsteps.  My first thought was a balloon ride over Edinburgh, the city where he made his own flight, but it soon became clear that was impractical.  You can’t fly over big cities in hot air balloons because of air traffic control regulations.  I then looked at flying somewhere close to Edinburgh, but that was problematic.  Ballooning is very weather dependent and I didn’t want to commit to a ballooning trip so far from home, just in case it was cancelled and needed rearranging.  In the end we decided that it would need to be two trips and not just one.  One trip to Edinburgh to see where he flew and where he lived.  Another trip somewhere closer to home to fly in a balloon.

Last weekend we embarked on part one of our trip.  We went to Edinburgh with my brother and visited lots of places associated with James Tytler.  First up was Tytler Gardens (named for him) which stands on the site of the pleasure gardens where he started his flight.  It was a rather wet day, but we got our picture standing underneath the sign.  Sadly there was no blue plaque here (or elsewhere in Edinburgh).

Holyrood Abbey
Remains of Holyrood Abbey

We also visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse.  During his life Tytler had to seek sanctuary from his creditors because he couldn’t pay his debts.  Holyrood Abbey, which neighbours the palace, offered the right of sanctuary for those who could not pay their debts.  The debtors, who were known as ‘Abbey lairds’, found shelter from their creditors within the Abbey boundaries, which included Holyrood Park.  The palace is well worth a visit and kept H well entertained.

It was a great trip and we are now looking forward to the second part of our adventure:  a hot air balloon ride.


  1. says

    That’s so interesting, he sounds such an intelligent man. Shame about the lack of material success but he definitely contributed such a massive amount to British history. And well done for winning the prize to trace his footsteps!
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  2. says

    Well done you and so brave going live on radio! I should do a family tree to see if I can uncover anyone interesting like you did. What a great trip away and I look forward to hearing about your hot air balloon trip! x

  3. says

    That sounds so interesting! I’ve researched family history on my mums side but we all appear to be descended from either farm labourers or domestic servants, no exciting relatives for us. #pocolo

  4. Dee says

    What a great ancestor to have! Would be great to follow in his footsteps by doing a balloon flight. Great idea!

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