On December 17th 1903 (110 years ago), brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful flight with a mechanically-propelled aeroplane, and today is celebrated as ‘Wright Brothers Day’ in the United States. Air-travel has advanced significantly in the past century, but still people are fascinated (or terrified) by the idea of taking to the skies.
Robert Burns was writing a hundred years before the Wright brothers invented their flying machine, yet the appeal of flight still features in his poetry, and innovations in flight were being made in Burns’ lifetime. Coincidentally, today is also the birthday of Scotland’s very own aeronaut. James Tytler (born today 1745) was the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2nd ed), and in 1784 became the first person in Britain to travel in a hot-air balloon. Unfortunately for him, Tytler’s flights were soon overshadowed by the flamboyant voyages of Italian aeronaut, inventor and adventurer, Vincenco Lunardi. Lunardi carried out five hot-air balloon flights in Scotland in 1785.
These flights so captured the public imagination that Britain underwent a craze called Balloonomania, this spawned balloon poems, balloon skirts, and even a large balloon-shaped hat named ‘the Lunardi bonnet’. Burns was not immune to eighteenth century pop culture, and made reference to the Lunardi bonnet when admonishing the eponymous parasite in ‘To a Louse’:
I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?
In the poem, Burns was mocking the bonnet-wearer for looking so ridiculous, Lunardi bonnets were certainly not sensible headwear. Despite the silliness of Balloonomania, even Burns understood the romance in being able to fly away. Flight offers a way for humans to escape their problems, to fly away somewhere over the rainbow. In the poem ‘On scaring some water-fowl in Loch Turit’ Burns advises the birds – and the reader – to escape the cruelty of humans by flying away :
Swiftly seek, on clanging wings,
Other lakes and other springs ;
And the foe you cannot brave,
Scorn at least to be his slave.
So today we say ‘well done’ to the Wright brothers, ‘happy birthday to’ James Tytler, ‘buon viaggio’ to Vincenzo Lunardi, and ‘the sky’s the limit’ to everyone else.