‘Bodkin’s Aeronautical Experiences’ (3 October, 1863)

Baxter Park was officially opened on the 9th of September 1863, and was a significant public event in that year. ‘The Journal’s’ owner John Leng had a singular influence on the creation of the public park as he convinced Sir David Baxter to do something for Dundee where his father (William Baxter) had not [Small, Gordon, The Lengs: Dundee’s Other Publishing Dynasty (Dundee, 2009)].

The opening of the park was to include a large procession of military men, sailors, local guilds,  and the Earl of Dalhousie and Provost of Dundee. Much excitement was also generated by the prospect of the inflation of a large balloon by Henry Coxwell, whom a year earlier had gained fame for his daring ascent into the stratosphere. Unfortunately Coxwell’s balloon had to be cancelled due to the direction of the wind.

This is the fourth Tammas Bodkin column on the events surrounding the opening of the park. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Maister Editor,—Accordin’ to promise, I’m aboot to gie ye a scrift o’ my voyage to the cluds in Mr Coxwell’s Mammoth balloon—no a real material serial flight, ye maun understand, but the immaterial ane I made in my sleep on the eventfu’ nicht succeedin’ the opening o’ the Park. Though but the baseless fabric o’ a vision, that voyage through the cloudy regions seemed real enough to me at the time, an’ the recollection o’t still remains veevely pictured on memory’s tablet, insomuch that I’m truly like to swarf wi’ terrification whenever I think o’t.

Undootedly the primary causes o’ that visionary voyage were the sups o’ drink I had drucken i’ the booth wi’ Andro Sooter, the general excitement o’ the spectacle, the particular excitement o’ first tynin’ Tibbie in the crood, an’ syne findin’ her lyin’ aboon the bed in an agony o’ grief, pourin’ oot tears at the lavish rate I described last week—no to mention the fact that, immediately before gaen to bed, I had partaken o’ a wechty supper, consistin’ o’ fried ham an’ petawtis, whereof I fevoored an inordinate quantity, as, to tell the truth, I felt unco yapish after hingin’ on my legs the haill afternoon, wi’ naethin’ o’ meat kind on my stammack except a bawbee biscuit that I had eaten when on my way to the Barrack Park to marshal my professional brethren for the procession. But whatever the causes may hae been, the result was that I had nae sooner closed my een than I fell into a sleep that was far frae provin’ refreshin’ either to soul or body.

First an’ foremost I had a notion that I had tint my coat an’ hat, hoo or whaur I couldna tell, but I had tint them somehoo; an’ great was the lamentation I made thereanent. I was in the midst o’ a crood e’ weel-dressed but ill-behaved people, wha held gaun gibin’ an’ jeerin’ at me because they had coats an’ hats and I had nane. I wandered hither and thither seekin’ for my bits o’ things, an’ though I got a glisk o’ them occasionally, yet I could never manage to seize hands o’ them. Ever an’ anon a fresh turn o’ the kaleidoscope, so to speak, completely changed the visionary prospect before me, an’ showed me new objects an’ new faces, endless in succession, an’ multiform in shape an’ appearance. I made sundry efforts to rin awa hame to Crinoline Crescent, but, alas, my legs refused to carry me. I had a sense o’ weariness an’ fatigue that I’ve seldom felt the like o’, even when in my wauken moments I’ve been fechti’ till the sweat was drappin’ ower the neb o’ my nose to get a marriage or a mournin’ suit aff the irons within an unreasonably short space o’ time. I was really far mair taen up aboot the wants o’ that phantom coat an’ hat than I wad hae been had I been wauken, an’ the coat an’ hat real genuine articles, instead o’ being, as they were, myths an’ monsters o’ the imagination. Ance I got a vizzie o’ them, but when I was juist on the point o’ lettin’ glaum at them, lo an’ behold, they were instantaneously transmogrified—the coat into Tibbie’s black silk mantle, an’ the hat into her grand crinoline bannet, wi’ a bunch o’ artificial flowers under the snoot therof. This part o’ the vision was nae doot conneckit somehoo wi’ my fruitless search for Tibbie in the Park, but hoo it happened that auld Father Morpheus could do sic a daft-like thing as to transmogrify Tibbie’s image into those o’ my coat an’ hat on the silverisin’ o’ my imagination is a circumstance that only the dreamy god himself can explain. But, bad as this was, he did something still mair ridiculous afore he had done wi’ me, for, after toustin’ me aboot needlessly in pursuit o’ my coat an’ hat, until I was at the drappin’ doon wi’ fatigue, he actually had the impudence to send me up in the balloon on a visit to the cluds. Hoo I happened to get into the car I canna tell exactly, but I’ve a distinct recollection o’ findin’ mysel’ in it, alang wi’ Mr Coxwell, Willie Clippins, an’ anither person I didna ken, an’ afore I had power to jump oot the basket an’ its livin’ freight had ascended amid the “hurrahs” o’ the multitude to an altitude that rendered it inexpedient for me to cast my carkitch overboard if I didna mean to break my neck, an’ maybe mischieve somebody in the Park beneath. Castin’ a hasty glance doonward in order that, like the sodger wha “leant upon his sword an’ wiped away a tear,” I micht

“Take a last fond look

Of the valley and the village church,

And the cottage by the brook,”

I saw Tibbie standin’ amang the crood glowerin’ upwith wi’ a frictsome countenance, an’ wringin’ her hands in the same manner as I had seen her do when I returned frae the Park. I kissed my loof to her in token o’ undyin’ devotion, an’ wad hae taen off my hat an’ waved a last adieu wi’t, if I had been possessed o’ sic an article, but the feint a hat had I—naething atween me an’ heaven but the balloon an’ a bare scaup! Up, up we went into the aerial regions at the rate o’ thirty miles an oor, or, to describe the scene exactly as it appeared to my untutored vision, doon, doon went the earth like a stane into a sea o’ amber, leavin’ us floatin’ about on tue wings o’ the wind. It was quite fearfu’ to look doon frae sic a giddy height an’ to see the folk in the Park movin’ aboot like as mony ettercaps. The wind, too, was blawin’ wildly, an’ garrin’ the toom elaith o’ the balloon flap like the sails o’ a ship in a reivin’ herricane. I was greatly incommoded by the want o’ my coat an’ hat, for the cauld was as intense as if we had been in the latitude o’ Siberia. Tangles o’ ice began by-an-bye to form at my nostrils, an’ my lugs nippit until I thocht they wad nip aff. Yet, in spite o’ thae sma’ discomforts, we had a splendid voyage. The panoramic view frae the cluds was worth a’ the danger an’ discomfort we had to encounter in obtainin’ it. Awa to the westward, an’ aboot three or four miles beneath us, lay Dundee, wi’ its wilderness o’ lang lums, its forest o’ shippin’ i’ the harbour, an’ the Law lyin’ i’ the back-grund, clothed i’ the gorgeous hues o’ the settin’ sun. The Tay, west as far as Perth, an’ east as far as the German Ocean, was visible, an’ seemed, when viewed frae oor celestial stand-point, to be naething better than the silver, slimy trail o’ some Titanic snail, that, after feastin’ itsel’ on the kail blades belangin’ to some worthy burgess o’ the “Fair City,” had taen its scaward crawl doon the tine pastoral valley seperatin’ the Sidlaws frae the hills o’ Fife. Northward we could see the valley o’ Strathmore, wi’ its fertile fields clothed in green an’ yellow, an’ givin’ promise o’ an abundant harvest, while frae its northern limits towered upwards into the cluds the huge forms o’ the Grampians, lookin as if they had been the fragments o’ some adamantine fortification, thrown up by a race o’ giants to protect the strath frae the hostile inroads o’ King Boreas an “his airy forces.” Soothward lay the “Kingdom o’ Fife,” wi’ its gentle slopes an’ undulatin’ valleys, an’ wi’ its multitude o’ toons, villages, clachans, an’ cottar hoosies. Eastward lay the broad expanse o’ the German Ocean, wi’ the Bell Rock Lichthoose risin’ frae the bosom o’ the storm-tost waves like the tall mainmast o’ Sir Ralph the Rover’s sunken vessel.

But while I was busy remarkin’ a’ thae uncos, the balloon had been careerin’ awa’ on the wings o’ the wind at a fearfu’ rate, until, afore ye could hae said “Jack Robinson,” Arbroath was beneath an’ the German Ocean before us. Frae the time we had passed ower Carnoustie, Mr Coxwell had been puggin’ wi’ micht an’ main at the valve, wi’ the view o’ lettin oot the gas an’ bringin’ oor aerial ship to anchor at the East Haven, but a’ to nae purpose—the balloon screeved awa’ through the air wi’ a rapidity that threatened belyve to land us at Norroway. A little to the westward o’ Arbroath we had descended sae close to the earth that Mr Coxwell flang oot his graplin’ airns, an’ blew a blast on his trumpet, to signify to a field o’ shearers that they wad be doin’ us a great service if they wad fling doon their henks, an’ grip hauds o’ the raip; but if ye had only heard hoo the “Red Lichties” skirled, an’ seen hoo they ran, when the toot o’ the trumpet fell upon thier ears! They were evidently under the impression that the Last Day had come, an’ that Mr Coxwell was the Great Archangel wi’ his trumpet come to summon the dead an’ the livin’ to their final reckonin’. Bein’ within a mile or twa o’ the ocean, Mr Coxwell saw that it was in vain to expect that we could mak’ a descent on dry land, unless we crossed ower to the Continent, an’ so, as better couldna be, he proceedit to fling oot his sand bags, wi’ the view o’ gien the balloon greater buoyancy. Observin’, hooever, that we were fleein’ exactly in the direction o’ the Bell Rock, I tane speech in hand wi’ ‘m, an’ advised him to licht there, if it were within the boonds o’ possibility to do sae, as, if we attempted to cross ower to the Continent, we micht peradventure get oorsels drooned in the passage, or, if we were fortunate eneugh to escape the “dangers o’ the deep,” we micht land amang a people wha wadna understand a word o’ oor language, an’, in ony case, it wad be some weeks afore we could get back to Dundee, whilk wad cause Tibbie to regard hersel’ in the licht o’ a puir lone widow. This line o’ argumentation had the desired effect, an’ so Mr Coxwell directed his flicht towards the Bell Rock. Juist as the grapplin’ airus cleekit hauds o’ the tangles that cling to the rock, a fierce puff o’ wind cam’ an’ dauddit the car against the tap o’ the lichthoose tower, whereby we were flung oot holus-bolus, and plunged head foremost into the gulf profound! I uttered a fearsome skreigh, an’ cried “Tibbie! Tibbie!” Presently I was sensible o’ something grippin’ me by the shoothers, an’ shakin’ me, an’ then I heard a female voice youtin’ in my ear, an’ cryin’ “Tammas! Tammas! are ye dreamin’? Losl [?] keep me! what is the man doin’ lyin’ there!” So I awoke, an’ behold it was a dream! I had tossed to an’ fro until I had rowed ootower the bed. My fa’ frae the tap o’ the Bell Rock was coincident wi’ my tumble into the floor head. Never was I blither in my life than to find that I was still in my ain hoose at hame, that I was still in possession o’ my coat an’ hat, an’ that I was still

Tammas Bodkin.

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