Born in 1736, James Macpherson was a native Gaelic speaker from Badenoch, who studied Classics at Aberdeen. Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760) were supposedly his translations of works by an ancient Celtic bard, Ossian. The Fragments invariably describe a doomed love triangle.
Its success led to MacPherson being encouraged, and funded, by a group of patriotic Edinburgh gentlemen (none of whom spoke Gaelic) to travel to the Highlands and retrieve the epic poem he suggested was extant there. This led to the publication of Fingal (1762) and Temora (1765). Macpherson’s Ossian poems were hugely popular and internationally influential for many decades, even while there were doubts about the work’s authenticity. It seems that Macpherson was working from extant Gaelic texts, which he considered to be corrupted versions of older poems, and which deserved ‘improvement’ for modern tastes in the course of translation.
Samuel Johnson was one of the skeptics. According to Boswell, “he denied merit to Fingal, supposing it to be the production of a man who has had the advantages that the present age affords; and said, ‘nothing is more easy than to write enough in that style if once you begin’.”
One of MacPherson’s champions was Hugh Blair (1718–1800), a Church of Scotland minister who was later appointed Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University. MacPherson composed much of Fingal in Blackfriars Wynd, Edinburgh, where Blair lived. Blair wrote ‘A Critical Dissertation on the Poems Of Ossian, the Son of Fingal’ (1763), included in every edition of Ossian after 1765. Here is an extract.
It is necessary here to observe, that the beauties of Ossian’s writings cannot be felt by those who have given them only a single or hasty perusal. His manner is so different from that of the poets to whom we are most accustomed; his style is so concise, and so much crowned with imagery; the mind is kept at such a stretch in accompanying the author; that an ordinary reader is at first apt to be dazzled and fatigued, rather than pleased. His poems require to he taken up at intervals, and to be frequently reviewed; and then it is impossible but his beauties must open to every reader who is capable of sensibility. Those who have the highest degree of it will relish them the most.
And here is an extract from Fingal, which can be read with the benefit of Blair’s, or Johnson’s, perspective.
Now I behold the chiefs, in the pride of their former deeds ! Their souls are kindled at the battles of old ; and the actions of other times. Their eyes are like flames of fire. And roll in search of the foes of the land. Their mighty hands are on their swords. And lightning pours from their sides of steel.
They came like streams from the mountains ; each rushed roaring from his hill. Bright are the chiefs of battle, in the armour of their fathers. Gloomy and dark their heroes follow, like the gathering of the rainy clouds behind the red meteors of heaven.
The sound of crashing arms ascend. The grey dogs howl between. Unequally bursts the song of battle. And rocking Cromla echoes round. On Lena’s dusky heath they stood, like mist that shades the hills of autumn : when broken and dark it settles high, and lifts its head to heaven. (…)
Each hero is a pillar of darkness, and the sword a beam of fire in his hand. The field echoes from wing to wing, as a hundred hammers that rise by turns on the red son of the furnace. (…)
As the troubled noise of the ocean when roll the waves on high: as the last peal of the thunder of heaven, such is the noise of battle. Though Cormac’s hundred bards were there to give the war to song ; feeble were the voices of a hundred bards to send the deaths to future times. For many were the falls of the heroes ; and wide poured the blood of the valiant.
MacPherson, unfazed by controversy, later produced a version of Homer’s Iliad, became an MP, died a wealthy man and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.