James Macpherson (Seumas Mac a' Phearsain; 27 October 1736 17 February 1796) was a Scottish poet, known as the "translator" of the Ossian cycle of poems.
Macpherson was born at Ruthven
in the parish
. In 1753, he was sent to King's College, Aberdeen
, moving two years later to Marischal College
(the two institutions later became the University of Aberdeen
). He then went to Edinburgh for just over a year, but it is unknown whether he studied at the university. He is said to have written over 4,000 lines of verse while a student; some of this was later published, notably The Highlander
(1758), which he is said to have tried to suppress afterwards.
Collecting Scottish Gaelic poetry
On leaving college, he returned to Ruthven to teach in the school there. At Moffat
he met John Home
, the author of Douglas
, for whom he recited some Gaelic
verses from memory. He also showed him manuscripts of Gaelic poetry, supposed to have been picked up in the highlands and islands
, and, encouraged by Home and others, he produced a number of pieces translated
from the Scottish Gaelic, which he was induced to publish at Edinburgh
in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland
. Dr Hugh Blair
, who was a firm believer in the authenticity of the poems, raised a subscription to allow Macpherson to pursue his Gaelic researches.
In the autumn he set out to visit western Inverness-shire, the islands of Skye, North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula. He obtained manuscripts which he translated with the assistance of Captain Morrison and the Rev. A Gallie. Later in the year he made an expedition to Mull, Argyll, when he obtained other manuscripts.
In 1761 he announced the discovery of an epic on the subject of Fingal
(related to the Irish mythological
character Fionn mac Cumhaill
/Finn McCool) written by Ossian
(based on Fionn's son Oisín
), and in December he published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language
, written in the musical measured prose
of which he had made use in his earlier volume. Temora
followed in 1763, and a collected edition, The Works of Ossian
, in 1765. The name Fingal or Fionnghall
means "white stranger", and it is suggested that the name was rendered as Fingal through a derivation of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn.
The authenticity of these so-called translations from the works of a 3rd century bard was immediately challenged by Irish historians, who noted its technical errors in chronology, its technical errors in the forming of Gaelic names, and commented on the implausibility of many of MacPherson's claims, none of which MacPherson was able to refute. More forceful denunciations were later made by Dr. Samuel Johnson, who asserted (in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775) that MacPherson had found fragments of poems and stories, and then woven them into a romance of his own composition. Further challenges and defences were made well into the nineteenth century, but the issue was moot by then. Macpherson never produced the originals that he claimed existed.
Lost in the controversy is the fact that many Gaelic-speaking critics of Ossian's legitimacy praised MacPherson's talent for Gaelic poetry.
In 1764 he was made secretary to the colonial governor George Johnstone
at Pensacola, Florida
, and when he returned, two years later, to Great Britain
, after a quarrel with Johnstone, he was allowed to retain his salary as a pension. He went on to write several historical works, the most important of which was Original Papers, containing the Secret History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover
, to which are prefixed Extracts from the Life of James II
, as written by himself (1775). He enjoyed a salary for defending the policy of Lord North
's government, and held the lucrative post of London agent to nabob
. He entered parliament
in 1780, as Member of Parliament
and continued to sit until his death. In his later years he bought an estate, to which he gave the name of Belville, in his native county
, where he died.
After Macpherson's death, Malcolm Laing
, in an appendix to his History of Scotland
(1800), propounded the extreme view that the so-called Ossianic poems were altogether modern in origin, and that Macpherson's authorities were practically non-existent. Much of Macpherson's matter is clearly his own, and he confounds the stories belonging to different cycles. But apart from the doubtful morality of his transactions he must still be regarded as one of the great Scottish writers. The varied sources of his work and its worthlessness as a transcript of actual Celtic poems do not alter the fact that he produced a work of art which by its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German
, literature. It was speedily translated into many European languages, and Herder
(in his earlier period) were among its profound admirers. Goethe incorporated his translation of a part of the work into his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther
. Melchiore Cesarotti
translation was one of Napoleon
's favourite books.
His legacy indirectly includes the naming of Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa. The original gaelic name is An Uamh Bhin - 'the melodious cave' but it was renamed by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 at the height of Macpherson's popularity.
Sources for further reading
- "The Poems of Ossian and other related Works", ed. Howard Gaskill, introd. Fiona Stafford, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996)
- The Reception of Ossian in Europe, edited by Howard Gaskill, (London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004).
- "The Sublime Savage", by Fiona Stafford
- "Ossian Revisited*, by Howard Gaskil (ed.)