Special Collections Department
FORGING A COLLECTION
James Macpherson and the Ossian Poems
James Macpherson was born in Ruthven, near Inverness, in Scotland, in 1736. With the goal of entering the clergy, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh; however, he left after a single year and subsequently worked as a teacher and private tutor. As a student, Macpherson was a prolific poet and also developed an intense interest in the literature and culture of Ancient Scotland. During the course of his travels in the Scottish Highlands, Macpherson claimed to have discovered fragments of an ancient epic poem, written in Gaelic, by "Ossian, the Son of Fingal." With the growing interest in primitivism and the rise of Scottish nationalism, his find was greeted with enthusiasm. Shortly thereafter, Macpherson announced that he had discovered the entire manuscript of this previously-unknown epic which was based on the life of Fingal, a third-century Scottish king. Macpherson's version of the poem was published in 1762 and quickly went through several editions. Its success was phenomenal and interest in Ossian spread throughout Europe. The poem was translated into numerous languages and even Goethe made reference to Ossian in The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Although Macpherson experienced astonishing success with Ossian and the Fingal epic, there were those who doubted the poem's authenticity from the outset, including such prominent figures as Horace Walpole and David Hume. Macpherson's critics were particularly incensed that he had not made the original manuscripts available for scholars to examine. Suspicions were raised further when a mere year later Macpherson announced the discovery of yet another manuscript by Ossian which he translated and quickly had published as Temora; an Ancient Epic Poem, in Eight Books: together with Several Other Poems (1763). In an effort to head off the sort of criticism he received following the publication of the initial Ossian poem, Macpherson provided a detailed account of his discovery of the new epic and even included specimens of the original manuscripts. Still, skeptics raised a number of concerns. They found important discrepancies between the traditional narratives of Scottish legends and Ossian's account; other historical inaccuracies were also present. In addition, the language of the manuscript specimen Macpherson supplied contained modern usages which could not have existed during the period Ossian would have lived.
Macpherson's most formidable critic was Samuel Johnson. Johnson denounced the Ossian poems as forgeries and campaigned vigorously against Macpherson. He went so far as to include several derogatory references to Ossian in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). But at the same time Johnson and others were denouncing the Ossian poems, supporters came to Macpherson's defense and sought to prove the authenticity of the ancient poet and of Macpherson's discoveries. The controversy lingered on for many years and is documented in a variety of publications. Macpherson, wisely, remained in the background during these arguments and managed to sustain a successful career as the author of less controversial works. He produced a well-received translation of the Iliad (1773) and an important History of Great Britain (1775). Macpherson died in 1796 and, despite the controversy surrounding the Ossian poems, was buried in Westminster Abbey, not far from the grave of his harshest critic Samuel Johnson.
Following Macpherson's death, the Highland Society of Scotland launched an inquiry into the Ossian controversy to try, once and for all, to determine the truth. The committee of inquiry had numerous concerns about the Ossian epics; however, its report stopped short of condemning Macpherson as a forger. For the next several decades various opponents and supporters of Macpherson squared off and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the Ossian poems were proved definitively to be the creation of Macpherson. Today, Macpherson's status as a forger is not disputed; however, his writing and the Ossian poems in particular are viewed as important, legitimate poetry of the period.
James Macpherson, 1736-1796.
In this third edition of The Works of Ossian, Macpherson includes an "advertisement," in which he responds to the criticism of Dr. [Ferdinando] Warner who was one of the first to accuse him of misappropriating the Fingal legend.
Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784.
A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. London: Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell ..., 1775.
Johnson includes several derogatory references to the Ossian poems in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Some scholars have even speculated that discovering evidence to expose Macpherson's forgery was one of the reasons he traveled to this remote region of Scotland.
Essay on the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian: in which the Objections of Malcolm Laing, Esq. Are Particularly Considered and Refuted, to which is added an essay on the mythology of Ossian's poems, by Professor Richardson. Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne & Co. for Peter Hill: Archibald Constable and Co.: William Hunter; Glasgow: Brash and Reid; London: John Murray: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807.
The Scottish historian Malcolm Laing launched his own investigation of the Ossian poems and concluded they were not authentic. Patrick Graham took the opposite position and in this essay attempts to refute Laing and prove the authenticity of the Ossian poems.
Edward Davies, 1756-1831.
The Claims of Ossian Examined and Appreciated: an Essay on the Scottish and Irish Poems Published under That Name; in which the Question of Their Genuineness and Historical Credit Is Freely Discussed: Together with Some Curious Particulars Relative to the Structure and State of Poetry in the Celtic Dialects of Scotland and Ireland. Swansea: Printed for the Author by H. Griffith ..., 1825.
The Rev. Edward Davies was a noted Welsh antiquary whose work is an exhaustive effort to prove that the Ossian poems were not authentic and were instead the work of Macpherson or his confederates
Back to the UD Special Collections Home Page
Last modified: 12/21/10