James MacPherson, schoolteacher, politician, Member of Parliament, author, poet and translator, was born on the 27th of October, 1736.
Whatever skills James MacPherson displayed as a poet in his own right are lost in the controversy over his translation of the bardic ‘Ossian Cycle’ – a kind of Gaelic ‘Ring Cycle’ from a pre-Wagnerian era. MacPherson’s masterpiece was the sequence of poems about the legendary – undoubtedly mythical – characters of Fingal and Temora. He was indeed an author and a poet, but he is best known for his epic translation of those allegedly ancient, 3rd Century Gaelic poems, for which he gained international fame. The trouble was, those poems, which caused a sensation throughout Europe and were credited with influencing the new Romantic Movement on the Continent, were not authentic. The accusation was that MacPherson had composed them himsel’ and ever since the so-called ‘Ossian controversy’ has remained unresolved. If he did indeed compose the poems, he maun to be congratulated for a wonderful achievement, whatever you may think of the quality of the verses or stanzas of the monumental work. If he didnae write the poems, it was still a wonderful feat, especially for a mannie that couldnae speak very guid Gaelic.
A roll call of those influenced by MacPherson’s ‘translation’ includes such luminaries as Goethe and Napoleon, who brought a copy to Moscow. Oscar Wilde was named after a character and the city of Selma in Alabama is named after Fingal’s palace. Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms composed pieces inspired by it as did Felix Mendelssohn, whose ‘Hebridean Overture’ includes ‘Fingal’s Cave’, which had its name changed from the Gaelic ‘An Uamh Bhin’ (the melodious cave) by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 at the height of the MacPherson craze. Today, MacPherson would’ve been a pop star and like a lot of those, his fame didn’t last.
James Macpherson was born at Ruthven, near Kingussie in Badenoch, on the 27th of October, 1736. He received the rudiments of an education at home, before completing an initiatory course at the Grammar School in Inverness prior to attending King's College and Marischal College at the University of Aberdeen, from 1753. Afterwards, he attended the University of Edinburgh for a year, where he completed his studies and returned to Badenoch. It appears he became a Schoolteacher, but at least according to David Hume, he was at one time, around 1760, “employed as a private tutor in Mr. Graham of Balgowan’s family.” It also appears he was destined for the Church and whether or not he actually took ‘orders’, he was referred to, also around 1760, as a “Young clergyman”. His poetical leanings were first exercised whilst at University and, in 1758, he produced a poem in six cantos, entitled the ‘Highlander’. That met with indifference and sank into oblivion, but it seems he was aware of his limitations as his next attempt was entitled exactly that, “An Attempt in the manner of Pindar”. After that, in terms of poetry, no more was heard of MacPherson until his epic bardic translations hit the streets.
Apart from his infamous ‘Ossian period’, which really began with his 1760 English language publication of ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic, or Erse Language’, MacPherson had a varied life. In 1764, he became Secretary to the colonial Governor of West Florida, and two years later, after falling out with the Governor, he left Pensacola and returned to Britain. He lived thereafter in London and resumed his literary pursuits. In 1771, he produced ‘An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland’. Sadly, it yielded neither fame nor profit. Inadvisably, he then turned to a translation of Homer’s ‘Iliad’, which appeared in 1773 to universal contempt. Dr Graham, in the ‘Critical Review’ wrote that “there is nothing which serves to set MacPherson’s character and powers in a stronger light than his egregious attempt to render the great father of poetry into prose.” Latterly, from 1780 until his demise, he was the Member of Parliament for Camelford in Cornwall. James MacPherson died at his home of Bellville, near Inverness, on the 17th of February, 1796.
MacPherson’s Ossian is based on Oisín, reputedly the son of Fionn mac Cumhaill – or Fingal. In reality, he was a character from Irish folklore, which means he wasn’t at all in reality. Let’s face it, neither Ossian or Fionn, nor any of those mythical figures ever existed, no matter how much Fenian historians would like you to believe. MacPherson appropriated a Scottish origin for Fingal and his Ossian, a blind bard, was supposed to be the author of an epic cycle of Scottish poems and songs from the early dark ages about the life and loves and battles of Fingal. Never mind the absurdity of the mystical origins of his heroes, MacPherson claimed to have unearthed a wealth of ancient Gaelic poetry.
His first ‘translation’ was published in 1761 and entitled ‘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’. His second book, with a title as long again and published in 1763, was ‘Temora: An Ancient Epic Poem in Eight Books; Together with Several other Poems by Ossian, son of Fingal’. In truth, his ‘crime’ was to have confused claims that what he had produced was either a translation of an ancient written work or the translation of a collection of poems and songs from the oral tradition, which he had transcribed into Gaelic and subsequently translated into English. He began with the former claim and settled on the latter and lost his credibility along the way.
To those who did not believe in the authenticity of the poems, MacPherson was reviled as an impudent impostor. His most vituperative critic was the noteworthy Samuel Johnson and during MacPherson’s lifetime, the oft requested manuscript was never volunteered. “To revenge,” says Dr Johnson, commenting astutely on Macpherson’s consistent and unforthcoming response, “reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence… and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt.” Much later, by virtue of his will, MacPherson’s ‘original Scottish Gaelic material’ was published by Sir John Sinclair. Expert analysis seems to suggest that MacPherson’s ‘original Gaelic’ was the result of having had translated his own English ‘back into Gaelic’. Interestingly, when taxed with being the author of the greater part of ‘Ossian’, MacPherson replied, “You are much mistaken; I had occasion to do less of that than you suppose.” An admission of the fact; limiting only its extent, wouldn’t you say?