Biography of James Macpherson
James Macpherson (Scottish Gaelic: Seumas MacMhuirich or Seumas Mac a' Phearsain) was a Scottish writer, poet, literary collector and politician, known as the "translator" of the Ossian cycle of poems.
Macpherson was born at Ruthven in the parish of Kingussie, Badenoch, Inverness-shire. 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 Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles. Encouraged by Home and others, he produced a number of pieces translated from the Scottish Gaelic, which he reportedly spoke, 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 a Captain Morrison and the Rev. Gallie. Later he made an expedition to the Isle of Mull, where 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, especially Charles O'Conor, who noted technical errors in chronology and 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.
In 1764 he was made secretary to the colonial governor George Johnstone at Pensacola, Florida. He returned to Great Britain two years later, and, despite a quarrel with Johnstone, 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 the Nawab of Arcot. He entered parliament in 1780, as Member of Parliament for Camelford and continued to sit for the remainder of his life.
In his later years he bought an estate, to which he gave the name of Belville, in his native Invernessshire, where he died at the age of 59. Macpherson's remains were carried from Scotland and interred in the Abbey Church of Westminster.
After Macpherson's death, Malcolm Laing, in an appendix to his History of Scotland (1800), concluded that the so-called Ossianic poems were altogether modern in origin, and that Macpherson's authorities were practically non-existent.
Despite the above some critics claim that Macpherson nonetheless 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 and Goethe (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's Italian translation was reputedly a favourite of Napoleon.
Macpherson's 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.
Macpherson is frequently mentioned along with Thomas Chatterton, another forger of the era, in the 1780 novel Love and Madness by Herbert Croft.
James Macpherson's Works:
Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1861)
The Highlander (1758)
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James Macpherson Poems
Malvina, the daughter of Toscar, is overheard by Ossian lamenting the death of Oscar her lover. Ossian, to divert her grief, relates his own actions in expedition which he undertook, at Fingal's command, to aid Crothar the petty king of Croma, a country in Ireland, against Rothmar, who invaded his dominions. The story is delivered down thus in tradition. Crothar, king of Croma, being blind with age, and his son too young for the field, Rothmar, the chief of Tromo resolved to avail himself of the opportunity offered of annexing the dominions of Crothar to his own. He accordingly marched into the country subject to Crothar, but which he held of Arth or Artho, who was, at the time, supreme king of Ireland. Crothar being, on account of his age and blindness unfit for action, sent for aid to Fingal, king of Scotland; who ordered his son Ossian to the relief of Crothar. But before his arrival Fovargormo, the son of Crothar, attacking Rothmar, was slain himself, and his forces totally defeated. Ossian renewed the war; came to battle, killed Rothmar, and routed his army. Croma being thus delivered of its enemies, Ossian returned to Scotland.
Fingal - Book I
ARGUMENT. Cuthullin (general of the Irish tribes, in the minority of Cormac, king of Ireland) sitting alone beneath a tree, at the gate of Tura, a castle of Ulster (the other chiefs having gone on a hunting party to Cromla, a neighboring hill,) is informed of the landing of Swaran, king of Lochlin, by Moran, the son of Fithil, one of his scouts. He convenes the chiefs; a council is held, and disputes run high about giving battle to the enemy. Connal, the petty king of Togorma, and an intimate friend of Cuthullin, was for retreating, till Fingal, king of those Caledonians who inhabited the north-west coast of Scotland, whose aid had been previously solicited, should arrive; but Calmar, the son of Matha, lord of Lara, a country in Connaught, was for engaging the enemy immediately. Cuthullin, of himself willing to fight, went into the opinion of Calmar. Marching towards the enemy, he missed three of his bravest heroes, Fergus, Duchômar, and Cáthba. Fergus arriving, tells Cuthullin of the death of the two other chiefs: which introduces the affecting episode of Morna, the daughter of Cormac. The army of Cuthullin is descried at a distance by Swaran, who sent the son of Arno to observe the motions of the enemy, while he himself ranged his forces in order of battle. The son of Arno returning to Swaran, describes to him Cuthullin's chariot, and the terrible appearance of that hero. The armies engage, but night coming on, leaves the victory undecided. Cuthullin, according to the hospitality of the times, sends to Swaran a formal invitation to a feast, by his bard Carril, the son of Kinfena. Swaran refuses to come. Carril relates to Cuthullin the story of Grudar and Brassolis. A party, by Connal's advice, is sent to observe the enemy; which closes the action of the first day.
After an address to Malvina, the daughter of Toscar, Ossian proceeds to relate his own expedition to Fuärfed, an island of Scandinavia. Mal-orchol, king of Fuärfed, being hard pressed in war by Ton-thormod, chief of Sar-dronto (who had demanded in vain the daughter of Mal-orchol in marriage,) Fingal sent Ossian to his aid. Ossian, on the day after his arrival, came to battle with Ton-thormod, and took him prisoner. Mal-orchol offers his daughter, Oina-morul, to Ossian; but he, discovering her passion for Ton-thormod, generously surrenders her to her lover, and brings about a reconciliation between the two kings.
Fingal - Book V
ARGUMENT. Cuthullin and Connal still remain on the hill. Fingal and Swaran meet: the combat is described. Swaran is overcome, bound, and delivered over as a prisoner to the care of Ossian, and Gaul, the son of Morni; Fingal, his younger sons and Oscar still pursue the enemy. The episode of Orla, a chief of Lochlin, who was mortally wounded in the battle, is introduced. Fingal, touched with the death of Orla, orders the pursuit to be discontinued; and calling his sons together, he is informed that Ryno, the youngest of them, was slain. He laments his death, hears the story of Lamderg and Gelchossa, and returns towards the place where he had left Swaran. Carril, who had been sent by Cuthullin to congratulate Fingal on his victory, comes in the mean time to Ossian. The conversation of the two poets closes the action of the fourth day.
Fingal - Book Ii
ARGUMENT. The ghost of Crugal, one of the Irish heroes who was killed in battle, appearing to Connal, foretells the defeat of Cuthullin in the next battle, and earnestly advises him to make peace with Swaran. Connal communicates the vision; but Cuthullin is inflexible; from a principle of honor he would not be the first to sue for peace, and he resolved to continue the war. Morning comes; Swaran proposes dishonorable terms to Cuthullin, which are rejected. The battle begins, and is obstinately fought for some time, until, upon the flight of Grumal, the whole Irish army gave way. Cuthullin and Connal cover their retreat. Carril leads them to a neighboring hill, whither they are soon followed by Cuthullin himself; who descries the fleet of Fingal making towards their coast; but night coming on, he lost sight of it again. Cuthullin, dejected after his defeat, attributes his ill success to the death of Ferda, his friend, whom he had killed some time before. Carril, to show that ill success did not always attend those who innocently killed their friends, introduces the episode of Connal and Galvina.
Preface To Ossian
WITHOUT increasing his genius, the author may have improved his language, in the eleven years that the following poems have been in the hands of the public. Errors in diction might have been committed at twenty-four, which the experience of a riper age may remove; and some exuberances in imagery may be restrained with advantage, by a degree of judgment acquired in the progress of time. Impressed with this opinion, he ran over the whole with attention and accuracy; and he hopes he has brought the work to a state of correctness which will preclude all future improvements. The eagerness with which these poems have been received abroad, is a recompense for the coldness with which a few have affected to treat them at home. All the polite nations of Europe have transferred them into their respective languages; and they speak of him who brought them to light, in terms that might flatter the vanity of one fond of flame. In a convenient indifference for a literary reputation, the author hears praise without being elevated, and ribaldry without being depressed. He has frequently seen the first bestowed too precipitately; and the latter is so faithless to its purpose, that it is often the only index to merit in the present age.
Fingal - Book Iv
ARGUMENT. The action of the poem being suspended by night, Ossian takes the opportunity to relate his own actions at the lake of Lego, and his courtship of Everallin, who was the mother of Oscar, and had died some time before the expedition of Fingal into Ireland. Her ghost appears to him, and tells him that Oscar, who had been sent, the beginning of the night, to observe the enemy, was engaged with an advanced party, and almost overpowered. Ossian relieves his son; and an alarm is given to Fingal of the approach of Swaran. The king rises, calls his army together, and, as he had promised the preceding night, devolves the command on Gaul the son of Morni, while he himself, after charging his sons to behave gallantly and defend his people, retires to a hill, from whence he could have a view of the battle. The battle joins; the poet relates Oscar's great actions. But when Oscar, in conjunction with his father, conquered in one wing, Gaul, who was attacked by Swaran in person, was on the point of retreating in the other. Fingal sends Ullin his bard to encourage them with a war song, but notwithstanding Swaran prevails; and Gaul and his army are obliged to give way. Fingal descending from the hill, rallies them again; Swaran desists from the pursuit, possesses himself of a rising ground, restores the ranks, and waits the approach of Fingal. The king, having encouraged his men, gives the necessary orders, and renews the battle. Cuthullin, who, with his friend Connal, and Carril his bard, had retired to the cave of Tura, hearing the noise, came to the brow of the hill, which overlooked the field of battle, where he saw Fingal engaged with the enemy. He, being hindered by Connal from joining Fingal, who was himself upon the point of obtaining a complete victory, sends Carril to congratulate that hero on success.
Fingal - Book Vi
ARGUMENT. Night comes on. Fingal gives a feast to his army, at which Swaran is present. The king commands Ullin his bard to give "the song of peace;" a custom always observed at the end of a war. Ullin relates the actions of Trenmor, great-grandfather to Fingal, in Scandinavia, and his marriage with Inibaca, the daughter of a king of Lochlin, who was ancestor to Swaran; which consideration, together with his being brother to Agandecca, with whom Fingal was in love in his youth, induced the king to release him, and permit him to return with the remains of his army into Lochlin, upon his promise of never returning to Ireland in a hostile manner. The night is spent in settling Swaran's departure, in songs of bards, and in a conversation in which the story of Grumal is introduced by Fingal. Morning comes. Swaran departs. Fingal goes on a hunting party, and finding Cuthullin in the cave of Tura, comforts him, and sets sail the next day for Scotland, which concludes the poem.
Comala, A Dramatic Poem
This poem. is valuable on account of the light it throws on the antiquity of Ossian's compositions. The Caracul mentioned here is the same with Caracalla, the son of Severus, who, in the year 211, commanded an expedition against the Caledonians. The variety of the measure shows that the poem was originally set to music, and perhaps presented before the chiefs upon solemn occasions. Tradition has handed down the story more complete than it is in the poem. "Comala, the daughter of Sarno, king of Inistore, or Orkney Islands, fell in love with Fingal, the son of Comhal, at a feast, to which her father had invited him [Fingal, B. III.] upon his return from Lochlin, after the death of Agandecca. Her passion was so violent, that she followed him, disguised like a youth, who wanted to be employed in his wars. She was soon discovered by Hidallan, the son of Lamor, one of Fingal's heroes, whose love she had slighted some time before. Her romantic passion and beauty recommended her so much to the king, that he had resolved to make her his wife; when news was brought him of Caracul's expedition. He marched to stop the progress of the enemy, and Comala attended him. He left her on a hill, within sight of Caracul's army, when he himself went to battle, having previously promised, if he survived, to return that night." The sequel of the story may be gathered from the poem itself. **
ARGUMENT. It may not be improper here to give the story which is the foundation of this poem, as it is handed down by tradition. Usnoth, lord of Etha, which is probably that part of Argyleshire which is near Loch Eta, an arm of the sea in Lorn, had three sons, Nathos, Althos, and Ardan, by Slissáma, the daughter of Semo, and sister to the celebrated Cuthullin. The three brothers, when very young, were sent over to Ireland by their father, to learn the use of arms under their uncle Cuthullin, who made a great figure in that kingdom. They were just landed in Ulster, when the news of Cuthullin's death arrived. Nathos, though very young, took the command of Cuthullin's army, made head against Cairbar the usurper, and defeated him in several battles. Cairbar at last, having found means to murder Cormac, the lawful king, the army of Nathos shifted sides, and he himself was obliged to return into Ulster, in order to pass over into Scotland.
Temora - Book Ii
ARGUMENT. This book opens, we may suppose, about midnight, with a soliloquy of Ossian, who had retired from the rest of the army, to mourn for his son Oscar. Upon hearing the noise of Cathmor's army approaching, he went to find out his brother Fillan, who kept the watch on the hill of Mora, in the front of Fingal's army. In the conversation of the brothers, the episode of Conar, the son of Trenmor, who was the first king of Ireland, is introduced, which lays open the origin of the contests between the Gael and the Fir-bolg, the two nations who first possessed themselves of that island. Ossian kindles a fire on Mora: upon which Cathmor desisted from the design he had formed of surprising the army of the Caledonians. He calls a council of his chiefs: reprimands Foldath for advising a night attack, as the Irish were so much superior in number to the enemy. The bard Fonar introduces the story of Crothar, the ancestor of the king, which throws further light on the history of Ireland, and the original pretensions of the family of Atha to the throne of that kingdom. The Irish chiefs lie down to rest, and Cathmor himself undertakes the watch. In his circuit round the army he is met by Ossian. The interview of the two heroes is described. Cathmor obtains a promise from Ossian to order a funeral elegy to be sung over the grave of Cairbar: it being the opinion of the times, that the souls of the dead could not be happy till their elegies were sung by a bard. Morning comes. Cathmor and Ossian part; and the latter, casually meeting with Carril the son of Kinfena, sends that bard, with a funeral song, to the tomb of Cairbar.
Fingal when very young, making a voyage to the Orkney Islands, was driven by stress of weather into a bay of Scandinavia, near the residence of Starno, king of Lochlin. Starno invites Fingal to a feast. Fingal, doubting the faith of the king, and mindful of a former breach of hospitality, refuses to go. — Starno gathers together his tribes; Fingal resolves to defend himself. — Night coming on, Duth-maruno proposes to Fingal to observe the motions of the enemy. — The king himself undertakes the watch. Advancing towards the enemy, he accidentally comes to the cave of Turthor, where Starno had confined Conban-Cargla, the captive daughter of a neighboring chief. — Her story is imperfect, a part of the original being lost. — Fingal comes to a place of worship, where Starno, and his son Swaran, consulted the spirit of Loda concerning the issue of the war. — The rencounter of Fingal and Swaran.— Duan first concludes with a description of the airy hall of Cruth-loda, supposed to be the Odin of Scandinavia. The bards distinguished those compositions in which the narration is often interrupted by episodes and apostrophes, by the name of Duan.
Cathlin Of Clutha
An address to Malvina, the daughter of Toscar. The poet relates the arrival of Cathlin in Selma, to solicit aid against Duth-carmor of Cluba, who had killed Cathmol for the sake of his daughter Lanul. Fingal declining to make a choice among his heroes, who were all claiming the command of the expedition, they retired "each to his hill of ghosts," to be determined by dreams. The spirit of Trenmor appears to Ossian and Oscar. They sail from the bay of Carmona, and on the fourth day, appear off the valley of Rath-col, in Inis-huna, where Duth-carmor had fixed his residence. Ossian despatches a bard to Duth-carmor to demand battle. Night comes on. The distress of Cathlin of Clutha. Ossian devolves the command on Oscar, who, according to the custom of the kings of Morven, before battle, retired to a neighboring hill. Upon the coming on of day, the battle joins. Oscar carries the mail and helmet of Duth-carmor to Cathlin, who had retired from the field. Cathlin is discovered to be the daughter of Cathmol in disguise, who had been carried off by force by, and had made her escape from, Duth-carmor.
Gaul, the son of Morni, attended Lathmon into his own country, after his being defeated in Morven, as related in a preceding poem. He was kindly entertained by Nuäth, the father of Lathmon, and fell in love with his daughter Oithona. The lady was no less enamored of Gaul, and a day was fixed for their marriage. In the mean time Fingal, preparing for an expedition into the country of the Britons, sent for Gaul. He obeyed, and went; but not without promising to Oithona to return, it he survived the war, by a certain day. Lathmon too was obliged to attend his father Nuäth in his wars, and Oithona was left alone at Dunlathmon, the seat of the family. Dunrommath, Lord of Uthal, supposed to be one of the Orkneys, taking advantage of the absence of her friends, came and carried off, by force, Oithona, who had formerly rejected his love, into Tromáthon, a desert island, where he concealed her in a cave. Gaul returned on the day appointed; heard of the rape, and sailed to Tromáthon, to revenge himself on Dunrommath. When he landed, he found Oithona disconsolate, and resolved not to survive the loss of her honor. She told him the story of her misfortunes, and she scarce ended when Dunrommath with his followers appeared at the farther end of the island. Gaul prepared to attack him, recommending to Uithona to retire till the battle was over. She seemingly obeyed; but she secretly armed herself rushed into the thickest of the battle, and was mortally wounded. Gaul, pursuing the flying enemy, found her just expiring on the field; he mourned over her, raised her tomb, and returned to Morven. Thus is the story handed down by tradition; nor is it given with any material difference in the poem, which opens with Gaul's return to Dunlathmon, after the rape of Oithona.
Cathloda — Duan Iii
Ossian, after some general reflections, describes the situation of Fingal, and the position of the army of Lochlin. — The conversation of Starno and Swaran. — The episode of Corman-trunar and Foina-bragal. — Starno, from his own example, recommends to Swaran to surprise Fingal, who had retired alone to a neighboring hill. Upon Swaran's refusal, Starno undertakes the enterprise himself, is overcome and taken prisoner by Fingal. He is dismissed after a severe reprimand for his cruelty.