I have learned from my reviewers that the Ossianic controversy survives, and that the vigorous centenarian is studied with interest; that these Highland stories which bear upon Celtic mythology are most valued by those who know most about popular lore, and that I am blamed for not holding opinions as to the origin of such stories. At the risk, them, of floundering out of my depth, I will endeavour to tell what I know, and what I think about these three subjects.
In 1760, and during some following years, certain English compositions, the work of James MacPherson, were published. There is no dispute so far; he composed the English Ossian,1 but he described his works as ‘translations,’ and it was asserted that they were his “original compositions.”
- “By a “close literal translation,” I mean that every word, phrase, and sentence in a composition in one language, has its proper equivalent in another.
- By a “free literal translation,” that every phrase and sentence, but not necessarily every word, is rendered.
- By a “close translation,” the expression in one language of the very same ideas which are expressed in another – such as the metrical translations of the Psalms; but prose may be verse, or verse prose.
- By a “free translation,” I understand the same thing less accurately done – such works as “Pope’s Homer. In the strictest rendering, a “translator” has the choice of many words, and may thus lean towards the one language or the other. These volumes, for example, generally aim at a ‘close literal translation,’ with a leaning towards the Gaelic idiom, but the loosest ‘translator’ has no right to add one idea of his own, or omit anything.
- The next step is not easy to define. The first “Scripture paraphrase” is not an “original composition,” yet it is hardly a “translation.” It is a “paraphrase.” If compared with its model, it gives the general sense, but it also gives something which belongs to the author of the paraphrase…
- The next step where original composition begins is still harder to define. The “Idylls of the King” are original compositions, but only a step removed from paraphrases, for they are founded on, and contain whole lines taken from old poems and stories: and so there are endless gradations…
- There are compositions which seem to have scarcely any relation to any that have gone before, such as “Vathek,” and one question for argument is, to which of these seven classes do the “Poems of Ossian” belong?
Another question, and an important one is, “Wherein does the authority consist?” In the story or in the words; in the rhythm or metre of poetry, or its theme, or its ornaments and illustrations? Who, for example, will be the author of “Morte Arthur” when Tennyson’s poem is completed?
In 1807, after MacPherson’s death, the Highland Society of London published certain Gaelic manuscripts which were all in MacPherson’s handwriting. These contained Gaelic poems, and are the equivalents of nearly the whole of his English prose; the one is in fact a free translation of the other. The argument is concerning these. Were they composed by Ossian in the third century as MacPherson ‘surmises?’ Or by some other ancient or modern Gaelic poet? Or by MacPherson himself?
Were they translated from the published English prose, or the English prose from the Gaelic verse?
Were they compounded by any collector or collectors of other men’s works, or were they original Gaelic compositions of the man in whose handwriting they were found?
If they were compounded, from what originals? If they be original compositions, how far are the ideas contained in them and their language borrowed from older known compositions in Gaelic, or in any other language? Are they to be classed No. 1 or No. 7? for they must be classed somewhere. These are some of the questions for argument; the prevailing opinions differ as widely.
1st, The commonest English opinion is, that the ‘poems of Ossian’ were composed in English prose by James MacPherson about 1760; that he was the inventor of the character and incidents, and that the poems had no previous existence in any shape.
To support this it must be shown that throughout all known Gaelic literature there is no mention of these names and incidents previous to 1760, and that no Gaelic poems concerning them existed previous to 1807.
To refute this it is only necessary to quote some earlier mention of the characters, and some one early Gaelic poem, Irish or Scotch, concerning their exploits.
This sweeping English theory, which ranks the poems in the seventh class, is quite untenable. The groundwork of much which is in Ossian certainly existed in Gaelic in Scotland long before MacPherson was born. There are many passages in ancient works written in some dialect of English, which prove beyond dispute that the chief characters figured in Gaelic compositions centuries ago, and Gaelic songs by well-known ancient bards, allude so constantly to Fionn, the Feinne, Oisein, etc., that there is no standing ground left for this theory. The West of Scotland Magazine for 1858 gives much information on this point, in a series of able articles on the poetry and traditions of the Highland clans.
2d, An opinion still prevails amongst a limited number of Scotchmen, that Ossian’s poems are historical; that the Gaelic is genuine old poetry composed by a bard of the third century, who witnessed many of the exploits recorded; and that those passages which are said to resemble passages in Milton, may be the sources when Milton borrowed ideas.
To support this opinion, it is necessary to produce some proof, some early manuscript containing the poems, or one of them, or some early account of them, or it must at least be shewn that their language resembles in some sort the earliest attainable specimens of Gaelic as written by rule or by ear; or that these very poems, or parts of them, are still, or were at some time, commonly known to some class of the population, and that they agree with all that is known of the history of these times.
It is not now easy to support or refute this opinion, or prove a negative. The language of traditional poems alters, manuscripts get lost, manners change, and men die; but it might be shewn that, so far as anything is known of early Gaelic literature, there were no such poems, and that their language is not that of some one period between the third and the eighteenth centuries, or that some one event which is mentioned happened later than the supposed date of the poet; and so argue on probabilities.
I could quote modern books which assert that the works of Milton and Shakespeare were composed by Scotchmen, while Ossian’s poetry is a genuine work of the third century; and MacPherson tried to persuade the world that the poems were of that date. He maintained that they had been traditionally preserved in the Highlands, and written in ancient manuscripts which he had discovered there; that according to Irish history, Fingal died 283, and Osgur 296, and that these were the King of Morven and his grandson; that Caracul was the Roman Caracalla; and that Ossian, the son of Fingal, survived his father, and disputed with a Culdee concerning the Christian religion towards the latter end of the third or beginning of the fourth century; that Fingal in his youth, about 210, performed exploits against the son of the Roman Emperor Severus; that Oscar, the son of Ossian and grandson of Fingal, fought the Roman usurper Carausius at the winding Carron, which runs in the neighbourhood of Agricola’s wall; and that Ossian sang of these deeds – all of which it is extremely difficult to disprove or believe.
3d, There is an Irish opinion, ably set forth in the fifth volume of the Transactions of the Ossianic Society of Dublin, and probably held by many, though it is not held by some of the best Irish scholars. It may be thus stated.
MacPherson stole the well-known poems of Oisin, who was an Irish bard of the third century, the son of Fionn and father of Osgur, and who shared in their exploits and survived them, and disputed with St. Patrick concerning the Christian religion, and boasted of his youthful deeds in his old age. These Irish poems were translated into English prose, and subsequently into Scotch Gaelic verse, and the Gaelic published in 1807 is the result of this double process, and of numerous forgeries, falsifications, and alterations, done and committed by James MacPherson to discredit Ireland.
To support this sweeping claim it is necessary to produce the Irish poems in question, and prove that they are genuine, old, and Irish – the work of Oisin and no one else; and then to point out the passages which are translations, and shew that they are not paraphrases, or the original compositions of MacPherson, or of some other ancient or modern bard.
To upset this claim it is necessary to produce old Scotch versions of the Gaelic poems claimed, and to shew that they were known in Scotland, or published there, before they were published in Ireland.
I hold that all these current theories are erroneous; and as the Irish is the most modern, the best supported, and the most opposed to the common English view, which is furthest from the truth, I will endeavour to shew how far I agree with its supporters, and wherein they seem to me to err. I would willingly add all that I can to the larger stock of knowledge possessed by others, and I would gladly discover the truth if I could.
The arguments now used by the supporters of the Scotch and Irish controversy will be found in the publications of the Ossianic Society of Dublin, and in the West of Scotland Magazine, which works are well worth the attention of all who care for Celtic literature, and admire Celtic combativeness. Valuable information is given, but valuable space is occupied by suicidal attacks on Celts, their language and their literature; old rusty taunts, which great men hurled at each other in their rage nearly a century ago, are picked up by smaller men, and thrown freely about still, though they have lost their point and fall harmless. Irish writers attack writers on the Scotch side, who retaliate, and the others retort, and so the cause of Celtic literature is damaged by both; for each is intent on injuring the other, on pulling down rather than building up. The only writer who has attacked me is a brother Celt, who uses a borrowed weapon which owed its sting to its owner’s fame, and says, that I am so intensely Scotch as to ‘love Scotland better than truth,’ whereas I simply stated my opinion about the controversy which generated the taunt. I am ready to admit that Ossian or Oisin was an Irishman, when it is proved. I know that traditional and manuscript poems attributed to him have been known in Ireland for centuries. It is true that most of the old Gaelic manuscripts are written in the so-called Irish character; but nevertheless, I hold that the Irish scholar who writes the following passages does not succeed in proving that MacPherson stole his materials from Ireland:-
“It has also been shewn, on unquestionable authorities, that the Gael of Caledonia were colonies from Ireland, and spoke and wrote in the language of their mother country. From the continued intercourse carried on between the two nations from the third to the sixteenth century, it is evident that the same manners and customs, the same traditions, legends, historical compositions, poems, songs, and music, were common to both.” [Page 227, Vol. V., Transactions of the Ossianic Society.]
In the first place, it is not clear that all the Gael in Caledonia emigrated from Ireland. It seems probable that a Gaelic-speaking population of Celtic tribes once pervaded the greater part of Europe and the whole of Great Britain; and some of these surely travelled north overland, if others crossed the sea from Ireland to Scotland. There are plenty of cases in which whole tribes have passed from Scotland to Ireland, for example, the MacLeans migrated from Islay. But be that as it may, if it be true, as it is asserted, that ‘many of the poems of Oisin, the Irish bard, and other Fenian poets, are still preserved in Irish manuscripts,’ some ‘as old as the eleventh and twelfth centuries;’ if ‘these poems made their way to Scotland at an early period,’ and if ‘there cannot be a stronger proof of their great antiquity than their preservation in that country for so many centuries by oral tradition, although with dialectic changes:’ if all this be true, and neither admit nor deny the statement here, it does not prove the writer’s case, though it supports mine.
He asserts that MacPherson stole Ossian from Irish originals; I hold that he did not; and he shews that the very poems on which he founds his case have been known for ages where MacPherson asserts that he found his originals, and that they existed in a traditional vernacular Scotch costume.
He proves, mayhap, that the muse who, for any thing I know, wears gilded vellum in Ireland, is a barefooted lassie dressed in ordinary homespun in Scotland; but who is to say which is nearest to the Poems of Oisin, the language of the people, or that of cultivated scribes? Who is to decide whether these were popular ballads or courtly poems at first? MacPherson has enough to answer for without making him worse than he is; and it seems unjust to accuse him of stealing things which he found at home.
Ossian resembles those ancient Irish poems which I have seen, less than it does the traditional ballads collected and printed in Scotland at the end of last century, many of which were again collected from the people last year.
But this Irish “Introduction to the poems of Ossian by MacPherson” will astonish an English reader unacquainted with the Celtic side of this curious controversy. The arguments fight amongst themselves, and the authorities quoted contradict each other, while the writer contends with friends, and allies himself with foes. We, children of the Gael, walk ‘shoulder to shoulder,’ but we are apt to dig our elbows into each other’s ribs. Thus it is argued that –
“If Ossian wrote his poems in North Britain in the third century, he must have been either an Irishman, or the descendant of an Irishman, who had recently come from ancient Scotia (Ireland) to settle in that country (Scotland); and his language must have been pure Irish, undefiled, of that period, and not the corrupt patois ascribed to him by MacPherson.”
But at page 199 it is said that “the language of the poems, if properly spelled, and read by an Irish scholar, would be intelligible to the most illiterate peasant in Ireland.”
But if Ossian’s Gaelic is Scotch, modern, and a corrupt patois, and comprehensible in Ireland, so is the Gaelic of the traditional poems claimed, and Irish must be a corrupt patois also.
Further on, at page 227, the preservation in Scotland of certain poems in this Gaelic patois, common to modern Irish and Scotch Gael, is quoted to prove their Irish origin and their antiquity.
But if the preservation of poems in patois traditionally on one side of the water be proof of their antiquity and origin on the other, ancient Gaelic manuscripts, wherever found, should at least be common property, and count for both sides, for there are no manuscripts in the Gaelic of the third century, and one of the earliest known is attributed to Columbkill, the founder of Iona.
At page 179 Martin is quoted as mentioning the existence of Irish manuscripts in the Western Islands in 1716; and at page 190 it is stated that the Bishop of Clonfert, in 1784, found Gaelic manuscript poems there, on which MacPherson had founded some of his English; but it is said – “It is now pretty certain that he (MacPherson) had no originals;” and Dr. Johnson’s authority is used to show that “the poems of Ossian never existed in any other form than that in which we have seen them,” that is, in English. These authorities disagree sadly. It is asserted, p. 178, that
“Fragments of the compositions of the Irish bard Oisin were conveyed to the Highlands of Scotland from time to time by the Irish Shanachies. They were there committed to memory by story-tellers, and recited as they had been in Ireland.”
But a Shanachie means a teller of old tales and traditions, and some must surely have gone to Eirinn from Scotland since the supposed date of Ossian.
Martin, Johnson, the Bishop of Clonfert, and the writer who quotes them, cannot all be right. It is argued that Irish and Scotch Gael and Gaelic were identical in the third century, and are almost the same still; Gaelic manuscripts found in Scotland are quoted and claimed for Ireland, while it is said that the people had all things in common, and are the same. MacPherson, it is said, had no originals – and stole them from Ireland. Johnson says there was nothing but English; Martin that there were old Irish MSS.; the Bishop that there were, and that they contained poems which were the foundations of the English: but if MacPherson had access to ‘Shanachies’ in the Western Islands, and there found old manuscripts which contained poems which he used, then he had originals; and the Doctor and the essayist who quotes him are in error. If he had none of these things the Doctor is right; but the essayist errs again, for in that case the English Ossian was the original composition, and Ireland has no claim at all, unless she will accept of MacPherson, who certainly was an original, whether he was a poet or not.
So, whether MacPherson mistranslated Irish originals, or invented the English of Ossian’s poems, the charge of theft is unjust, for a Scotch Celt had a right to use common Celtic property found in Scotland, and an author has a right to use his own ideas.
If the story told in Drummond’s Ancient Irish Minstrelsy, page 11, be true, MacPherson could not have used ancient Irish MSS. if he had found them in Scotland. He was shewn some in the Bodleian Library, and was forced to acknowledge that he could neither read nor translate them. If so, he must have worked from Scotch traditions, or manuscripts more easily read, or from his own head.
Again, the essayist, having made out that ancient and modern “Irish” and “Earse” were and are the same, at page 180, quotes Johnson – “There are not in the Gaelic language five hundredlines that can be proved to be one hundred years old.” He quotes the venerable Charles O’Connor of Balingare, who, in 1775, said the same on the great Doctor’s authority; and Dr. Young, afterwards Bishop of Clonfert, who, in 1784, held that “Earse” was not a written language till within a few years of the time when he was in the Highlands.
But at page 219, an account is given of an ancient “Irish” vellum manuscript, compiled in the twelfth cnetury, which “contained two poems by Oisin, who lived in the third,” and it is added –
“We have no reason to doubt their genuineness as being originally the compositions of Oisin, when we remember the many liberties of modernizing the language usually taken by the scribes, through whom they have been handed down to us. One of these poems by Oisin relates to the battle of Gaura, and has appeared in one of the volumes of the Ossianic Society.”
If the poem meant be that on the “Battle of Gabhra,” the first book of Temora is founded upon the same incidents; and a traditional version printed at Perth in 1786, and got in Scotland. So the argument is all for MacPherson and against the authorities, for it proves that Temora is founded on incidents which were made the subject of Gaelic poems in the twelfth century. A man cannot eat his cake and have his cake; he cannot claim property as common, and deny the right of a joint tenant; he cannot claim tradition, and withhold manuscripts; assert, and in the same breath deny the identity of Scotch and Irish Celts. Johnson, who knew neither Earse nor Irish, might err, but a writer who knows both should not use his authority, point out, and then adopt his error.
At page 190 it is said – ‘It is notorious that the poems of Ossian are not mentioned in any Scotch history a hundred years old;’ but at 186 is a quotation from Bishop Carswell’s Gaelic Prayer Book, printed in Scotland in 1567, nearly three hundred years ago:-
“They (the Scotch Celts) for whom the book was printed, desire and accustom themselves more to compose, maintain, and cultivate idle, turbulent, lying, worldly stories concerning the Tuath Dedanans, the sons of Milesius, the heroes, and concerning Fionn MacCumhaill and na Fhianaibh.”
This seems to dispose of a good deal of the argument; it proves that Gaelic was not only written, but printed for Scotchmen to read at a very early date, and that Scotch Gael then composed and delighted in compositions relative to the same heroes who figure in Ossian, in ancient Gaelic MSS., and in modern traditional poems, Scotch and Irish. But Dean MacGregor’s Gaelic MS. was written in 1530, in Scotland, and is mentioned in books which are quoted by the essayist; so those who held that Gaelic was an unwritten language till the eighteenth century clearly erred; and he who knows the error should not use their authority.
Again, it has been said that MacPherson had no originals, but at page 190 the Bishop of Clonfert is quoted to prove that he had. The bishop made a tour of the Highlands in 1784 to collect ancient Gaelic poems, and he there found several of the “Irish” poems on which, as he surmised, MacPherson had founded some of his English. These were contained in manuscripts which the bishop copied, and he points out how these supposed originals had been altered by the translator. He says (191) –
“Till the poems themselves be published, it will certainly be impossible to distinguish the ancient from the modern, the real from the fictitious, and therefore, however we may admire them as beautiful compositions, we can never rely on their authenticity in any question of history, antiquity, or criticism.
“When MacPherson professed to be merely a translator, he was not justified to omit what appeared to him to be modern fabrications, and in their stead to add passages of his own, as acknowledged by his advocates; he should have neither added nor mutilated his originals, but ought to have permitted the world to judge in these cases for themselves.”
Against such reasonable arguments there is nothing to be said, but the Introduction to the Poems of Ossian aims at a great deal more. Its argument seems to amount to this –
The Gael of Scotland were an Irish colony who crossed from Ireland to Scotland before the third century, and placed about sixteen miles of sea between themselves and the mother country; they have been in constant communication with her ever since; they wrote Irish, and spoke Irish, and still speak a corrupt dialect of the language. Scotch lowlanders called it Earse, meaning thereby Irish; Celts call it Gaelic, and mean the same. Scotland means the land of an Irish tribe, from whom Ireland should be called Scotia; same poems and legends for centuries; they have all things in common, and are the same people; but the people on one side have no claim to anything.
Irishmen took over the Scone stone, and founded the dynasty which has been crowned upon it ever since. Ireland sent Columbkill to Iona, where a series of Irish, English, Scandinavian, and Scotch kings and chiefs were buried; and yet during all that long period of time, which includes nearly the whole history of England, and a large portion of that of the world – whilst the Norsemen, who possessed the islands of Scotland and a large part of Ireland, and migrated thence to people Iceland, were sailing about from Labrador to Constantinople, conquering Normandy and England, and making themselves a mighty name, and whilst Irish churchmen, some of whom reached Iceland before the Norsemen, wandered over great part of Europe, and Iona was a refuge for learning – the small strait between Ireland and Kintyre allowed no reflux. Whatever is Celtic is Irish.
I hold that this is claiming too much, and that MacPherson was scarcely more unjust when he threw discredit upon Irish antiquities. He made himself and a particular class of Gaelic poetry famous; but what he found was common property derelict – old Celtic poetry, little noticed before his day. When he claimed the whole for Scotland, or altered what he got, he was unfair; but to maintain the identity of a people from the third century till now, and deny the right of Celts to Celtic literature, is unreasonable.
Whatever may be said, the poems of Ossian are printed in the Scotch dialect, in modern orthography, and Roman type, and some Gaelic poet must have composed them before 1807; they are poems, not prose translations from English prose; and their existence refutes this Irish theory, whose supporters refute each other. For example, at page 193 is the story of Colonel Shaw, secretary to the Marquess of Wellesley, who, when a boy, went to London and astonished an old lady there, who read him some of MacPherson’s Ossian in English, by saying, “I have heard all these stories before from my nurse in Ireland, who related them in the original Irish.”
Then were they genuine, and composed by some Irishman? No, for at p. 195 is the other story that MacPherson, who was not Irish, acknowledged to a private friend “the imposition of this English publication, with the attempt of translating it into modern Earse.”
Both these cannot be true, so it is best to believe neither, and follow the advice of O’Flanagan, who is quoted, p. 194:-
“Let us both, modern Scotch and Irish, pursue the more honourable end of preserving the valuable remains of our own ancient literature, which was of yore, and may again be our common property.”
So say I also; but common property does not mean, “What’s your’s is mine, what’s mine’s my own,” as it seems to do in the “Introduction to the poems of Ossian.” Let Ireland take her fair share of all the fame and all the blame that belongs to James MacPherson, for he was a Celt, and let her sons cease to run down poems which have gained a world-wide celebrity, because incidents recorded in old Irish manuscript poems can be traced in them, and Celtic worthies and real Irish was are clearly referred to. Let Irish nurses, shanachies, and scribes, take their fair share of credit for preserving what is old and genuine, but without refusing the credit due to old Scotch Highlanders who have done the same. Above all, let us search for the truth rather than seek out faults, for Ossian is perhaps the most famous publication of modern times, and it is Gaelic now, and was founded upon genuine old Gaelic poems and traditions, all argument and authority notwithstanding.”
While MacPherson’s misdeeds meet their reward, let it be remembered that others similarly tempted have fallen and failed. Chatterton had no foundation for his attempt, and failed. MacPherson had a wide foundation, and built upon it, and succeeded, and made a fortune and a name; but honest Welsh Owen Jones, who followed them both, and whose work is all solid foundation, dug out of old manuscripts, is still almost unknown, though his patient industry commands the respect of all who know his history.2
I hold, then, that an unprejudiced man who has read this Irish argument, must attribute much of the groundwork of the poems of Ossian to unknown bards far older than MacPherson, but not one line as it now stands to Ossian, Oisein, or Osin, if that bard lived in the third century. I doubt if any one old popular traditional ballad now exists anywhere in the same words in which it was originally composed, and I think that this national squabble between England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, Highlands and Lowlands, about poems which belong to the literature of the whole United Kingdom, should now cease. It is as if a man should fall out with himself, rap his own knuckles, tread on his own toes, punch his own head, bite off his nose to spite his face, and use his brains and his tongue to persuade and summon the rest of the world to help him to extinguish himself.
The common opinion amongst Lowland Scots is expressed at the fourth page of Irving’s History of Scottish Poetry, a work of great research, published in 1861; in which it is shewn that lowland authors, of all ages, have had a fling at Celts and their literature.
“It is no longer pretended that any Gaelic poetry has been preserved in early manuscripts, and indeed the period when Gaelic can be traced as a written language is comparatively modern.”
But the next sentence admits that ancient poems were preserved in the Highlands of Scotland, and the notes flatly contradict the text. The Bishop of Clonfert and the report of the Highland Society are quoted. The discoveries of the one in 1784 are mentioned above, the other gives an account of many ancient Gaelic manuscripts which contain poems, including Dean MacGregor’s, which is some forty years older than the MS. of George Bannatyne, and contains 11,000 lines of poetry, at least as old as 1530.
Welsh writers who have taken part in the Ossianic controversy have generally taken a similar view.
And now, having said this much as to opinions and arguments from which I differ, let me give the facts which I have been able to gather during the last two years, and state my own opinions, so that others may judge for themselves, and give their verdict.