Heroes of Ossian, pp.24-35.


The first question for enquiry is, who and what were the heroes of Ossian? 

According to Professor O’Curry’s Lectures,1 the following dates rest upon ancient authority – 

B.C.E. 110 Finn’s pedigree begins. Finn son of Cumhall, son of Trenmór, son of Snaelt, son of Eltan, son of Baiscni, son of Nuada Necht, who was monarch of Ireland B.C. 110.

C.E. 283 Finn slain, in the reign of Cairbré Lifeachair.

C.E. 284 Battle of Gabhra. Death of Oscar and Cairbré. (p. 304.)

C.E. 432 Coming of St. Patrick to Ireland to whom Oisin, the son of Finn, and Caelte his kinsman and contemporary, recited poems describing the glories of the ancient race, and the localities of famous events.

In a matter of such antiquity it is of small importance that Oisin, who had a grown up son in 284, must have been about 180 years old in 432, and more than 200 before St. Patrick could have built the monasteries in which the poor old blind Irish bard was so grieved, starved, and tormented by jangling bells, droning psalms, and howling clerics; it is proved that the names of the old Fenian heroes were known when very ancient manuscripts were written, and that it enough. So, taking the third century as a starting point, let us take a rapid voyage of discovery down the stream of time, carrying with us the published Gaelic Ossian, and noticing anything old that bears upon Gaelic traditions at its proper place. If Scotchmen and Irishmen will not pull in the same boat, let there be no bumping, or jostling, or fouling, but a fair race for what may be left of the poems when the voyage ends; if any one is bored by such races he need not follow the boats, he may skip over a short cut to the winning-post, but if he does he must not give an opinion about the line of country which he is too lazy to travel. 

First, then, let it be granted that FINN lived in Ireland at the end of the third century, and that the first book of Temora is founded upon an event which took place in Ireland before the book of Leinster was written, if not in 284; but it must be granted, on the Irish side, that Hector Boyce made Finn a Scot and a giant in 1526, when the Scotch historian published his work.2

The passage is partly quoted in the Highland Society’s Report on Ossian, and p. 170, Hist. of Scotch Poetry, and part of it is as follows:- “Conjiciunt quidam in haec tempora Finanum filium Cœli (Fyn MakCoul vulgari vocabulo) virum uti ferunt immani statura septenum enim cubitorum hominem fuisse narrant.” 

“So, in the sixteenth century, Fyn was the son of heaven, and the historian then ranked him with King Arthur; and tales and other compositions concerning Fyn with the Arthurian fables. It must also be granted that numerous Celtic worthies bore Ossianic names besides the Irish heroes. Engenius I., son of Fin-Cor-mach-us, was a king of Scotland slain in battle with the Romans, A.D. 357. Ferg-us (Wrath-us) was the name of a Scotch king who was lost in the Irish sea, B.C. 330, and many historical personages have borne that name besides the Irish bard Fergus, the son of Finn MacCumhal of A.D. 280. Cumhal, again, is like many Celtic names; it sounds like Coil-us, who was a king of the Britons, and if he be the hero of the English ballad, his was a rough age:- 

“Old King Cole, unsophisticated soul, 
 Neither read nor write could he, 
 To read and to write he thought useless quite,
 For he kept a sercretarie.” 

Congall-us was a Scotch king in 501 or thereabouts. There were many Scotch kings called Donald, if we can believe Scotch history, and the men who wrote these names were generally of the race which now says “garsong, ung ver du vang, et ung morceau du pang.” The sound of the French and Gaelic nasal o and u are identical, and a man who could write garsong because he seemed to hear that sound, would also write MacDonald, as it is now pronounced in Gaelic, Macongil, and one sound of MacCumhal would be Maccungil and another Macooil. Now, if this erroneous ng, which expresses the Saxon value of the French and Gaelic nasal o and u, and the word Mac be struck out, there remains a nasal o-il or u-il, and so, instead of Cumhal, Coil-us, Cole, Cowl, Cool, Congall-us, Donald-us, and Dugald-us, we come very nearly to Hoel, whose son would be ap Hoel, O’Hoel, or Mac-Hoel, and thus Fionn may be made the son of the mythical Welsh Howel, or of some great man who bore the same name before the flood. By a like easy process, Fionn becomes a Macdougald, and as Campbell is not an ancient Gaelic name, I may point out that Camul was the “Celtic Mars,” and that Camel-ot, Camel-odunum, and other such names, all savour of Cumhal, though that word now means handmaid, or subjection, according to dictionaries. 

Fenian names also appear in the Milesian story (p. 447 of O’Curry’s Lectures.) Beginning with Japhet and Magog, the race is traced through Scythia, Egypt, Scythia again, Greece, and Spain, whence a colony came to Eirinn in the year of the world 3500, at which time Ireland was governed by the three sons of Cermna Milbheoil (honey-mouth), Ethur, Cethur, and Fether; ‘mythologically known as MacCuill, MacCeacht, and MacGréiné;’ who were Tuatha dé Danann, and reigned at Tara. Scota, the mother of the Milesian leaders, was shortly afterwards slain in a battle, and one of her sons was Eber Finn. So Finn was a mythological Milesian long before the Finn of the third century, and MacCuil Finn’s patronymic was also that of the mythological head of the race which the Milesians found in Ireland. 

Finn is also one of the commonest names in Scandinavia, and so is Köl, so we get Finnr Kölsen, the equivalent of Fin MacCowl. Oscar is also common, and is interpreted to mean As-gair the spear of the gods, and Oske is one of Odin’s numerous names. 

In the twelfth century Geoffrey or Monmouth names Coillas, and Coel, and Conan, as British heroes, and according to the chronicle Conan was made king of Armorica. Sir Gawain is probably the same personage as Gow or Gol, the son of Morna, so they may be Welshmen or Bretons. Phinn, MacPhunn, Fin-lay, and scores of other names common in England, Scotland, and Ireland, also resemble the Ossianic names. But the Finns or Lapps inhabit Finmark at this day, and have all along been magical people in the north, so the Celtic heroes may be Lapps. In the story of Gunnhillda (Njal Saga, vol. ii., 378), we learn how, in the tenth century, a beautiful maiden was sent to Finmark to learn magic from the Finns, and “some believed that MATTUL he FINNISH king himself was her master in magic,” but Gunnhillda’s story is mixed up with that of the whole of the west of Europe, in that she was a Viking’s bride, and mother of Scandinavian kings, so her master in magic may be MacCoul himself in disguise. 

Feinne may be Phœnician or Egyptian, if there be any truth in the old legend about Pharoah’s daughter. 

In like manner “Art” is the Gaelic now commonly used for the Christian name “Art-hur,” or Art is not to be appropriated to any one Irish king, though there may have been an early Cormac Mac Art, for there was an early British Arthur, of whose deeds romance is full. So Bran and Conan were early Welsh kings, though Brian and Conan may have flourished in Ireland. Brenn-us sacked Rome about 930 B.C., if Bran was Fionn’s magic black hound, A.D. 280; and generally it must be granted on all sides that the early history of Great Britain and Ireland must be Celtic history, and that the best place to get at it is Ireland, where the Celts were not much disturbed till a comparatively late period. But Irish, Scotch, Welsh, Manx, and Cornish, and Clyde Celtic history, and all the early romance of Europe, is so tangled and twisted together, that it will be no easy matter to unravel the skein. Without some knowledge of Gaelic it is hopeless to begin upon this dark history. Let me give one example. There is a Lord Mayor in London, and in every town in England. Monsieur le Maire is a French official in every village in France; the mayors of the palace played their part in French history; the Maormors were anciently Scotch great men; but very few know that maor, pronounced nearly like the French word, is still the Highland constable and ground officer, and civil officer, though Inverness has a provost. 

But I have now to do with the heroes of “Ossian’s poems.” 

In Professor O’Curry’s book, a vast amount of curious information is given relative to Irish writings. It appears that many hundreds of these are preserved in various libraries and collections at home and abroad. They contain histories, genealogies, codes of law, historical tales, and tales of all kinds; romances, legends, and poems of various sorts, and “numerous Ossianic poems relating to the Fenian heroes, some of them of great antiquity.” The earliest writing is Latin, and attributed to the time of St. Patrick, about 480; others are attributed to St. Colum Cillé and the sixth century, others to the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and following centuries, and these are generally assumed to be Irish, not Scotch, because of their language and the character in which they are written. Most of them probably were written in Ireland, but such documents must be judged by their contents. I received a letter this year from a Scotch highlander in Glasgow, part of which was written in the old hand. A song composed by Duncan Macintyre, the Breadalbane bard, was written in the old character in 1768. It was commonly, though not always, used before that time; inscriptions on the cross at Inverary and other old stones in Scotland are in old letters and in obsolete language. St Colum Cillé founded Iona; and if St. Patrick’s churchmen used old letters, the saint is accused of having been born in Scotland. Those who only understand modern Irish or Scotch Gaelic cannot, without study, read or understand the old written language, which is and always has called itself Gaelic. So Scotchmen and Irishmen would do well to make peace, and help each other to use these old records, and call their language Gaelic, instead of Irish or Earse, which words are only used in speaking English, and produce discord. 

Now these ancient Irish documents and those which are preserved in Scotland, like Scotch and Irish traditions, are pervaded by the variously spelt names of Fionn or Finn and his worthies. There is hardly a grown highlander who is not familiar with their names – they are household words at the firesides of Irish peasants; and the characters and relationships of these mythical warriors are almost invariably the same. They are the heroes of Ossian. 

Professor O’Curry, who probably knows more about Irish lore than any man now living, and has spent great part of his life in reading and transcribing old manuscripts, holds that the “Fenians,” who answer to the “Fingalians” of English readers, were historical Irish personages who flourished in the third century, but he shews, p. 10, that Fer Féne was written in the book of Ballymote in 1391, in a poem composed in 1024, and he translates it “Féne men, these were farmers.” Still, Finn’s genealogy is traced to 110 B.C., and it rests upon ancient authority that Diarmaid O’Duibhne ran away with Grainne, the bride of Finn, and daughter of Cormac Mac Art, and that Finn’s son Oisin was a warrior poet. 

Poems attributed to Finn Mac Cumhail, his sons Oisin and Fergus Finnbheoil, and his kinsman Caelté, so exist in Gaelic MSS. seven hundred years old. Five of these poems are attributed to Finn himself, and exist in the book of Leinster, which is said to have been compiled from older books in the latter part of the twelfth century; and in the book of Leacan, compiled 1416. Two poems attributed to Oisin are in the book of Leinster. One consists of seven quatrains, and records the deaths of Oscar the son of Oisin, and Cairbré Lifeachair, monarch of Eirinn, who fell by each other’s hands at the battle of Gabhra, ‘fought A.D. 284.’ The second is longer, and records early races on the Curragh of Kildare, wherein Oisin, Caelté, and Finn were gentlemen riders, and magical personages acted the part of modern sharpers, and tempted the heroes into unhallowed dens near Killarney, where they spent a wild night after the races. Another Gaelic poem of undoubted antiquity is attributed to Fergus, and tells how Oisin his brother was enticed into a fairy cave, and discover himself to Finn by letting chips cut from his spear-shaft float down a stream; as Diarmaid betrayed his retreat to Fionn in the tradition (page 43, vol. Iii.) Another is a love story, which Caelté is supposed to have recited to St. Patrick. 

Professor O’Curry nowhere says that the “poems of Ossian,” as published in 1760 and 1807, or anything like them from which they could have been translated, exist in ancient Irish manuscript, and gives no support to the argument of his countryman; but he also says “Of MacPherson’s translations, in no single instance has a genuine Scottish original been found, and that none will ever be found I am very certain.” If he means that the Gaelic of 1807 never can be found in an ancient manuscript, he is certainly right, for the language must have obeyed the common law of change incident to all languages; but he has pointed out some of the incidents on which the first book of Temora is founded, in one of the two ancient poems which were attributed to Oisin in the tenth century; and it is beyond question that endless stories and poems about Fionn and his people have been for centuries, and still are traditionally preserved in Scotland, as well as in Ireland. According to Irish authorities, then, Gaelic poems are preserved in ancient manuscript, and some relate to the Ossianic heroes, but they were Irishmen, who lived, and loved, and fought in the third century, and not Scotchmen; but according to other Irish authorities, these men flourished much later. Scotch and British Fenians are mentioned, and Scotch Oscars appear in Irish poems, even Danish Oscars are named in Irish books; and the feats attributed to the ancient heroes who bore these Ossianic names, and whose chief was FINN, are often the exploits of giants and demigods. 

According to MacPherson and “Ossian’s poems,” FINGAL was king of Morven, and lived about the same time; according to tradition, which scorns dates (see No. LXXXII), FIONN was the son of a Scotch king who came from Ireland, and of a Scandinavian princess, and drove the Scandinavians from Scotland, having first passed through many adventures in Ireland. Assuming that he lived in the third century, he may have been a leader of Celts in their early fights with the Northmen, Danes, or Anglo-Saxons, who followed the Romans; before any authentic account of their raids was compiled, and before men thought of distinguishing between Ireland and Scotland. But no tradition now current, and no ancient manuscript of which I have heard, makes any mention of the kingdom of Morven or its king Fingal. I believe that the kingdom is an invention of the compounder of Ossian’s poems, whoever he may have been. 

The name Fionnaghal is, however, no modern invention; Barbour knew it as “Fyngal” about the days of Bruce. It occurs in a Gaelic song printed by Gillies, 1786, and composed by Iain Lom, a bard who sang about the time of Montrose, and died 1710 at a great age. It is in an elegy on Glengarry composed in the seventeenth century, in which the poet MacMathain or Mathieson, Seaforth’s bard, calls the MacDonalds Sliochd righ Fionnaghail, the race of King Fingal (Beauties of Gaelic Poetry, Mackenzie); and the name also occurs in a traditional story now current in Islay. Righ Fionnaghal according to this was a MacDonald, and “king of the Isles,” and lived in the island in Loch Fionn-lagan in Islay, where are the ruins of the habitation of the lords of the Isles. 

A family of Mac-in-tyres (sons of the carpenter) claim to be descended from an illegitimate son of this King Fingal; and Flora McIntyre, one of my peasant contributors claims to be one of them. The story goes, that the king and his son were at sea in a boat, when the peg in the bottom came out and was lost, and the water rushed in. The young man, who had never gained the notice of his father, thrust his thumb into the hole and chopped it off with an axe. “Mo laochan air saor na h-òrdaig!” “My fine lad, the thumb carpenter,” said the king; and from this MacDonald, son of Fingal, came the family of the Thumb Carpenters, who are still called Macintyres in Islay; or in Gaelic, “Mac an t-saoir na h-òrdaig.” MacDonald is often so pronounced as to make the name resemble MacCumhal. This story is well known about Arisaig. 

As for the poet, to whom nearly all the old poetry in the Highlands is now attributed, his date and origin are as uncertain as his father’s. If he was Fionn’s son he could not have survived to converse with St. Patrick, and he could not have lived with a fairy lady in the land of youth; he is in Gaelic popular tradition and old Gaelic lore the counterpart of Thomas the Rymour, who was a living man in 1280, and yet went to fairy land, and has the credit of being a prophet, a magician, and a poet – the author of Sir Tristrem. That ancient Scotch poem “Sir Tristrem,” and the oldest Scotch poems known, treat mainly of Celtic worthies and their adventures, and include the incident of the good knight who slays a dragon, and the false servant who claims the honour  and the princess, which is in the Gaelic “Sea-maiden;” and in a tale told to me by an Irish fiddler; in German, Norse, and other popular tales. 

There is a popular saying still current in Islay, which joins true Thomas to a common Celtic British legend. He is supposed to be still living, enchanted in Dumbuck (Dun-a-bhuic, the buck’s hill), near Dumbarton (Dun-breaton, Mount Breaton); and he appears occasionally in search of horses of a peculiar kind and colour. He pays for them when they are brought to the hill; and the vendor sees enchanted steeds and armed men within the rock. It is said – 

Nuair a thig Tomas an riom3 ‘s a chuid each, 
Bidh latha nan creach an Cluaidh. 
When Thomas of power and his hordses shall come, 
The day of plunderings will be in Clyde. 

The date of Fionn and his family may be the third century; but unless there were many who bore the same names, or the names were titles, the exploits of a series of men, and the fabulous deeds of mythological characters, must have gathered about the names of this single family. I am still inclined to believe that these heroes of popular romance were ancient Celtic gods. 

Be that as it may, I will endeavour to shew that their names have been current for a very long time, and that Ireland has not an exclusive right to them. 


1  Lectures on the MS. Materials of Ancient Irish History, by Professor O’Curry, 8vo, Dublin, 1861. 
2  Scotorum Historia, f. cxxxiii. Paris, 1527. 
3  Riomball (circle of power) is used for the circle within which the “inn’s” stand at the game of rounders. The Irish Osin has much in common with Thomas the Rymour, according to old legends.

3 thoughts on “Heroes of Ossian, pp.24-35.

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