Translating the Poems, pp.75-96.

My theory then is, that about the beginning of the eighteenth century, or the end of the seventeenth, or earlier, Highland bards may have fused floating popular traditions into more complete forms, engrafting their own ideas on what they found; and that MacPherson found their works, translated, and altered them; published the translation in 1760; made the Gaelic ready for the press; published some of it in 1763, and made away with the evidence of what he had done when he found that his conduct was blamed. I can see no other way out of the maze of testimony. 

If the statement of Mr. MacGilvray, given at page 50 of the dissertation prefixed to the large edition of Ossian, 1807, is not a deliberate falsehood, there is an end of the argument which makes MacPherson the author, though no early copy of the entire poems is known. It is said that the very poems which were translated and published, “Fingal; Temora,” and many others, were collected, in Gaelic, in Scotland, from the people, long before 1760, and these were subsequently compared with MacPherson’s published translations at Douay by the collector of the Gaelic, Mr. Farquharson, who did not know MacPherson; and the translations so far as they went. 

Mr. Farquarson’s manuscript was afterwards torn, and leaves were used by the Douay students to light their fires, and if any part of it now exists, it is lost; but it was not written in the third century but in the eighteenth, chiefly in Strathglas. At page 75 of the dissertation is a statement which carried conviction with it, if such evidence has any weight; and, assuming the evidence to be admissible, and placing it beside what has been said above, there may have been some learned unknown Gaelic poet or poets who had collected, and arranged, and altered, the floating traditions of the country, between MacPherson and Dean MacGregor. 

It is at least certain that MacPherson was a Highlander, and that some Gaelic bard wrote the Gaelic of 1763 and 1807, whatever his merits may have been. 

C.E. 1760 MacPherson’s first publication appeared, ‘The Fragments;’ a second edition was subsequently published, and these are now rare books.

A Mr. Ewen MacPherson, a schoolmaster, accompanied James MacPherson to Skye and the Long Islands, and gives an account of their journey in his affidavit (p. 95, H. S. Report). The schoolmaster wrote down a great many poems attributed to Ossian from dictation, and his companion took the manuscript away with him, as also a small manuscript belonging to Clanranald, and an order for a larger manuscript which was in Edinburgh. The schoolmaster declares his own conviction that the poems of Ossian are genuine, and that he had heard them commonly repeated everywhere; but as there was no Gaelic Fingal published when the affidavit was made, this does not apply to the publication of 1807. He had read Fingal in English, and thought, so well as he could remember, “the substance of the original,” that the translation was “well executed.” Another MacPherson, a residenter at Portree, deponed that his brother, a smith, had given his namesake a Gaelic quarto manuscript, which contained poems which the smith could then repeat, and which he had no doubt were the works of Ossian. But this does not prove that these were the originals of the translations; for as this witness could not write, it is not probable that he could read English. 

The evidence of Mr. Hugh MacDonald, given in Gaelic, and confirmed by a number of gentlemen of the Long Island, is also subject to this objection. They all knew something of Ossian’s poems, and believed them to be genuine, of very great antiquity, distinct from and superior to all other Gaelic compositions; but there was only some published Gaelic, for the poems of Ossian which the English public knew, and the Celts seem to mean one thing, while the Saxons meant another. These collections have disappeared. 

C.E. 1762 The quarto edition of Fingal and other translations published, with a fine title page picture of Ossian, and a lady in flowing robes, who might pass for any classical characters that ever conversed.

C.E. 1763 Temora and other poems; this volume contains the Gaelic of the seventh book of Temora, 423 lines. It is said that a manuscript copy in the handwriting of MacPherson of Strath Mashie, with all manner of corrections, still exists. I have not seen it.

This edition is commonly bound with that of 1762, and the selling price for the large quarto is now 5s. 

The following are specimens of the Gaelic, as printed by MacPherson in 1763, in Roman type. He says it is “stripped of its own proper characters,” that “a copy of the originals of the former collection lay for many months in the bookseller’s hands for the inspection of the curious;” and that the “erroneous spelling of the bards is departed from in many instances.” 

Published Gaelic and English, divided according to the rhythm:- 

O Linna doir-choille na Leigo
From the wood-skirted waters of Lego
Air uair, eri ceo taobh-ghórm nan tón; 
ascend, at times, gray-bosomed mists; 
Nuair dhunas dorsa na h’ oicha 
when the gates of the west are closed
Air iulluir-shuil greina nan speur. 
on the sun’s eagle-eye
 
Tomhail mo Lara nan-sruth 
Wide over Lara’s stream 
Thaomas du’-nial as doricha cruaim: 
is poured the vapour dark and deep: 
Mar ghlas-scia, roi taoma nan nial, 
the moon, like a dim shield
Snamh seachad tu Gellach na h’ oicha. 
is swimming thro’ its folds

Close translation of the Gaelic, so far as it is understood by the translator. 

From the pool of the dark woods of Leigo, 
The blue-sided wave-mist rises at times; 
When the doors of night are closed 
On th’ eagle-eyed sun of the skies. 
 
This about Lara of the streams, 
Black clouds of darkest frown are poured out; 
As a gray shield, through the pouring of the clouds 
Swimming past, is the moon of the night. 

This is not like the style or the spirit of the popular songs and ballads. It is not modern vernacular Gaelic; it is not the old written language, so far as I know it, nor is it Irish; but it is not a translation of the English given with it, for it has metre, and assonance, and a meaning of its own. It bears a resemblance to “Mordubh;” and as it was published in 1763, it is a Gaelic composition at least 98 years old. 

The following four lines have the metre and assonances of some current ballads:- 

An taobh oitaig gu palin nan SEOID 
Taomas iad 
Ceäch nan SPEUR 
Gorm-thalla do thannais nach BEO 
Gu ám eri’ fón 
Marbhy rán nan TEUD. 

 

In the side of a blast, to the heroes’ tent, 
they pour out 
the mists of the skies; 
a blue hall for shadesnot alive, 
till the rising time of the sound 
of the strings’ death-moan. 

In this case the Gaelic, though it is not such Gaelic as men speak now-a-days, expresses more, and seems to me better than its published English equivalent,which is not a true rendering of it. 

“Often blended with the gale, 
“to some warrior’s grave, 
“they roll the mist, a gray dwelling to his ghost, 
“until the songs arise.” 

There is a second metre, which also has its equivalent in popular ballads, and in “Fingal” – 

Ta torman a machair nan CRAN 
So Conar ri Erin at’ AN 
 
a taoma‘ ceo-tanais gu DLU’ 
Air Faolan aig Lubhair nan SRU. 

The translation given is – 

“A sound came from the desart; 
“it was Conar, King of Innisfail. 
“He poured his mist 
“on the grave of Fillan, at the blue-winding Lubar.” 

The meaning, as I understand it, is – 

“There’s a moan from the outland of stems; 
 It is Conar, Erin’s king, 
 pouring out ghostly-mist closely 
 upon Faolan at Lubhair of the streams.” 

And here again the Gaelic, with all it grammatical peculiarities, seems to have the best of it, and it is no translation. And so it is throughout the specimen. 

The Gaelic and English do not quite fit each other, and the Gaelic seems to me to have been originally better than the English, though many words are used in strange ways, and the whole is spelt without any fixed rule. The Gaelic has most ideas, the English most words. 

The orthography is, of course, the scribe’s. It is such as comes to me from men who have not studied Gaelic writing. It is like my own spelling when I, who never learned to write Gaelic, try to take down a story rapidly from dictation; it is like the spelling of Dean MacGregor’s MS. or the Manx system in a transition state; it is, in short, something between phonetic writing and old Gaelic, and that of 1807. As some one wrote in the Gaelic at the end of one of these ghostly passages – 

   ‘S doilleir so!
“This is dim!”

As MacPherson says in his rendering of the line, which I strongly suspect was a comment, which the translator mistook for a line of poetry –  

“It is night!”

But through this dimness and night it may be discerned that the writer of the English was not the writer of the Gaelic. No forger could have written “’S DOILLEIR” SO for “IT IS NIGHT.” 

Strathmashie did not write Gaelic of this kind when he wrote in his own name; but, on the other hand, Chatterton afterwards spelt Rowly’s poems according to his notion of ancient English spelling, and so tried to make his language appear old, and succeeded for a time; and so Strathmashie, MacPherson, or some one else, may have done the same: but guessing is vain. 

C.E. 1768 Chatterton, in the earliest of his epistles extant, imitated the English of “Ossian.”

“My friendship is as firm as the white rock when the black waves roar around it, and the waters burst on its hoary top, when the driving wind ploughs the sable sea, and the rising waves aspire to the clouds, turning with the rattling hail.” So much for heroics, etc. 

It is supposed that “Fingal” suggested the idea of “Rowley’s poems” to that wonderful imitator and original genius, the author of the Rowley controversy, who poisoned himself at the age of eighteen. 

C.E. 1771 In this year a clergyman published a book, which he dedicated to ‘Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, Esq.,’ then proprietor of Islay. He called his work ‘Fingal, an ancient Epic poem in six books, by Ossian the son of Fingal, translated into English heroic rhyme by John Woodrow, M.A., one of the ministers of Islay.’ (Edinburgh, 1771).

This seems to be the work of a truthful, unsuspecting, prejudiced, wrongheaded, worthy man, who had a talent for English poetry. He believed implicitly in MacPherson’s translation; he tells the exact truth so far as he knew it; he never appears to have suspected that any one could deceive him; he had a standard, and forthwith set to work to improve it, by ‘translating’ MacPherson’s English prose into good English verse of his own; while he was surrounded by people who were constantly repeating Gaelic poems, which they attributed to Oisein; and which he neglected to translate, or preserve. There is a perverse simplicity in thus openly and obstinately going wrong in the wrong way; in sticking to supposed truth against all evidence, that would have made the worthy minister die a martyr for the false religion if he had been instructed in its tenets. 

The book begins thus – 

“To entertain any doubt of the antiquity or authenticity of the poems of Ossian, as some pretend to do, can only flow from an affected singularity of thinking, or from mere wantonness of prejudice.” 

The grounds for this opinion follow:- 

“As to their authenticity, it was never so much as called in question in Scotland; over all the Highlands and isles, it is universally acknowledged. It is well known that the most illiterate old people there, can still repeat great parts of many of the poems. Unhappily, indeed, they are often found much interpolated and blended with the wild chimeras and absurdities of the bards of degenerate days.” 

Of MacPherson’s translation he says:- 

“His translation is faithful, accurate, elegant, and masterly.” … “And it must be evident to many that he often falls short of his original.” 

And having said so much, and some more on his own account, the minister gives an abstract of Blair’s criticism on the English Ossian, which, just as it is, was not that of a man who knew Gaelic. Then at page xc comes the evidence of the Islay minister himself, which is more valuable. 

“For my own part, I frankly confess that I am not possessed of any of the originals; they are to be met with at greater length, and in greater purity, in those parts of the Highlands and isles most remote from Ireland, and furthest north. (But when we get something traditional from the north this is found to be an error unless Mordubh be a fair specimen). “Yet in the southern parts of Argyleshire, I remember from my infancy to have been in use to hear fragments of them repeated by old illiterate people, and as soon as I could judge of anything, to have been much struck and astonished by particular passages. I now live in an island not half a day’s sailing distant from the north of Ireland, the very scene of action in the poem of Fingal; yet I could find but few that could rehearse any considerable portion of any of the poems and that neither complete nor consistent with itself. What I have thus heard, commonly began and set out well in the pure and dignified style of Ossian, but soon fell off in mean conceits, disgusting absurdities, and ended inconclusively. The traditional stories, however, of these heroes are well known and abundantly familiar to all ranks in these parts. I have only mentioned this as an adminicle in support of Mr. MacPherson’s position, that they are Scots and not Irish poems.” … “There is scarce a hill, a heath, or vale where some large stones erected, or other monuments, are not to be met with, which tradition always refers to the time of Fingal; and the vulgar bestow names upon them, alluding to him or some one of his heroes.” 

These are facts from which I would draw conclusions different from those of Mr. Wodrow; but he tells us more; he remembered to have heard of a class of historians inferior to bards, called ‘”SCELLACHA, or narrators of facts.” (Tellers of tales is the real meaning, and the word is clearly the same as the Norse SKALD.) The BARD, as the minister says, used to sing to the harp; and the SCELLACHA to fill up the pauses by telling prose history. He says, p. xcvii:- 

“I have met with some old people among the vulgar Highlanders, who, as a winter evening’s entertainment, have rehearsed fictions, or tales of a very ancient cast, much in the same manner. The gallant or heroic parts were in rhyme or measure, and sung to an air; the ludicrous incidents, and such as were little interesting, were only told.” … “Such as are acquainted in the Highlands must know that ballad singers of this sort are yet to be met with.” 

And having told us what there really was, the minister leaves it with contempt, and gives his reasons for translating the English Ossian into English verse; and gives us “Fingal” in a measure which has no sort of resemblance to that of any Gaelic composition which I know; still it is a very readable poem. 

In the arguments we get some traces of Gaelic. The old superstition of corpse lights is given as derived from Ossian’s ghosts. It seems that a ghost came mounted on a meteor, and surrounded twice or thrice the place destined for the person to die; and then went along the road through which the funeral was to pass, shrieking at intervals, though with a feeble voice, till it came to the place of burial and disappeared. The superstition survives; the telling of tales and singing of ballads goes on; but the poem is so far forgotten, that I suppose I am the only member of the family of the man to whom it was dedicated, who knows the book; even I never saw it till November 1861, though I have always heard that an Islay minister had collected the poems of Ossian in Islay. 

The minister gives two specimens of his collection, but translations only, and they are not like the current traditional poems. I may as well say here, once for all, that I have been brought up in the belief that “The Poems of Ossian” were something familiarly known to the people of the Highlands at some former period, and that I have been told the fact by a great many trust-worthy witnesses. But I am now considering the “poems of 1807,” and I can only regret that I have not got Wodrow’s opportunity of forming an opinion. 

C.E. 1773 Dr. Johnson arrived on the 14th of August at Boyd’s Inn at the head of the Canongate, and shortly afterwards made his famous tour, of which he and Boswell both published accounts. From these dates, it seems that Johnson might have seen part of Ossian in the Strand, printed in Gaelic, if he had been so minded, ten years before he went to the Highlands; and a lot of manuscripts at the publishers’ in London before that.

C.E. 1774 to 1783 A certain Duncan Kennedy collected traditional poetry in the West Highlands, and named seventeen of his authorities. The collection is now preserved in the Advocates’ Library, in two bound volumes of manuscript. One is marked as the only volume given to Dr. Smith, and contains, beside a number of Gaelic poems, English arguments and versions of stories, many of which are quite familiar to me as current traditions still; some are given in vol. Iii. The name Fingal is used in the English, but in the Gaelic the name is Fion or Fionn.

The other volume is better written, and the arguments are in better English. A great many of the poems are versions of ballads still traditionally preserved. These are in the usual traditional metre, and consist of smooth regular quatrains with assonances. Two words at the end of the second and fourth lines are similar in sound and quantity, and two somewhere in the middle of the second and fourth with the third. Thus, in the version of “Manus,” on which poem “Fingal” is supposed to be founded, Oisein says – 

  1. A chlerich a chanas na sailm
  2. Air leam fein / Gur baobh do CHIAL 
  3. Nach eisteadh tu tamul sgeala 
  4. Air an ffhein / Nach cual thu RIAMH. 

The poet is speaking to a churchman, “Padrac,” and his exordium might have been addressed to Bishop Carswell, and those who have followed him in striving to extirpate Gaelic lore. 

Thou clerk that utterest psalms, 
To me it seems 
Thy wits are bad, 
Wouldst thou not hearken to a story 
Of the Feine 
Thou hast never heard. 

Some of these are in the form of dialogues between Oisein and his father-in-law “Peter MacAlpain,” and sometimes Oisein represents the Fein as warriors of Eirinn. Some one appears to have thought this anti-Scotch, and has improved upon the original by importing from another poem; for example, the following line is struck out in ink – 

“Nur thional Fiann Eireann gu trai,”

When gathered the Fiann of Eirinn to the strand, and a line is written in the margin, in a more modern hand, which means – 

“Our heads are bent in the strife.”

“Padruig” has been struck out, and other words suggested, which make the passages which follow apply to the Feine, and not to the saint, of Kennedy’s authority. The stanza is given at the bottom of the 248th page of the H. S. Appendix, and is there made up from passages taken from two other versions, in which Padruig was not mentioned. The original lines are not erased; so these are only suggestions, but this gives a curious indication of the unfair spirit which pervaded the Ossianic controversy. 

The poems which I can trace as still current, differ from other versions, and from the marginal notes it appears that some portions of them were claimed by Kennedy as his own compositions. The bulk of the poetry is plain narrative converted into quatrains of smooth musical verse, which could easily be sung and remembered, and I believe that it was written down from dictation, as Kennedy said. Some of the passages claimed by the collector as his own are more sentimental, with more similes, different in rhythm, and as I think, far inferior. Other parts claimed by the scribe as his own, have been found in much older manuscripts, and it is quite possible that a man who had learned so much poetry by heart, might confound the old with the new, unintentionally. I hold Kennedy’s to be a valuable collection of the traditional poems of 1774 and 1783, and the Fianaibh were then considered to be Irish warriors by the people about Loch Awe, where Kennedy made part of his collection. About the same time a certain Fletcher learned a number of Ossianic pieces, chiefly in Argyleshire, which he had written down from his own dictation. He could hardly write at all, and could not read the manuscript which he sold to the Highland Society; but, nevertheless, he repeated to a justice of the peace, who knew Gaelic, one poem which is in the manuscript, the death of the children of “Usno,” which is the foundation of, but is not “Darthula.” 

This bears strongly upon the controversy. Appendix B to the Report of the Highland Society, extends from page 190 to page 260, and gives part of Fingal in English at the foot of the pages, and a Gaelic composition, and an English translation by Dr. Donald Smith, and these three coincide tolerably well. But the Gaelic is not good poetry, for it is made up of a number of separate lines taken from a great many different collections of traditional poetry, to which references are given. Each line is genuine, and in Kennedy’s collection, and the rest formed part of a poem which bore some likeness to the story of Fingal, or to parts of it. Some stanzas are left almost entire, but the new composition is not a genuine work, and it is spoiled. The lines detached from their fellows lose all the rhythm and assonance which gave them a musical cadence, and stanzas so broken and mended, and displaced, lose their original meaning. “Fingal” is like this. 

The composition is no deception, but it is avowedly a mosaic constructed from several old works of high merit spoiled for the purpose. The makers took Fingal for a still older work, and pounded genuine old materials to make work like their model. As Dr. Smith did, so probably did the compounder of Fingal. 

Ramsay had done something of the kind with Scotch ballads, and Percy had done the same as Ramsay. Burns and others did the same; it was the fashion of these times. 

The Rev. Donald MacNicol, M.A., minister of Lismore in Argyleshire, published a reply to Johnson’s tour.1 As the minister lived close to Morven, his evidence is worth consideration. Boswell’s account of his journey was published in 1785, about nine months after Johnson’s death. This, together with the Doctor’s tour and the minister’s reply, gives a view of three sides of the question; and when the statements are picked out of the mass of opinions, there is as little reason for Johnson’s famous attack on Scotch veracity as there is for MacNicol’s quotation, “old men and travellers LIE by authority.” 

It seems as if the combatants, blinded by national prejudice, spent their energy in fighting shadows. The books are brimful of national prejudice – English and Scotch, Lowland and Highland; but they contain facts which can be authenticated, and statements which I believe, because the rest are true. 

It rests on Johnson’s authority that there were plenty of Gaelic songs. Boswell gives the chorus of one by ear, and it still survives. It also rests on the Doctor’s authority, that people made statements about Gaelic matters, and that he did not believe them, which proves nothing; and that he heard of Gaelic manuscripts which he believed to be Irish, but which he could not have read if he had seen them. 

“The minister, on the other hand, who understood Gaelic, says, p. 350 – 

“Every man of inquiry; every person of the least taste for the poetry or turn for the antiquities of his country, has heard often repeated some part or other of the poems published by Mr. MacPherson. Hundreds still alive have heard portions of them recited long before Mr. MacPherson was born; so that he cannot possibly be deemed the author of compositions which existed before he had any existence himself.” “It is true that there is no man now living, and perhaps there never has existed any one person who either can or could repeat the whole of the poems of Ossian” … “Mr. MacPherson’s great merit has been in collecting the disjecta membra poetæ; and his fitting the parts so well together as to form a complete figure.” 

This statement is supported by the Irish claim to the poems; and if it be remembered what people meant by translations in those days, it seems that the minister spoke the truth according to his lights, and the doctor according to his. MacNicol mentions a great many Gaelic MSS., and many of these are quoted above, and exist; and he also mentions a number of other manuscripts which probably did exist then, wherever they are now. 

At page 360, MacNIcol, in speaking of the forthcoming Gaelic Ossian, says – “It would be impossible for any person, let his talents be ever so great, to impose a translation for an original on any critic in the Gaelic language.” 

So the minister, knowing that there were Ossianic poems current, and recognising them in the English, believed in the forthcoming Gaelic; and Johnson, who knew nothing but the English, held that MacPherson was the father of Ossian; and neither of them, as it seems, had looked at the Gaelic of the seventh book of Temora, which might have prevented them from using such strong language. This seems to have been the prevailing spirit of the Ossianic controversy. Men have argued as partisans without first defining the points on which they would agree to differ; and like partisans, they have belaboured each other unjustly. Boswell states that a certain Mr. Macqueen told Johnson, as to “Fingal,” “that he could repeat some passages in the original; that he heard his grandfather had a copy of it; but that he could not affirm that Ossian composed all that poem as it is now published.” Johnson had contended that “it is no better than such an epic poem as he could make from the song of Robin Hood.”* Boswell held that Mr. Macqueen’s statement amounted to what his hero Johnson had maintained; but Johnson called MacPherson “the father of Ossian,” and he would not have called himself the father of Robin Hood if he had composed an epic about that half mythical hero; so he was scarcely fair even if he was right. 

C.E. 1780 Mr. John Clark published translations of ancient Gaelic poems, one of which was “Mordubh.” Part of this was known to Mrs. Grant of Laggan, a lady whose “Letters from the Mountains,” have made her name famous. The Gaelic appeared in Gillies, 1786. The English is like MacPherson’s; the Gaelic like that of 1807, and I am inclined to rank “Mordubh” with “Ossian.”

Mr. Hill, an Englishman, got some copies of Gaelic poems from a blacksmith at Dalmally, in Argyleshire. These include a dialogue between Oishein and Padruig, given in the Appendix to the Highland Society’s Report, “cath Mhanuis,” which survives, and a version of which was subsequently published in Irish by Miss Brooke. “How Diarmid slew the venomous boar,” which survives. “How Bran was slain,” which survives; and the “Prayer of Ossian.” These were published in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and afterwards in a small pamphlet. The “Prayer of Ossian,” the dialogue referred to, resembles closely some of the poems in the late publications of the Ossianic Society of Dublin. There are 36 verses, or 144 lines of religious arguments on one side, praise of the ancient heroes, and pagan defiance on the other. I have not a doubt that these are perfectly genuine popular poems. 

C.E. 1760 About the same time Lord Webb Seymour and Professor Playfair also made a tour of the Highlands, and heard a poem repeated in Skye, which was translated, and which, from the description given of it, appears to be Moira Bor, or Fainesolis, of which I have several versions, and which is an episode in “Ossian,” and these gentlemen heard, and heard tell of many other poems which seem to be the same as those still current, though now far rarer. They met an old lady who had herself repeated one such poem to Dr. Johnson.

C.E. 1785 By this time MacPherson had risen in the world. Mrs. Grant wrote to her friend (Letter XXVI., p. 134, vol. ii):- 

“The bard, as I was about to tell you, is as great a favourite of fortune as of fame, and has got more by the old harp of Ossian than most of his predecessors could draw out of the silver strings of Apollo. He has bought three small estates in this country within two years, given a ball to the ladies, and made other exhibitions of wealth and liberality. He now keeps a hall at Bellville, his newly-purchased seat, where there are as many shells as were in Selma, filled, I doubt not, with much better liquor.”

C.E. 1786 John Gillies, a Perth bookseller, who did not understand Gaelic himself, published a volume of Gaelic collected in the Highlands, which seems to deserve particular attention, and is referred to below. 

C.E. 1787 The Gaelic of Smith’s collection appeared; it was avowedly patched, and mended, and pruned. It contains many lines and stanzas, which now survive in various shapes, and which were collected by others long ago, but it is not popular now, and it is little, if at all, known to the people. It seems to represent a different class of poetry, though the subjects are the same as the themes of the ballads which survive. Either these represent a class of poetry which had sprung up amongst the educated, and which is forgotten now that aristocrats have abandoned the old tongue; or these are popular songs mercilessly improved, till hey have lost their character. I would rank them near Mordubh, but they are nearer to the ballads than “Ossian.” 

So far, then, all the collectors found something which had some relation to “Ossian’s Poems,” but no one except Farquharson had found the poems themselves; and every one who translated, had written paraphrases of what he found. Stone, and MacPherson, and Smith, all took liberties alike. 

In this year Edmund Baron de Harold, gentleman of the bedchamber to the Elector Palatine, published an Irish Ossian, of which he says – “These poems, though founded on tradition, are entirely of my composition.” Still, they were called poems “discovered” by the Baron, and purported to be taken from Irish originals. The book was dedicated to Grattan. Whatever can be said against MacPherson’s Ossian applies to this, and it wants the merit of originality. 

C.E. 1789 Miss Brooke published an Irish collection with a very free “translation,” but with the originals. It contains (1) Conlaoch, (2) Magnus the Great, (3) the Chase, (4) Moira Borb, (5) War Ode of Osgar, the son of Oisin, in front of the battle of Gabhra, (6) Ode to Gaul, the son of Morni, and some modern pieces; and this publication establishes the close resemblance which then existed, and now exists between Irish and Scotch Gaelic poetry; but as Gillies had published a “Lay of Magnus,” and one of “Conlaoch,” two versions of “Moira Borb,” a “Death of Oscar,” and an “Ode to Goll,” and many more of the same kind, collected in Scotland, three years before Miss Brooke’s publication, which I believe to have been the first of its kind in Ireland – this does not support the modern Irish claim to every thing, Gaelic and old, though it is a genuine work. 

C.E. 1796 In this year MacPherson died. Mrs. Grant of Laggan describes his end in a letter dated February 20, and tells that one of his latest acts was to “frank a letter.” So the Highland schoolmaster had risen high.

C.E. 1803 A collection was made by MacDonald of Staffa. This contains pieces which I do not know. There are some prose tales, including one about “The Great Fool.” There are also a number of other paper manuscripts in the Advocates’ Library, which contain fragments of collections made in the Highlands about this time.

C.E. 1804 A collection of the works of the Highland bards, collected in the Highlands and Isle by Alexander and Donald Stewart, contains 592 pages, about 11,000 lines of poetry; the greater part consists of songs whose authors are known. Some of these I have heard sung, some I can sing myself, and many may still be picked up in the Highlands, wherever the church has not stilled profane music. Amongst these are a number of compositions which differ from them as an oak does from a daisy. Such is the Battle Ode of the Clan Domhnull, composed by Lachlan Mor MacMhurrich on the Battle of Harlaw. It is a string of alliterative adverbs so arranged as to imitate the rhythm of a pibroch, and exhaust all the epithets available under all the letters of the alphabet in turn. There are eight other compositions which are old and “Ossianic.”

Poems of Ossian were also collected by J. MacDonald in the western parishes of Strathnaver, Ross, and Inverness-shire. These are of the usual traditional class. There are many versions of well known ballads, but no epic poetry. 

Now, all these were written while there was but little published Gaelic for “Ossian;” if there had been any epics then current, they would surely have been found; if there had been any inclination to make false translations there was ample opportunity. 

C.E. 1805 Report of the Highland Society on the authenticity of the Poems of Ossian.

 

1  London, printed for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1779. 
*  “Dr. Johnson asked him as to [Ossian’s] Fingal. He said he could repeat some passages in the original; that he heard his grandfather had a copy of it; but that he could not affirm that Ossian composed all that poem as it is now published. This came pretty much to what Dr. Johnson had maintained; though he goes further, and contends that it is no better than such an epic poem as he could make from the song of Robin Hood; that is to say, that, except a few passages, there is nothing truly ancient but the names and some vague traditions. Mr. McQueen alleged that Homer was made up of detached fragments. Dr. Johnson denied this; observing, that it had been one work originally, and that you could not put a book of the Iliad out of its place; and he believed the same might be said of the Odyssey.” – p.167 ‘Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’, J. Boswell (1908). 

4 thoughts on “Translating the Poems, pp.75-96.

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