If anything could be ascertained relative to the authenticity of the poems, it was to be done by going direct to the oldest surviving inhabitants of the districts where they were said to be found. That was done, and collections were printed and written, of which very little is known. I have gone over the same ground myself once more with able assistants, and I have gone through great part of the work of my predecessors, and I will endeavour to give the result as briefly as I can.
It has been proved that there were old Gaelic traditional poems, collectors of them, and men who made English paraphrases from them under the name of translations, long before MacPherson’s time; and he, according to the evidence in the report of 1805, spoke with men who had written collections. The affidavit of Archibald Fletcher, January 1801, No. XVI. of the Appendix, gives a list of poems collected by Fletcher himself, filling 194 pages, and deposited with the Society; and he names men with whom MacPherson spoke, and who knew such poems.
No. XV. of the same Appendix gives 70 pages of comparisons between manuscripts in the possession of the Society and MacPherson’s translation of Fingal; and these prove to demonstrate that the poem in some form was known to the people, and that the published poem is not the popular version, though like it.
Captain Morrison’s evidence, No. XIII., is conclusive on this point, and proves that MacPherson had in his possession a great many such poems orally collected in Scotland, and that they appear in his English works.
Kennedy gives a list of seventeen persons from whose dictation he procured Gaelic poems, which he sold to the Highland Society, and which he collected between 1774 and 1783. It is therefore beyond all dispute that there were traditional poems in plenty, written and unwritten, attributed to Oisein, current in the Highlands, and accessible to MacPherson; many of which can still be traced in “Ossian.”
The letters of Mr. Andrew Gallie, published by the committee, and dated Kincardine, March 12, 1779, and March 4, 1801, shew that MacPherson had old authorities also, and had little respect for them. The letters raise the curtain, and shew the “translator” at his work so vividly, that I give the following quotations: – “I remember Mr. MacPherson reading the MS. Found in Clanronald’s (which was illuminated, and therefore old, and which is believed to be somewhere in Edinburgh now), execrating the bard who dictated to the amanuensis, saying, d—n the scoundrel, it is he himself that now speaks, and not Ossian.” This took place in my house in two or three instances.
He goes on to say that it is well known that the poems as handed down got corrupted, and suggests that MacPherson had suppressed his old MSS., and he concludes thus – “I think great credit is due in such a case, to him who restores a work of merit to its original purity.”
That is, great credit is due to MacPherson for distinguishing the work of a man who composed in the third century from all intervening additions and alterations; and certainly great credit would be due to the workman is such work could be done.
In 1799, Mrs. Gallie confirms her husband’s statement, saying – “Not any one thing is more in my remembrance than seeing with Mr. MacPherson, when he returned from his tour, the Gaelic MSS. As described by my husband; I remember Mr. MacPherson most busy at the translation, and he and Mr. Gallie differing as to the meaning of some Gaelic words,” etc.
When such were the prevailing notions about “translating,” what becomes of authenticity?
The report also gives a short history of MacPherson’s start, and the evidence of those who placed him before the public, and it is not without interest.
MacPherson’s first publication1 was made at the suggestion of Dr. Hugh Blair, who published the work, wrote the preface, eight pages, and suggested a mission to the Highlands to collect more. The fragments are believced to be perfectly genuine, though very free translations, and include a bit of Fingal. The fight is about the next and following publications; and the evidence given by the men who set MacPherson to work is so strongly in favour of their general authenticity, so far as MacPherson is concerned, that it is hard to believe him to have been a mere forger; he must have had something more than we now know anything about Dr. Blair saw his papers; Professor Adam Fergusson, who understood Gaelic, looked at them and compared them with the translations as they were made; and these appeared to be exact and faithful in any parts which were so read and compared. When this work was done, MacPherson went to London and published it; it was famous from the beginning, and soon after the grand battle began. It was a battle of giants, in which the burly figure of Johnson stalks in the first rank, with his shadow Boswell at his heels. David Hume, “Burke, a very ingenious Irish gentleman, the author of a tract on the Sublime and Beautiful,’ who told Hume that he had “heard his countrymen cry out as soon as MacPherson’s book was published – we know all these poems; we have always heard them from our infancy; but who, on particular inquiry, “could never learn that any one had ever heard, or could repeat the original of any one paragraph of the pretended translation.” John Home, Mackenzie, Laing, and nearly every man of mark of that time, down to Humboldt and Lamartine of our own times, have all held opinions one way or the other, but the facts are the most important.
Dr. BLAIR, in his letter, describes MacPherson as irritable, obstinate, and affrontable; he avows the probability of a combination of several pieces, the omission of some parts, and the insertion of others, which MacPherson did not then deny. In December 1797, Dr. Blair wrote – “That his work as it stands, exhibits a genuine authentic view of ancient Gaelic poetry, I am as firmly persuaded as I can be of anything.” The letter, which is too long for quotation, seems to establish beyond cavil, that the Gaelic was written before the English, and that the published English was a fair representation of the Gaelic as collected and brought to Edinburgh in 1761.
Dr. ADAM FERGUSSON, in 1798, writes – “The fragments I afterwards saw in Mr. MacPherson’s hands, by no means appeared of recent writing; the paper was much stained with smoke, and daubed with Scots snuff;” and the Doctor had himself, in his youth, heard poems repeated by an old tailor, of which he quotes two lines, which, though strangely spelt, are versions of two lines in “Fingal.”
The Rev. Dr. CARLYLE, the same whose memoirs have lately been published, who was at Prestonpans as a young man, and lived far on into this century, gives his account of the first starting of MacPherson, in which he had a large share, and of his intimacy with him in London in 1769 and 1770, when he saw him daily and lived in intimacy with him; and when he never was able to discover that he was any other than the translator.
And Mr. HOME, states that MacPherson was an exceedingly good classical scholar; that he himself, in 1758 or 1759, met him with his pupil (Graham of Balgowan, afterwards Lord Lynedoch) at Moffat; that he had heard from Dr. Fergusson, who understood Gaelic, that there were remains of ancient Gaelic poetry in the Highlands, particularly one which he had himself heard repeated, and thought very beautiful. That he questioned MacPherson concerning this ancient Gaelic poetry, found that he had some pieces written down, and persuaded him to translate one – “the poem on the death of Oscar,” – which he brought in a day or two. In a few days he brought two or three more, which Home took to Edinburgh and shewed to Drs. Blair, Fergusson, and Robertson, and to Lord Elibank; and he subsequently, in the course of the year, carried them to London, and they were admired everywhere. Thus, in October 1759, and in a few days, MacPherson must have composed a great English work, if he was the author of “The Fragments.” A bit of his own original English composition may help to form an opinion of his merits as an original English writer –
“Oh discord! gnashing! rav’nous fiend!
Hell’s sharpest torment! nauseous qualm of life,
You bathe the poniard oft in friendship’s breast:
Peace, virtue, friendship, harmony, and love,
Delightful train of graces shrink from thee.”
And so on.
Another publication gives some measure of his knowledge of the Gaelic language. In 1771 he published, at Dublin, an introduction to the history of Great Britain and Ireland, and at pp. 176-177, he quotes eleven lines of Gaelic and gives a translation. The poem is said to be older than Christianity, but it is not said where it was got. If he wrote it himself, of course he knew what he meant; but in any case he seems to have made a mistake, whereon he founded a theory, and this was eleven years after the poems appeared.
The Gaelic given is –
Marsin air Tón frioghach fa noir,
Nuar Shuanas GRIAN-AISE na nial fein,
This reoda air itta gu tean,
‘Sé spairn ‘Sé sguarta gu geur.
It seems to mean –
Thus on bristling wanton wave,
When sleeps “Grian-AIse” in her own cloud,
Comes ice upon feather, tightly (or wing, or fin, or down ?spray),
And he striving and keenly splashing (or roaring),
MacPherson translates it –
“Thus hovering over the bleak waves in the NOrth,
When GRIAN-AIS sleeps, wrapt in his cloud,
A sudden frost comes on all his wings –
He struggles, he loudly roars.”
There are no words for “hovering,” “wrapped,” “sudden,” or “all;” and tón is singular. It is not the sun who is frozen, but the wave, for Grian is feminine; but MacPherson argues that this sun, who could not resist a frosty evening but had his wings frozen, could not have been a Celtic god. But if the poet meant a wave, the argument is bad; and if he was MacPherson, and meant the sun, the Gaelic is not a good translation of the English, and it becomes highly improbable that MacPherson was capable of imagining the English Ossian, or turning it into the Gaelic of 1807. So it is argued.
But direct evidence is better than argument.
Mr. Home goes on to say, that “in travelling through the Highlands” (which he did with MacPherson), he has met with several common people who repeated to him many hundred lines of the rhymes, as they called them. Mr. Home having usually with him one or more who understood the Gaelic language, made the rhymes be repeated again, which the person who understood both languages translated, so as to leave no room to doubt that the tales and songs sang by the boatmen and herds in the Highlands are the poems of Ossian.”
But the question is, were these the Gaelic poems of 1807? and of that Mr. Home could not judge. Having read one “translation” he heard another like it; but he should have had the written Gaelic, and some one to compare it with the Gaelic which he had heard; and so far as I can find out, no one ever thought of trying that simple experiment on the street porters of Edinburgh, who are men of the class described, and could solve the problem. But four of the gentlemen who started, MacPherson gave valid reasons for their belief in the genuineness of the Gaelic materials collected by him, and in the general correctness of the translations; while they admit that which no reasonable man can now doubt, that he worked up these materials, and that the long poems never existed in the form which they now bear, before MacPherson’s time. They held that Gaelic for nearly the whole of the translations had existed as detached fragments well known, and constantly repeated in the Highlands; but they did not maintain that “Fingal” and “Temora” ever had been repeated from beginning to end.
The report of the whole committee was in accordance with this evidence – 1st, That there had existed an abundance of impressive, striking, eloquent, tender and sublime Gaelic poetry.
2d, That the translations often contained the substance, and sometimes almost the literal expression of passages in poems, and fragments of poems, which the committee had been able to procure; but they had not been able to obtain one poem the same in title and tenor with the poems as published. They believed that they had begun too late; that MacPherson had far better opportunities of collecting and collating, and rejecting, and putting together “what might fairly enough be called an original whole.” They point out modernisms in the later publications, such as Temora, and generally the committee having good opportunities, made a report, which seems to settle the question, as well as such a question could be settled.
But while all this argument and criticism and paper war was disturbing the non-Gaelic world, the Highlanders of the poorer class knew very little about the fight, and went on singing their own ballads, though people who sought for old poetry after MacPherson had set the world by the ears, found no epics.
It is useless to argue that the Highlands changed after the battle of Culloden, It is true that whole clans have been displaced since then, and that the whole population of Great Britain is now rapidly assimilating; but I have spoken with men who remembered the “forty-five,” and with one who had not left his native island during his life, 108 years. Men and women of seventy and eighty are to be found all over the Highlands, and many of these trace their descent for many generations, and occupy the old holdings of their ancestors. From such people traditions can now be got, and they were got before, and almost immediately after MacPherson’s first publication, and they were and are nearly the same still. I have already mentioned Stone, Farquharson, Pope, Kennedy, Fletcher, Hill, etc., as collectors; they found ballads, but “Ossian” is a collection of epics; and they found none.
C.E. 1807 The Gaelic of Ossian was published from a manuscript of MacPherson’s; an edition was subsequently distributed gratis, in 1818.
C.E. 1808 The Gaelic Society of Dublin, established for the investigation and revival of ancient Irish literature, published a volume which contains, amongst other matter, a story from the Irish, which is said to be “the foundation of Mr. James MacPherson’s Darthula.” It is the story of “Deirdri,” and the sons of “Usnach,” partly taken from Keating. In this occurs the following passage:-
“It happened then on a snowy day that her tutor killed a calf to prepare food for her; and on his spilling the calf’s blood in the snow, a raven came to drink of it; and as Deirdri noticed this, she said to Lavarcam (her nurse chatter-awry), that she would be glad herself to have a husband possessed of the three colours which she saw; that is, his hair of the colour of the raven, his cheek of the colour of the calf’s blood, and his skin of the colour of the snow. ‘There is such a man, named Naisi, son of Usnach, of Conor’s household,’ said Lavarcam.” (See vol. iii, 200.)
This incident seems to belong to the whole Celtic race. The story is followed by a version of the poem, with a translation, mixed with a prose story, which, as is usual in Gaelic recitations, helps out the poem. Most of the places named in the poem are in Argyleshire: Vale of Masan, Vale of Urchay, Vale of Eiti, Glenn dá Ruadh, translated “wale of the two roes;” Innis in Droighin, translated, “dear is Drayno,” etc. The scene of the prose story is generally in Ireland, but nearly all the poetry related to Scotland. The editor says that the tragic tale has been written since the sixth century, and if so, it is no wonder that it should be known both in Ireland and in Scotland in various shapes. The Irish version makes the children of Usnoth cousins of Cuchullin; MacPherson made them his nephews. The Irish story make them Ultonian nobles, “reared with Aifi in the military school of Skye,” “where Cuchullin was also educated.” The volume also includes an historic tae of the sons of Usnoth; a song to the blackbird; a hymn of Columcille; and a version of the ballad of Talc, the son of Trone, which is like “Fainesolis.” The editor says, with reference to Irish Fenian poems and stories (page 211):-
“With every one of these, and all other stories in the Irish language, Mr. MacPherson appears to have been perfectly conversant; nor has he omitted one of their beautiful expressions or interesting episodes. In the execution of his scheme, however, he has been totally regardless of epochs, and with fastidious insolence he rejects the very sources of his reputation.”
This is surely strong testimony in favour of the general authenticity of MacPherson’s publication, from so keen an adversary and so good a scholar as the editor of this volume.
The Gaelic of 1807 he condemns; he points out the Irish metre, of which he says it is a bad imitation; and asserts that “Mr. MACFARLAN” was a very incorrect Gaelic pretender, who did not know the original Irish, which MacPherson knew well, and so erred “in base modern corrupt Erse.”
One Irish line mentioned, means –
“My heart leaping as a blackbird.”
MacPherson gave it “pathetic expression,” thus –
“The heart of the aged beats over thee.”
Temora has it, as –
“Tha cridhe na h’ aoise fo spairn.”
The heart of age is under woe.
And this is said to be what “Mr. Macfarlan aped to translate in his corrupt irregular dialect.”
To me it seems that this publication tells very stronyl for the general authenticity of MacPherson’s Ossian. If it be true that he lived for some years in the county of Limerick, with a cousin who kept a school there; and if he be told the Bishop of Lemerick that “Fingal was an original, but that the characters wee Irish;” it surely is not advancing Gaelic literature to abuse the man who rescued it from obscurity.
Turner’s collection contains, amongst a number of songs, the “Lay of the Great Fool,” of which a traditional version is given at page 160, vol. iii. The last is much longer.
A version was printed in Glasgow in 1800, in a collection without a name, 12mo, 12 pages, price twopence. I have not seen it, but it is mentioned by “Reid.”
In the 6th volume of the Transactions of the Ossianic Society of Dublin for 1858, published November 1861, there is a version of the same poem, 158 quatrains. On applying to Mr. O’Daly, the secretary to the society, I learn that this is taken from a manuscript made in Kilrush, county Clare, by a blacksmith named Martin Griffin, in 1844; that the poem is very popular in Ireland, and that there are older versions in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, as the secretary remembers to have seen a copy there made in 1737. Mr. O’Daly thinks that it must be Leinster composition, because of the localities named; I cannot see the force of this argument, for it would make “Hamlet” a Danish composition, and “Macbeth” a Scotch one. I can only say that it proves the poem to be old, Gaelic, and genuine, to find it current from Stornoway, Gairloch, and Glasgow, to Kilrush and Dublin, amongst paupers, cottars, and blacksmiths, in Scotland and Ireland; and it seems to make the Scotch and Irish quarrel about old ballads which belong to both sufficiently absurd.
The Irish version, Turner’s, and mine, all vary from each other; but they were evidently the same composition at some period; I have much which the long Irish version has not; and it has a great deal which is not in my version or in Turner’s. There is an episode and a sequel, and it looks more like a fragment of a popular romance made up from ballads.
C.E. 1816 MacCallum published a collection made through ministers and others, all of whom gave their names, which are published. If the people were apt to learn, MacCallum would surely now have found them repeating the poems of 1807; but the people are only sturdy to retain what they have learned from their fathers, or what suits their every day life; and MacCallum again found and published versions of old poems which had been printed in 1804 and 1786, which are in MSS. of 1530, and are still recited in 1860, chiefly in the Islands, poems which are not those of MacPherson or Dr. Smith, but which can be traced in their Gaelic publications, and form their groundwork. 
It is proved, then, that before 1760, when MacPherson made his tour, there were plenty of manuscript and traditional poems current in the Highlands, and that he collected and used them; Mrs. Gallie, Lord Lynedoch, Dr. Fergusson, and others saw him engaged upon these materials, and he had no respect for his authorities, new or old. When he died, none of these materials were forthcoming; but those who know anything of Gaelic, know what some of them must have been. The Irish writer, to whom I have referred above, quotes an essay by O’Reilly, in which the “Irish poems” are named, from which “MacPherson stole his materials for Ossian.”
“Carthon” is founded on the Lay of “Conlaoch;” his Fingal is partly taken from “the Lay of Magnus the Great;” his Episode of “Borbar and Fainasollis,” in the third book of his Fingal, is taken from “Moira Borb.” (Why not “Talc MacTrone?“)
“The fourth book of Fingal” is founded on the “War ode of Goll.” The combat between “Osgar and Iollan” seems to be a bad imitation of “Moira Borb.” “The death of the children of Usnagh” is the poem on which he framed his “Darthula.”
The original of “the Battle of Lara” is not given by the Gaelic Society in their printed Gaelic originals; but a poem in Gillies’s collection of Gaelic poems, printed at Perth in 1786, called “Erragon,” is the poem on which the Battle of Lara is founded.
(224.) “The death of Osgar,” in “the first book of Temora,” is grounded on “the Battle of Gaura,” and many passages of it are indeed literally translated. But great liberties, as usual, have been taken with “the original;” and the writer again refers to “p. 313 of the Perth edition.”
But this “Perth edition” is Gillies’s, published in 1786, before Miss Brookes’ work, and purports to be a collection, not of Irish poems, but of poems collected by gentlemen in the Highlands of Scotland; one of whom, Sir James Foulis of Colinton, Bart., procured and carefully revised many of them; so Gillies lands us in the Highlands of Scotland once more, and it is rather cool to quote him as an Irish authority, and ignore the collections of the Highland Society altogether. The book is now very rare; there is a copy in the Advocates Library, but none in the British Museum. I have seen but two other imperfect copies, and never heard of it till 1861. When I read it first, I thought that my peasant reciters must have learned from the book, for it seemed to contain the very ballads which had come to me; but on looking closer at it, I was satisfied that tradition had borrowed nothing from this rare book, for there are endless variations. My collectors I can trust, and they are satisfied that Gillies’ was taken from tradition, and that the book is unknown to the men who recited poems which they wrote. On procuring a very dirty, torn, thumbed copy from Glasgow, with many names scribbled over it, and a perfume of fragrant peat emanating from every page, I set myself to consider whether dirt might not be an index to the modern reader’s taste; and by sight and smell it soon appeared that the heroic age had passed from the Firth of Clyde, where I had found none of the old poems. Most of the names and occupations of the former owners savour of ships and Argyleshire lochs, of a life of industry, trade, and commerce, salt herrings, revenue laws, peace and plenty. The poetry which had delighted such men was not “The death of Osgar,” which is still commonly sung in Uist and Barra, and used to be sung about Lochawe; and was sung in Lorne about the time that John Gorm was roasted, and which is the ground-work of Temora; that is nearly clean. Mordubh, the big black sentimental warrior, is nearly white, and so are most of the heroic pieces which treat of wars of the Lochlaners and the Feine; those which are old, and speak of a past age, and are claimed for Ireland. But “Braigh Loch Iall,” a love song with a capital chorus, is nearly worn out; so is “The praise of a young man to his sweetheart;” and most of the love songs are in bad case; so is a lamentable ditty about an old deer hunter of “Adhoil,” who used a gun; and one about a gentleman who was drowned. “Iseabail nic Aoidh,” Isobel Mackay, milking the kye all alone, whom I have known all my life, is as black as the Hottentot Venus, and fairly torn to shreds by her numerous admirers. In short, it seemed that those who had read the book did not cultivate the class of poetry which prevails amongst the poorest class who cannot read at all, who recite these poems, and trace them to their ancestors, and believe in them. It seems that the thoughts of men of work and action, and some education, are of the present rather than the past; and that the heroic age is rapidly fading from the minds of people who rub shoulders with the rest of the world.
The copy in the Advocates’ Library looks as if it never had been read at all. The copy of Ossian, presented to the parish of Dunoon, is almost perfectly clean; I firmly believe that it never had been read till it was put into the hands of an old shoemaker friend of mine to extract his opinion of the work.
How strange it is that poetry, which certainly is the germ of that Ossian which is still admired in palaces, should still be the fireside pastime of men described as savages, burrowing in middens, and furnishing good specimens of the “ape idiot;” while a “thriving peasantry” gets decorously drunk in its fine new house, and has no taste for pastimes which the palace and the hovel share, and utilitarians despise.
It seemed then that I might safely take Gillies as a standard to which to refer anything I might pick up from the people, or find in other books, and it seems evident that there are several different epochs of wholly distinct poetry there represented.
1st, Poems which might be divided into stanzas of four lines each, and which are so divided generally; which in spirit, in incident, in names, in rhythm, and in every respect resemble one another, and often refer to each other; many which are still recited and sung by the people of the remoter districts of the Highlands.
These are always attributed to Oisein by the people now; and Oisein generally appears as an actor in the incidents described. They relate to the wars of Lochlann and Eirinn. They are simple; they are like stories versified; there is no mention of Morven; Fingal is not once named; but Fionn, and the rest of his family and friends, are the heroes of nearly all these poems, and they invariably bear the characters now attributed to them by the people in the prose tales and traditions of Scotland and Ireland, so far as I know them.
These I believe to be popular ballads, many at least as old as 1530, probably very much older, and to be specimens of the poetry on which the Gaelic poems of Ossian were founded.
Fionn and Manus of Norway fight a battle in one of these; and it is worth considering whether the events can be reconciled with Norse history, and whether the real composer’s date cannot thus be ascertained.
2d, There are comparatively modern poems by known authors, which differ from the first in every particular.
They are on different subjects, in different metre, and the ideas which they contain are those of a wholly different class of men; they are essentially modern, though some are as early as Charles the Second.
They are to the first class of songs what “The last Rose of Summer” is to “Sir Lancelot,” modern poetry to an old ballad.
3d, There are two specimens of compositions which resemble in some degree the Ossian best known to the world.
These are to the ballads what Thomson’s “Seasons” are to “Chevy Chase;” they seem to me, when I read them, to want the stamp of antiquity, to be more polished, to be poetry of a different class and time.
They are like the popular ballads in incident, and in rhythm, but they have a dash of sentimentalism about them which seems foreign to popular taste. They are more refined and less quaint. It is hard to define an almost instinctive feeling, but the poet seems to have thought in English.
These I take to be more modern, but still old; specimens of poems such as MacPherson might have found ready made to his hand, by some previous educated collector, infected with the vice of mending what he found. One of these is the “Mordubh,” above mentioned.
Now, the average length of these pieces, which I believe to be genuine old poetry, all of which were printed twenty years before the Gaelic of Ossian, is from 100 to 200 lines; and there is nothing unreasonable in supposing that such compositions have been handed down from generation to generation, learned by sons from fathers, gradually altered, and so preserved. Gray’s Elegy has 128 lines, and I suppose there are thousands in England who can repeat it. “John Gilpin,” “My name is Norval,” and scores of other pieces might be taken down from dictation amongst certain classes of the community, who might be puzzled to say who composed them, or when; and if all books in England were now to be destroyed, a diligent collector might still recover whole volumes of prose and poetry in England. I know English students who think they could repeat about a thousand lines of various compositions; I have heard of one who repeated a book of the Georgics under the influence of champagne, and I know scraps of scores of songs myself.
It is surely not too much to assume that a peasantry who have few books, and who live apart from the world, a people who have been famous from the dawn of history for rhymes, should have preserved a few remnants of very ancient poetry to this day.