The list will shew that the Irish claim to all genuine old Gaelic poetry is unfounded; but I have little doubt that versions of anything which has ever been extensively known amongst the Scotch Gael has been equally well known to their Irish brethren. The best course is to make peace; share this common Celtic property; make the best possible use of it; and preserve what is left.
But this long race was for “Ossian’s poems,” and the prize is not yet awarded. There is no direct evidence as to who compounded the famous work; and unless the poems will tell us, I know not where to seek for a reply to the questions which remain. Who wrote the Gaelic of 1807? and which was the first written, that Gaelic or the English?
The first question I cannot answer; but it seems highly improbable that MacPherson wrote it himself. Ewan MacLachlan, one of the best of modern scholars, wrote to MacCallum (see page 224 of the Gaelic book) –
“If the works of Ossian are a forgery, we have sufficient grounds to believe that the imposition cannot be charged on modern times.” “Antiquity has ascribed the contents of your work to Ossian.”
But MacCallum’s work consists of traditional ballads, not of the large poems, so the sentence of Ewan MacLachlan, which at first seems all for the Gaelic of 1807, is really for the Gaelic of 1813. As he truly says, most of that Gaelic rests upon manuscripts and traditions.
I am not aware that any Scotch Highlander of this day has given his opinion of the published Ossian. So it may be of some interest to read what men, who have studied it, really think of it; and, first, I will give the opinion which I had formed for myself from reading the controversy, and from a knowledge of vernacular Gaelic, which passes unquestioned everywhere, and was acquired in childhood, but which does not include any critical knowledge of the niceties of the written language.
When the Gaelic Fingal, published in 1807, is compared with any one of the translations which purport to have been made from it, it seems to me incomparably superior. It is far simpler in diction. It has a peculiar rhythm and assonance which seem to repel the notion of a mere translation from English as something almost absurd. It is impossible that it can be a translation from MacPherson’s English, unless there was some clever Gaelic poet then alive, able and willing to write what Eton school-boys call “full sense verses.”
It is scarcely credible that such a man would conceal his name, unless he were both poet and translator; and all who have written on the subject deny that MacPherson had any great knowledge of Gaelic or power of versification.
Great part of Fingal might, with propriety, be divided into stanzas of four lines, having much of the peculiar assonance of poems of undoubted authenticity, which are still recited; the whole clinks and hangs together in such a way that no one but a poet could have so jointed words to express ideas.
The words also are often chosen for their appropriate sound, as well as for their meaning and rhythm –
“Fhreagair an sonn mar thonn air carraig,”
“Answered the brave like wave on a crag,”
has two long deep vowel sounds, something like MOAN, TONE, combined with other broad vowels; suggestive of the deep thunder of dashing waves, and of a grand deep voice, as the famous line in Milton is of the harsh grating of the Gates of Hell (Paradise Lost, book ii.) –
“——- And on a sudden, open fly,
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound,
The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Nothing is more probable than that a poet should choose the Gaelic words if his ears were familiar with the loud deep roar of the Atlantic on a still evening; nothing more improbable than that they should happen to be chosen by one who was not a poet, who was translating prose ideas from another language. It is probable that the Gaelic in this case was first composed, though it cannot be proved.
Again, a mere translator would surely have taken the model before him, or some other; he would have written prose like MacPherson’s, or he would have copied some known metre. The Gaelic is wholly unlike the English, and is no prose, and to the best of my knowledge the irregular metre has no exact counterpart, while the nearest resemblance to it is in the genuine Gaelic traditional ballads, which treat of the same people, and often describe the same incidents –
I saw the chieftain, said Moran,
Like to a crag was the NOBLE;
His spear like a pine on the steep hill,
Like the moon in its rising his SHIELD –
Is the metre and meaning, without the assonance of four lines in “Fingal” of 1807, and the passage savours of originality, or a genuine model.
MacPherson’s fragments, published 1760, which are the least suspected of all his works, contain the following as a translation (page 60) – “I saw their chief, says Morven, tall as a rock of ice. His spear is like that fir; his shield is like the rising moon.”
There is nothing about ice in the Gaelic of 1807.
In the same page is the English equivalent for the Gaelic line, quoted above –
“He answered like a wave on the rock.”
Now either the word “sonn,” the hero which gives the assonance, was loosely translated by the pronoun “he,” or some one in translating the English prose, changed “he” into “the hero.”
Kennedy gives a traditional equivalent for the line,
“Bha neart a ghair mar bhar tuinne,”
which means –
“The might of his shout was as billow’s crest,”
and this was rendered by the reporters of the Highland Society “literally,” thus –
“He spoke with the force of a breaking wave.”
But if this English line were translated back into Gaelic, it would lose all its force.
“Labhair e le neart thuinn a bristeadh”
is English Gaelic, and prosaic prose, and so would be a similar translation of MacPherson’s English line.
And so we must assume that two able Gaelic poets had freely translated one English line in two different ways so as to please the ear; or that the line in the fragments was translated form a line in Gaelic older than 1760, and different from that of 1807.
Again, the metre in this book of Fingal often varies to suit the meaning, and that is another argument for the originality of the Gaelic.
When the warriors are running together, the rhythm is rapid, and names are strung together in the same fashion as they are in ballads and similar compositions.
It is slow when the meaning requires it, while every here and there a single line stands alone, and seems to end a passage.
Some passages, such as the famous description of Cuchullin in his Car, are not in the same metre as the rest, and resemble the measured prose of the tales. Similar passages are in old MSS.
Other passages seem to be made up. Take, for example, the address to the sun in Carricthura.
It is given in “Leabhar nan cnoc,” by Dr. MacLeod in 1834, by MacCallum in 1816, published in part by the Highland Society in their report, 1805; by Stewart. 1804, got by the Rev. Mr. MacDiarmaid from the dictation of an old man in Glen Lyon, about 30 years before 1801, say 1770. The old man had learned this and other poems in his youth form people in the same glen, so that this, at least, must be far older than MacPherson’s first publications, 1760. It was repeated to my grand aunts when they were girls, with other Ossianic pieces, by people who lived in cottages far up in the hills above Loch Tarbet, and these were translated for them by a clergyman, as they could not speak Gaelic to the people themselves. It is still repeated in Skye.
As got from the people by MacCallum, in 1816, the first ten lines are connected in meaning. The sun sets and sinks down to his resting place, the waves come slowly about him, and timidly raise their heads to gaze on the beautiful sleeping sun of the skies, with his golden hair, as waves might seem to do when the setting sun was watched by a poet from a west country hill. The words follow each other harmoniously, they have the clink or “assonance” of Gaelic poetry, they make two and a half stanzas, and each line is complete in sense, which accords with other Gaelic poetry. So far the poem might be sung, and so far it is like other traditional poetry still extant, and so far MacPherson’s translation agrees closely with the Gaelic.
The eleventh line is of a different length, and does not clink with the others, and stands alone. It joins the next two lines which belong to each other, and make up another stanza. This stanza (the fifth) is weak where it compares the sun to a sunbeam, but it would be a noble metaphor if it likened a warrior to a sunbeam rushing over a level sward, and I suspect that it was originally composed with that intention.
The last eight lines make two complete stanzas, but the last is in a different metre.
The main idea, again, is different from that of the first ten lines, for the last twelve are not applicable to the quiet summer evening, whose picture was so well drawn in the first ten.
These describe a winter day, not a summer evening.
On the whole, I should argue that the first ten lines were composed in Gaelic by some one who had great command of the language and poetical feeling, and who meant to describe a summer sunset; the last twelve by the same or by some other Gaelic poet, whose head was then full of the picture of a winter’s day; and that the eleventh line is cement, composed to join these two fragments, or picked up and thrust between them, or the final line of piece. It is the final line of the passage in Carricthura. I am convinced that these twenty-three lines never were composed by any one poet at one and the same time, but I am satisfied that the poet or poets who made the Gaelic verses composed poetry of no mean order, and MacCallum got them all together from a certain Mr. J. Mac-an-t-saoir in Ari-Chasteal.
I do not assert that the poet’s name was Ossian. I deny on good grounds that it was James MacPherson. I maintain that a poet, and a Scotch Highlander, composed all those Gaelic lines separately, if not together; and judging from my own knowledge of the people, and their ways, it is possible that these may be fragments of sentimental poetry different from the popular ballads, more modern, but certainly older than 1730.
“Grian” is feminine, but the sun is here addressed as a male. The confusion is something like “Sa Majesté le Roi elle,” etc.
The following translation is almost literal, and gives the musical rhythm without the assonance.
The Song of Ullin, in Carricthura, arranged in lines.
Hast thou left thy blue course in heaven,
Golden haired son of the sky!
The west has opened its gates;
The bed of thy repose is there.
The waves come
To behold thy beauty,
They lift their trembling heads;
They see thee lovely in thy sleep.
They shrink away with fear;
Rest in thy shadowy cave, O sun!
Let thy return be in joy.
OSSIAN TO THE SETTING SUN.
Close translation of Gaelic, assumed to be older than 1730.
Hast left the blue distance of heaven?
Sorrowless son of the gold yellow hair!
Night’s doorways are ready for thee,
Thy pavilion of peace in the west.
The billows came slowly around,
To behold him of brightest hair;
Timidly raising their heads
To gaze o thee, beauteous asleep.
They witless have fled from thy side.
10. Take thy sleep within thy cave,
11. Oh sun, and come back from sleep rejoicing.
5 – Assumed to be joined to the first.
Like a sun-gleam in the winter tide,
Rushing with might down the plain greensward;
Such like were the days of the Feen,
As a sun between shower squalls fading.
Burst the dusky black clouds of the skies,
And snatched the loved beam from the hunter;
The forests’ bare twigs are mourning,
And the moorland’s soft plants are withering.
But the sun will return again,
to the beautiful woods of the fresh buds;
And in the spring each stem will smile,
23. Gazing aloft to the son of the skies.
Take another example. At page 226, Appendix to the H. S. Report, is a Gaelic passage collected by Macdonald of Staffa about the end of last century. It is not in the language, or style, or metre of popular ballads generally, but it is good Gaelic, and a sort of cantering blank verse. The following is a “close translation,” and imitates the metre:-
Oscar, quell the strong armed;
Give help to the weak-handed needful;
Be as spring-tide winter flood-stream,
To combat the foes of the Feinne;
But as summer mild still weak wind,
Be to those that seek thine aiding.
Such like was Treunmor of Victories,
Such Trathal of routs was after him,
And Fionn was a prop to the weak,
To shield him from tyrant’s power.
For his succour stretched my hand,
With welcome I’d go to meet him;
And he’s find shelter and kindness,
Under shade of the gleam of my blade.
It will be seen that each of these lines is complete in sense. The passage might be finished at the end of each line, without making the rest nonsense, which is peculiarity of Gaelic poetry. Whatever the merits of demerits of this passage may be, its imagery is taken from nature, as seen on the tide-washed shores of the western coast; and the words of art are those used by boatmen. “Buinn sruth” is gaining tide the flood stream, when it begins to make strongly; “reabhairt” is the height of springs, when the tides are strongest; and to any one who has danced over the “spring-tide flood stream” in a fishing-boat on a winter’s day, off the west of Scotland, near the whirlpool of Corriebhreacan, the line conveys the idea of irresistible power, which it is intended to give. MacPhersons’s English loses all this, and he was a Badenoch man, who was not familiar with such scenes.
O Oscar! bend the strong in arm;
but spare the feeble hand.
Be thou a stream of many tides
against the foes of thy people;
but like the gale that moves the grass
to those who ask thine aid.
So Treunmor lived;
such Trathal was;
and such has Fingal been.
My arm was the support of the injured;
* * * * *
the weak rested
behind the lightning of my steel.
(Fingal, book iii., 1763.)
The Gaelic of 1807 is something quite different from either of these passages. (Pp. 148, 149, gratis edition 1818.) Three versions therefore exist – two printed in Gaelic, and MacPherson’s English; and of these I prefer Staffa’s west country Gaelic, with which MacPherson had nothing to do, and which is not a translation of the published English, but a far better version of a similar passage. The Gaelic must surely be the original on this case.
Again, passages composed on the following principle must belong to the language in which the assonance exists, rather than to that which gives the meaning less forcibly, and nothing more:-
Then out sprang the warrior’s BLADE,
the flashing SWORD.
Let us meet the foeman, he CRIED;
let us ride
There are numerous passages in Gaelic which have a structure as complicated as the above “nonsense verse;” for example:-
Dh’ eirich gu SPAirneach na suiNN
cuilg an COS
Sronich an cuim chluinte CIAN
‘s an FhIAnn
-AIL fui SPROCHD. (Bas Choirail.)
Here surely the Gaelic was the original.
Such a passage as Fingal, Duan I., line 413 to 437, the most difficult of critics must admit to be very fine Gaelic, infinitely better than is English equivalent, though that passage will not scan at all.
In short, when I read parts of Ossian in Gaelic, I often feel that this is poetry of high order, of which no translation can give any just idea. Some poet might express the same ideas as well in another language, but no faithful translator can render the meaning and imitate the original.
When I read Fingal in the “original” I feel that this is poetry, that these are grand ideas clothed in magnificent sonorous language; on reading it in English, I often feel that there is something in it akin to bombast. In the one case I am drawn to the side of those who maintain that these are genuine ancient poems, in the other I feel driven to admit that they are not; and when all is done, I return to my first opinion, that Fingal is a fiction founded upon a broad basis of fact; a book of Gaelic poetry of high order, but not poetry composed by Ossian about the time of the Romans.
I hold that it is manifest, from a consideration of the Gaelic poems themselves, that they were the work of one or of many able Gaelic poets. The question now is – when did they live? and who were they?
It has been argued that the language is modern, and, therefore, that the poems are modern; and to hold that the language spoken in the days of Caracalla was the language of the last version of the modern Gaelic Bible appears sufficiently absurd. The modern air of the language may, however, be accounted for.
Traditional poems alter with the age; I have already shewn how rapidly they alter, and in what manner. At page 92 of Sir John Sinclair’s Dissertation, it is stated that the Rev. Mr, Thos. Ross, of Edinburgh, was employed to transcribe the whole work as left by MacPherson at his death in 1796, agreeably to the orthography of the Gaelic Bible, that is, to modern orthography. Mr. Ross found fault with the English translation, but he had no quarrel with the Gaelic.
MacPherson had tried to simplify Gaelic spelling, and having found some classical authority for the use of the Greek character by ancient Celts, he had begun to print Gaelic in Greek letters. Sir Roderick Murchison tells me that he has meteorological registers written in Gaelic, and in the Greek character, by his father.
When a man, whose standard of orthography was the modern Gaelic Bible, got hold of such a work as MacPherson’s Gaelic MS., he would have small scruple in making it suit his standard; and so, between popular changes, MacPherson’s interpolations, simplifications, and restorations, and Greek letters, and his successor’s modern standard, the ancient form of the language, if it was ancient, could hardly survive.
What would become of Chaucer so maltreated, and finally spelt according to modern rules of grammar and orthography? I have found by experience that an alteration in “spelling” may mean an entire change of construction and meaning, and a substitution of whole words. I know that a change in the pronounciation of a single vowel sound will suggest such a change as this –
The geese would swim through thy waist.
The winds might float through thy breast.
The passage refers to a man thrust through with a spear. The first is the translation of the line as repeated now and in 1786, and has no meaning, unless it be a ludicrous measure of the size of the wound.
The second conveys the image of the breath swimming painfully through the blood of a wounded man, whose breast and lungs had been pierced, and the only change necessary to suggest these opposite ideas is from “GEOIDH,” geese, to GAOITHE, winds; the dh and the being silent letters. MacPherson would have made the change: I did not, though I believe it ought to be made.
I have compared versions of the same poem lately written down by different men, from different reciters, in different districts, at long intervals of time, with each other, with older MS., and with still older printed versions; and I find all manner of strange variations, in which rhythm and sounds often remain, while sense and words are altered; and I find that even the printed Gaelic of 1807 varies from that of 1763.
It has also been argued that because there is no mythology in Ossian, therefore it is a forgery; but it has been shewn, that the collectors of former days carefully weeded out all the mythology, because it was not quite reasonable. I have left all that I found, and it savours of Pagan sun worship.
To me, therefore, the modern language and English idioms of the Gaelic of the edition of 1807 appear to be no valid argument against the general antiquity of the poems.
Take one example from Smith’s “Sean Dana,” and the same thing appears; the Gaelic is better than the English. In “Tiomna Ghuill,” page 57, is this line –
“Sgaoth eunlaith air steuda sàile;”
and it is translated by the English line –
“A flight of birds on the briny billows.”
As it seems to me, the beauty of the line is thus lost by a free translation, whereas a close rendering would preserve its meaning better –
“A skiff of birds upon steeds of brine.”
The passage describes a “play of fish,” and the Gaelic line conveys to me the idea of a mass of sea birds clustered together, and riding over the long smooth waves of the salt ocean.
It is a true picture in five short words, which every one must recognize who has ever watched a clump of dark razor-bills huddled together under a cliff on a summer’s day. As each long Atlantic wave comes rolling in, the birds rise on the crest, and sink into the hollow trough, and the wave slips under and curls over, and thunders in against the rocks beyond – a mass of broken white water; but the clump of birds are on their “briny steeds,” and they know how to ride them. A stroke or two, and they paddle out into the glassy water at the edge of the surf, and tuck their heads under their wings once more, and sleep. And there they will rest on the waves for hours, beneath a cliff, riding like skiffs (sgoth) at anchor till fishing time comes again; and then they are up and off, to ride their steeds to battle with the herring king.
Then comes a sight which must be seen to be appreciated. The birds gather on the surface in masses; great whales dash up, and spout, and turn over, and dive down again, leaving the sea all glittering with scales, and foaming ad surging about their sides. The diving birds scatter and flap along the surface, and scream as they go; great green cole-fish leap high into the air; gulls and terns hang over head, and clatter and yell, and dart down, and the whole do their best to gobble up the king of the seas as fast as they can. And all this was in the mind of the man who composed the passage, in which the rushing of Goll to battle is compared to the rushing of the whale, and his foes to the scattered birds. And to my mind the Gaelic tells the story infinitely better than the English, though this is not the most popular ballad poetry now most commonly recited.
This is my own opinion, but no one is fit to judge whose earliest thoughts were not framed and expressed in Gaelic, One who has been accustomed to hear and speak, and to read all sorts of jargons, and jump at meaning without regard to grammar or spelling, is no fair judge of a written language, in which he does not think; so I prefer the opinion of a shoemaker who reads his Gaelic Bible, and has a multitude of Gaelic stories in his head, and knows very little about anything else beyond his last. He says –
“This is not the old stuff.”
I also prefer the opinion of a man who began life in a Highland cottage, and lives near the place where he was born, who has worked at Gaelic books and traditions, and studied that language, and has taught himself to read half a dozen more, in which he reads poetry; besides acquiring the whole of Euclid, and the Differential calculus, and a good many “ologies” to boot – a man who thinks for himself, and is free from national prejudice at all events.