St Stephen, the Younger, martyr, 764. St James of La Marca of Ancona, confessor, 1476.
Born. – Victor Cousin, moral philosopher, 1792.
Died. – Pope Gregory III., 741; Dunois, the Bastard of Orleans, 1468; Cartouche, celebrated robber, executed at Paris, 1721; Washington Irving, eminent popular writer, 1859, Irvington, New York; Baron C. C. J. Bunsen, Prussian statesman, philosophical writer, 1860, Bonn.
Were the fact not familiar to every one, most readers of the Sketch-Book, Bracebridge Hall, and the lives of Goldsmith and Columbus, would be surprised to learn that they were written by an American;..
Washington Irving’s father was a Scotchman, and his mother an Englishwoman. William Irving went to New York about 1763, and was a merchant of that city during the revolution. His son, Washington, was born in April 3, 1783, just as the War of Independence had been brought to a successful termination; and he received the name of its hero, of whom he was destined to be the, so far, most voluminous biographer… [He] wrote a comic history of the early settlement of New York, purporting to be the production of a venerable Dutchman, Diedrich Knickerbocker. This work had a great success, and so delighted Sir Walter Scott, that when the author visited him in 1820, he wrote to thank Campbell, who had given him a letter of introduction, for ‘one of the best and pleasantest acquaintances he had met in many a day.’ Sir Walter did not stop with compliments. Irving could not find a publisher for his Sketch-Book, being perhaps too modest to push his fortunes with the craft. He got it printed on his own account by a person named Miller, who failed shortly after. Sir Walter introduced the author to John Murray, who gave him £200 for the copyright, but afterwards increased the sum to £400…
He died, November 28, 1859, sincerely mourned by the whole world of literature, and by his own countrymen, who have placed his name at the head of the list of authors whom they delight to honour.
On this Day in Other Sources.
There are other deeds to the same effect preserved, and among them a “foundatioune donatione and legatione” by “Schir Archibald Crawfurd vicar of Cadder,” bearing date 28th November, 1509, which contains the following among other burdens on the property:- “Item I leif to Sanct Mongowes bell to pas throwe the toune one salmes day eftyre noune, and one the morne forroure nyne, to gar praye for mye faderis saule, mye moderis saule, my awin saule, and all Christyne saulis, aucht peneis of annuale of the said place.”
– Old Glasgow, pp.19-29.
The Queen mother, on her part, caused her daughter’s marriage to be solemnized, in Scotland, with equal rejoicings, though not with equal expenditure. She sent directions to the several towns of Scotland – “to make fyres, and processions general, for the completing, and solemnizing of the marriage, betwixt our sovereign Lady, and the Dauphine of France.”
The commissioners, who had been sent to France, to witness the marriage of their Queen, returning, in October, a Parliament was assembled, on the 28th of November 1558: and, there were now passed a variety of laws, for giving the Queen’s marriage proper effect. The Scotish historians do not mark, with sufficient precision, the several proceedings of the Parliament, resulting from the Queen’s marriage: and, of course, when the same historians, some years after, mention this subject, they write weakly, and speak sophistically. The headstrong violence of Henry VIII., with the imitative folly of the Protector, Somerset, compelled the Scots into those measures of the Queen’s marriage, and its necessary effects. Nor, would the latest posterity of Englishmen, probably, have ceased, from cursing the memories of this Protector, or that King, for all the ruinous consequences: But, happily, for Britain, Mary had no issue, by her marriage, with the Dauphin; the two crowns of Scotland, and of France, were again separated; and through all the complicated artifices of Elizabeth’s reign, who was still aiming, in appearance, at an eternal separation of Scotland, and England, we reached that very point of union of both, which the French vainly attempted, by this marriage, to attain. In this manner will the year 1558 be, always, deemed an important period, in the Scotish history: The marriage of the Queen to Francis II.; the accession of Elizabeth to the throne of England; and the progress of the Reformation, till it was drawn into some apparent form: Such were the events, which were followed, by important consequences. At that Parliament of November 1558, the attainders of two of the most notorious traitors, Crichton, of Branston, and Cockburn, of Ormiston, were reversed. But, the time was at hand, when the Regent Queen found, from experience, that the policy of opening the door of pardon to the greatest criminals did not contribute to the quiet of her government.
– Life of Mary, pp.15-41.
There remains a letter, from Lord Huntingdon to Secretary Cecil, from Coventry, on the 28th of November 1569; requesting to know the Queen’s immediate pleasure, where the Scotish Queen is to remain, as she is, at present, at an inn, where is no accommodation: They had endeavoured to get another house, but could not, for want of furniture; and the Earl of Shrewsbury, his companion, in this trust, will not send for any, till he knows the Queen’s pleasure. That inconsiderate insurrection was crushed before Christmas; when the chiefs fled into Scotland, where they were not safe.
Elizabeth’s jealousy of the Queen of Scots’ escape amounted to frenzy: Where could she escape to; or what could she hope, from her escape? If the Scotish Queen had been restored to her kingdom, under such a treaty, she could not have retained her station, during a month, without some plot, for her imprisonment, or expulsion.
In the meanwhile, the Scotish Queen was removed, on the 28th of November 1570, from Chatsworth to Sheffield; “a town,” saith Camden, “of great renown, for the smiths therein; fortified with a strong and ancient castle, which in right line descended, from the Lords Furnival, unto the Talbots, earls of Shrewsbury.” It was, in this strong, and ancient castle, no doubt, that the Scotish Queen, with her disconsolate retinue, were lodged. We may, incidentally, perceive, that Tutbury, Chatsworth, and Sheffield, were all castles of Shrewsbury; and only wonder, that such a noble should suffer himself to be so long harassed, under such a charge, by Elizabeth’s guilty passions!
– Life of Mary, pp.235-244.
Nov. 28 . – The pest, which had been for some time before in Holland, broke out ‘in sundry houses in Edinburgh, to the great terror of the whole town. It began in Paul Hay1 a merchant’s house, a month before, and was not known till now; therefore the more dangerous, because hard to discern the clean from the unclean.
– Domestic Annals, pp.177-227.
1 ‘Wha had brought money with the infection from Danskein.’ – Chron. Perth.
The doings of the soldiery were such as to produce an approach to desolation in certain districts. Ministers, for merely performing worship in their own houses, were thrown into vile prisons, or banished to half-desert islands. Even to give charity to any of the proscribed clergy was declared to be a crime. When the war with Holland commenced in the spring of 1665, it was feared that there would be an insurrection in the west of Scotland, and the whole district was consequently disarmed. Nevertheless, in November of the ensuing year, the extreme severity of the soldiery under Sir James Turner occasioned a partial resistance at Dalry, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and in a little time a small body of insurgents was collected. Marching through Ayrshire, their numbers increased to about two thousand, and they then turned towards Edinburgh, where they expected considerable accessions. It was a hasty and ill-considered affair, springing merely from the sense of intolerable suffering. The government, having a small standing army at its disposal, was at no moment in the least danger. About nine hundred poor half-armed peasants made a final stand at Rullion Green, on the eastern skirts of the Pentland Hills, where they were attacked by a strong body of dragoons under Sir Thomas Dalyell, routed, and dispersed (November 28, 1666). Many were killed on the field and in the pursuit, and eighteen were afterwards executed in Edinburgh. Several of these were previously tortured to extort confession, the instrument used being a loose frame of wood called the Boot, into which wedges were driven so as to crush the limb of the prisoner. Thirty-five more were executed in the country, not without some difficulty to the authorities, as the executioners generally refused to exercise their profession against such culprits.
The defeat of the insurgents at Rullion Green (November 28), and the subsequent execution of upwards of fifty persons, made it a dreary yet exciting time. ‘I have,’ says Wodrow, the Presbyterian historian, ‘met with several prodigies seen in the air about this time; and persons who lived then, of good information, have left behind them a very strange public passage, that several people about Pittenweem made faith upon, that the night after the battle, and after some of these [subsequent] executions, they heard the voice of a multitude about Gilston Mount praising and singing psalms with the sweetest melody imaginable.’
– Domestic Annals, pp.302-321.
In 1666, a year fatal to the West of Scotland, William the Laird of Caldwell, irritated beyond endurance, set forth, when none could remain neuter, with his armed and mounted tenants to join the Covenanters, when marching on Edinburgh. They dispersed, however, on hearing of the defeat of the Whig insurgents at Pentland on the 28th of November. Caldwell, who was then attainted, fled the country, by the assistance of devoted clansmen and the supporters of liberty, by whom he was highly esteemed. The moneys advanced to him are acknowledged in ‘obligations’ under the equivocal signature of William Robertssone – William Mure the son of Robert – a method of disguising a real name, without substituting one altogether fictitious, commonly adopted by the conscientious Covenanters in these perilous times of proscription. Our exile died in Holland, broken by the disasters of his family and country. His forfeited estates of Caldwell were given to General Thomas Dalzell, who was thus rewarded for his victory at Pentland. To this unscrupulous tool of the priests, who had learnt cruelty during his early service in Russia, is ascribed the introduction of the torturing screw, the thumbekin, while wives and sons were put to death by him for sheltering husbands and fathers. The hand of the new owner fell heavily on the house of Caldwell, the tenants were rack-rented, and the time-honoured tower and manor place levelled to the dust. One vein of good nature ran through this granite old General; his permission is preserved and printed giving a brother officer leave ‘to put a boat in the lock att Caldwell, and to recreate himselfe by taking of fishes, or any uther why he pleases,’ and we learn by a note that this ‘Locklyboth’ luckily still teems with the finny tribe.
The extent and effect of these floods is further illustrated by a curious advertisement which appears in the Glasgow Mercury of 28th November, 1781. It announces “that there is a Ferry boat or lighter Lying in a park adjacent to the Green of Glasgow possessed at present by John King, late Deacon of the Fleshers, supposed to have been cast in by a flood more than twelve months byegone;” and it intimates that the owner may have it on defraying charges. So that we have it here stated, as an ordinary occurrence, that a boat, so large as to be described as a ferry-boat or lighter, was left by the flood, not on the Low Green, but in the “park adjacent” – namely, the Fleshers’ Haugh. From all these facts it is easy to understand how the Samian bowl could in a long course of centuries have come to be covered by a strata of transported sand. The whole Green, indeed, may have been under water during the Roman occupation, without resorting to the hypotheses of a subsequent elevation of the land. And it was the same with the low-lying lands farther down the river.
– Old Glasgow, pp.248-266.
To this let me add the opinion of a Highlander who has been stationed in many districts of the country as an excise officer; a gentleman of good education, and well able to write Gaelic and English, who has been kind enough to collect stories, etc. for me.
“It is well known that, in the absence of literature, men supply the deficiency by tales, which may be of their own creation, or that of ages long gone by. It were strange if the imaginative, the sensitive, the enthusiastic Gael were without his. Strange it were if the children of the mist themselves were without this poetic element in their constitution. But it is not so. In all ages the Celtic tribes have been noted for their tales, poetry, and music, and all these are characteristic. They breathe the same melancholy sadness, the same enthusiastic wildness, and the same daring chivalry. Their tales are pure and simple, their poetry is assuredly that od nature. It is wild and romantic, sensitive and sad, affectionate and kind. Their music is known and admired all over the world.
There are all sorts of Highland tales – fabulous, and romantic; fairy tales, and tales of superstition, family tales, tales of gallant deeds, and, I regret to say, tales of deadly feud.
The Highlanders distinguish between all these. To the fabulous tales they give no credence, but merely repeat them because they are curious. The romantic tales they do not exactly believe, but think they might possibly be true. Fairy and superstitious tales are not now generally believed. But family tales, feudal tales, and tales of other years form the history of the Highlanders. These they believe, and repeat with pride. A Highlander always takes pride and pleasure in the noble actions and gallant deeds of his country. His own clan is a special pride to him. It is his standard of honour, and he would as soon tell of anything disreputable to his own family as he would to his clan. His clan may be few now, its members may be scattered to all ends of the earth, but he speaks of it when it was a clan, and he recounts its fall with sorrow and regret. These tales are generally to be found amongst the poor and unlettered people. They cherish the memory of their fathers; they tell their tales, recite their poems, and sing their songs; they have the pride and generosity of their fathers, and, alas! the penury consequent on their fathers’ misfortunes. These tales are to be found amongst the old. For obvious reasons, the young do not take the same interest in them. Consequently these relics of antiquity must necessarily be lost, and scarce a trace of them be found in another generation or two.
These old men and women are, indeed, generally poor, but they have generally seen more comfortable circumstances. Their houses may not be perfect specimens of architecture, but they are of kindness and hospitality. Their furniture may not be comfortable, according to the modern acceptation of the term, but it suffices for their use, and every article is endeared by family associations. Their dress may be humble, but it can boast of having been teazed, carded, and spun by a wife or a daughter. It may not be fine, but it is comfortable, and it is, notwithstanding, pleasant enough to look upon. Their fare may not be over plentiful, but the stranger is always welcome to a share of it.
They are never rude, boorish, or vulgar, uncivil, disrespectful, or insolent. On the contrary, they are naturally civil and deferential, but they are naturally reserved. This I have experienced. I have often gone to old men, and although I was told they had the greatest stock of old lore of any in the place, yet they would either equivocate, or maintain the most provoking silence. They would much rather know who I was, if they did not know me, and why I was so desirous to get sgeulachdan faoin sheana bhan– old wives’ silly tales. I had always to wait till I had gained their confidence. To shew them that I was interested in their tales, I have often told them one myself – perhaps one I had got a few days before? If they knew of any expressions belonging to the tale which I had not, they would repeat them at my request. Thus I have often got many valuable additions.
Fabulous tales are the most difficult to get, not because they are the rarest, but because they are unwilling to tell them to strangers. Historical tales are the easiest to get. They are known everywhere, and, more or less, by every person. “Sgeulachdan na Feinn,” or the Fingalian tales, are very common. Clan or historical tales, and those of the Fingalians, are the most admired. These are believed in, and consequently talked of seriously. Many of these correspond to a nicety with Ossian’s poems. But many more have no coincidence with them.
I met an English tourist in summer, and we had occasion to speak of Fingal’s Cave in Staffa. He said very authoritatively that Fingal, Ossian, and his compeers must have been all fiction – in short, mere creations of MacPherson’s own fancy; that no person ever heard of Ossian till MacPherson’s days; that no MSS. of Ossian’s poems were ever seen; and, finally, that they were never known to exist amongst the people. This was certainly a new theory to me, but, like many others, I saw that the gentleman who felt himself at liberty to speak thus freely of Ossian’s poems, did not take the trouble to examine for himself. That he heard or read of this, and believed it. I told him that hundreds of years before MacPherson existed, the poems of Ossian were well known, and alluded to in writing; that MacPherson stood exactly in the same relation to Ossian as Pope did to Homer, or Dryden to Virgil; that MSS. of Ossian’s poems were well known to exist in the Highlands long before MacPherson’s time. That some of those MSS. were to be seen at an eminent London publisher’s at the very time Dr. Samuel Johnson was declaiming against the authenticity of Ossian’s poems; and, lastly, I told him that, so far from it being at all true that Ossian’s poems were not known amongst the people, if he would have the goodness to accompany me, and in less than five minutes’ time I would bring him to a man who could repeat hundreds of lines of Ossian’s poems.
While speaking of MacPherson, I may state that many Gaelic scholars think he might have done greater justice to their darling Ossian. Without averring that MacPherson might not have rendered Ossian much more effective, I think he has done remarkably well. He has deserved the gratitude of every Highland heart, and of every man of taste.
Ever since I remember myself I remember hearing of the Fingalians. Who that has lived in the Highlands but must necessarily have heard the same. Their exploits, bravery, and battles have been the theme and admiration of Highland seanachaidhean from time immemorial. That these may have been exaggerated is possible, that they had a foundation in fact is unquestionable.
I have frequently questioned old men concerning the Fingalians in almost all parts of the Highlands, from Cape Wrath to the Mull of Cantyre. If they had heard of them – what they heard of them – and if they believed in them? I have never in one single instance met a negative. All had heard of them, and all firmly believed in their existence. Some could give me anecdotes of them, some tales, some their poems, and all could give me something. I could mention scores, but I must necessarily confine myself to a few examples.
- Dugald Bàn Mac a Chombaich, i.e., Colquhoun, Port-Appin, is, I should think, somewhat over seventy years of age. He is a most decent old man. He could tell me lots about the Feinn. He heard much about them when a boy. They were believed in, and their memory honoured by his fathers, and he could see no reason why he should not do the same. I took down a few tales from him. One of them I had taken down previously from a decent old man in Islay, who lives at Cultorsay. Another was about Diarmad, how he killed the wild boar, and how he was killed in turn.
Diarmad was a nephew of Fingal, and one of the handsomest men amongst the Fingalians. He had a “Ballseirc,” or a “Gràdh-seirc” – a beauty-spot on his forehead. To conceal this he was obliged to wear a vizer. Otherwise he was in danger of committing sad havoc amongst the tender hearts of the Fingalian fair. This is alluded to by one of our Gaelic poets. The passage may be thus translated –
Thou hast from Diarmad got a charm,
And beauty rare, divine;
A hundred souls are bound to thee –
A hundred hearts are thine.
This is a very common tradition that the Campbells are descended from Diarmad, and hence their crest – the wild boar’s head.
Alexander MacDonald, Portrigh, Skye, is eighty-four years old. Heard a great deal about the Feinn when young. Ossian’s poems were quite common in his day. Had lots of them himself, and even yet can repeat a good deal. I took down some from him. Amongst other things, part of “Laoidh na Nighin.” This old man was serving with the Rev. Mr. Stewart, who kept, he said (if I remember right), two clerks employed collecting the poems of Ossian throughout the country.
Donald Stewart, Ardfhraic, Skye, is ninety-two years of age. He is still hale and cheerful, and his faculties quite unimpaired. He is a quiet unassuming man, and is altogether a fine specimen of a fine old Highlander. He remembers well the days of his youth. Great and sad changes have come over the country since then. He heard much about the Feinn. Heard often the poems of Ossian. They were quite common in his day. Every person knew them, most could recite them, and all admired them. As long ago as he can remember anything, he remembers distinctly how the people used to collect to each other’s houses in the long winter nights. They used to tell tales of all descriptions, sing the songs of their fathers, and recite the poetry of Ossian. The old men recited while the young listened. Those who were the best recited, and all endeavoured to excel. They took a special pleasure in this, and in impressing the memory of the young with what they were reciting. Some of the men were very old. They said they got them from their fathers when they were young. That their fathers – that is, the old men of their day – told them they had those tales, traditions, and poems, from their own fathers. That Ossian’s poems were then as well known and as much admired as anything at all could possibly be.
Assuming, then, that some of these men were as old as Donald Stewart is to-day, when he was a boy, we have thus direct and truthful evidence of the authenticity of the Poems of Ossian for the last one hundred and eighty-four years. What more need be said!
From Donald Stewart, of whom I have often heard, but whom I have only once seen, I got some curious old things. I shall endeavour to see him again ere long when I have no doubt I shall get extracts from him of Ossian, in all his purity.
- Kenneth Morrison, Trithean, Skye, is old and blind. I need scarcely mention that he heard much of Ossian in this young days. A very decent old man, John Macdonald, Iain MacIain Eoghain, Talamhsgeir, Skye, used to come to Kenneth Morrison’s house. This John Macdonald died more than twenty years ago. He was about eighty when he died. He was a very good poet, as were his fathers before him, and so are his sons. One of his sons, who composed some very popular songs, died some years ago.
4a. John Macdonald was a passionate admirer of Ossian. He had a great many of his poems, and could recite them most beautifully. Wherever he went he was welcome, and every person was delighted to get hold of him. He was a very pleasant old man, but his recitals of his darling Ossian fascinated all. His own house was full every night, and whenever he visited any of his friends he was literally besieged. He often-times came to see Kenneth Morrison, and when he did, Kenneth Morrison’s house was sure to be crowded – literally crammed. From him he learned the most of what he has of Ossian’s. He has forgotten the most, but he has a good many pieces yet. Amongst other pieces, I have got from him “The Death of Oscar,” “Ossian‘s Address to the Sun,” “Fingal,” the beginning of Duan iv. Also, “The Arms,” and “Laoidh an Amadain mhoir,” as in Smith’s “Sean Dana.” I have got another piece from him, entitled “Bàs Chaoiril” – Caorreal’s death. Caorreal was a son of Fingal and brother of Ossian. He and Gaul, the son of Morni, disputed. They fought, and Caorreal fell.1
- An old man, whose name I cannot just now recollect, and who is now dead, lived at Toat, opposite Airdeilbh, Lochalsh; he was very old, and died some years ago; he had known almost incredible quantities of Ossianic poetry. I have been assured by more than one who knew him intimately, that this old man had as much Ossianic poetry as would take him whole days in the recital; yet he could recite for whole nights together without the slightest hesitation, with as much ease as he could pronounce his own name. Like all the rest of his class, he used to say that he heard Ossian’s poems from old men when he was a boy; that they were perfectly common, and much admired in his day; that every person knew them; that most recited, and many sung them. This old man is understood to have given a great deal of Ossianic poetry to MacPherson’s followers.
I have the pleasure of knowing a much respected, enthusiastic Highlander, a member of the Glasgow Ossianic Society, and a clergyman, who has many Fingallian airs; he is himself an accomplished musician, and a fond admirer of the airs and poems of Ossian.
Although I have frequently heard the poems of Ossian half-recited, half-sung, I never heard them before set to music. I can, however, assure those who have not had this privilege f hearing them, that the Ossianic airs are wild, melodious, and altogether most beautiful; they are typical of the poems.
- Mr. Donald Nicolson, parochial schoolmaster, Kilmuir, Skye, had a great deal of Ossian’s poems; his father, he assured me, had more Ossianic poetry than all ever MacPherson translated; and even he himself, when a boy, could repeat what would form a tolerable sized volume. These he heard from old men in the long winter nights; he personally was acquainted with many old men who could repeat lots of Ossian’s poetry. These old men declared that Ossian’s poems, in their day, were known by every person, and by every person admired. Mr. Nicolson says that much, and deservedly, as Ossian’s poems, as given to the world, are admired, they are much inferior to the versions he was in the habit of hearing in boyhood; that he is of opinion MacPherson must have got his versions, generally speaking, from different reciters; I have heard others say the same. I believe those collected by Smith and some others, are generally thought to be purer versions than those collected by MacPherson.
Thus I have given the names of many unquestionable witnesses to the authenticity of Ossian’s poems. Did necessity require it, I could easily give ten, aye, twenty times more.2
If the ancient Highlanders had not their gods and goddesses like the Greeks of old, they had what was much more natural, their heroes and heroines. If they had not an invulnerable Achilles, they had their magnanimous Fingal; if not their bewitching Juno, they had their Dearsagrena, whose resplendent beauty was like that of the sun. If they had not their Apollo, they had their venerable Ossian, “the sweet voice of Cona,” the darling of Highland hearts.
If it should be said that Ossian exaggerates the gallantry, the bravery, the magnanimity of his heroes, why, Homer does the same. If there is poetic license, why should it be denied to those who knew no restraint but that of nature. “Saul slew his thousands, and David his tens of thousands;” and why should not their enemies fall before Ossian’s heroes, “like reeds of the lake of Lego,” and their strength be terrible.
We have not only their names accurately handed down to us, but the names of many places were derived from those of the Fingalian heroes. There is Gleann Chonnain, Connan’s vale; and Amhain Chonnain, Connan’s river, in Ross-shire; and even Gleann Bhrain, Bran’s-vale, in honour of Fingal’s celebrated dog Bran. There is a Dun-Fionn, Fingal’s height or hill, on Loch-lomond. There is Sliabh nam ban Fionn, the Fingalian fair women’s hill, in Liosmor.
Liosmor, it is said, was a favourite hunting place of Fingalians; and there is even a tradition amongst the people, that here they had some of the very best sport they ever had. There is nothing improbable in this. Game must have been once very abundant in Liosmor; there are traces still to be found; antlers of the deer, the bison, and the elk, have been found in the bogs; these were of immense size. There is in Liosmor a place called Larach tigh nam Fiann, the site of the Fingalian’s house; it is a large circular mound, of perhaps eighty yards diameter, and surrounded by a deep foss. There is a deep well inside, possibly it may have been used for the purpose of entrapping game… Perthshire is replete with reminiscences of the Fingalians; there is Cill Fhinn, pronounced in Gaelic and written in English, Killin, “Fingal’s tomb”; here, tradition says, Fingal is buried. In the neighbourhood is Sornach-coir-Fhinn, “the concavity for Fingal’s boiler.” Sorach means thin oblong stones raised on end in the form of a triangle; a fire is placed between, and here the culinary operations are carried on.
In Strathearn is the village of Fianntach, of or belonging to the Fingalians; in the neighbourhood are numberless cairns raised to the memory of Fingalian heroes. These cairns are the “gray mossy stones” of Ossian.
“Carn Chumhail,” CUVAL’S cairn, was opened some years ago and found to contain an immense stone coffin; near this was “Ossian’s tomb.” In 1746, when General Wade formed the road [Old Military Road] through the county, it came across this spot. A deputation waited on the General, asking if he would take the road to a side so as not to disturb the last repose of “the first bard of antiquity.” The General, however, did not find it convenient to comply with this very reasonable desire. Perhaps the engineering would not admit of it; and perhaps he had a secret desire to put the merit of the tradition to the test. Certain it is that the inhabitants of the surrounding country collected; they opened the grave, and there, sure enough, found the mortal remains of their loved Ossian. The coffin was composed of four large flag stones set on edge, covered over by another large massy stone. They lifted all with religious care and veneration, and with pipers playing the wail of the coranich they marched in solemn silence to the top of a neighbouring hill. There, on the top of that green heathery hill, they dug a grave, and there laid the last mortal remains of Ossian, the sweet voice of Cona, the first bard of antiquity; and there they are likely to rest! no rude hand will touch them, no desecration reach them there.
There is a place in Glenelg called “Iomaire nam-fear-mor,” the tall or big men’s ridge. Tradition says that two of the Fingalians were drowned whilst crossing Caol-reathain [Kyle Rhea], and that they are interred here. A gentleman, an English gentleman I believe, who was travelling in the Highlands, heard of this tradition; he hinted that the tradition had no foundation, and, it is said, made many gratuitous remarks on Highland traditions in general, and those of the Fingalians in particular.* To refute their “idle tradition,” as he chose to term it, he insisted that one of the supposed graves should be opened. The people have a religious veneration for the dead, and perhaps a latent superstition against disturbing the grave, and consequently they were very much averse to opening the mound. Rather, however, than that their venerated tradition should be termed a fable, they agreed to open one of the graves, and the grave was opened. It was very deep; first there was the gravelly soil common to the place, and then a thick layer of moss; after that the gravelly soil, when they came upon another bed of moss, in which was a skeleton. Moss preserves, and it was for that purpose the body was placed in it. The bones were found to be quite fresh and of extraordinary size. No person ever saw anything to compare with them before, and it is said no person could at all credit or even imagine the size of them but those who saw them. One gentleman who was present, the late excellent Rev. Mr. MacIver of Glenelg, and father of the much respected present minister of Kilmuir, Skye, stood six feet two inches high; he was very stout in proportion, and was altogether allowed to be one of the handsomest men of his day. Every one was wonder-struck at the immensity of the bones; he took the lower jaw-bone and easily put his head through it.
It is added that it was a beautiful day; but all of a sudden there came on thunder and lightning, wind, and deluging rain, the like of which no man ever heard or saw. The people thought judgment had come upon them for desecrating the bones of the dead, and interfering with what they had no right, so they closed the grave and desisted. Possibly some may think this bordering on the marvellous; but let no one gainsay the truth of it. There are many yet living who were present, all of whom declare that they “shall never forget the day and the scene till the day of their death.” There were a number of people present, gentlemen from Skye, and many from the mainland.
I have never heard who the gentleman was whose scepticism caused the opening of the grave, but the incident took place about sixty years ago.3
Gleann-comhan – Glencoe, that is, the narrow glen – is said by tradition to be the birth-place of Ossian. If there is in Scotland one spot more than another from which such magnificent creations as Ossian’s poems could be expected to emanate, that spot is Glencoe. Nothing can be more terrifically sublime than Glencoe during a storm. “Their sound was like a thousand streams that meet in Cona’s vale, when after a stormy night they turn their dark eddies beneath the pale light of the morning.” … “The gloomy ranks of Lochlin fell like banks of the roaring Cona.” “If he overcomes, I shall rush in my strength like the roaring stream of Cona.”
Ossian himself is frequently called “the voice of Cona.” “Why bends the bard of Cona,” said Fingal, “over his secret stream? Is this a time for sorrow, father of low-laid Oscar?” … “Such were the words of the bards in the days of song; when the king heard the music of harps – the tales of other times! The chiefs gathered from all the hills and heard the lovely sound. They heard and praised the voice of Cona, the first among a thousand bards!”
In Eadarloch – “‘twixt lochs” – Benderloch is the Selma of Ossian. It is still called Selma. It is also called Bail–an–righ – the king’s house or town; and Dun-MacSnitheachain – MacSniachain’s hill. Here also is the Beregonium of ancient writers. There are yet many traces that Selma was once the residence of regal splendour. There is a vitrified fort, in which are found “swimming-stones.” There were found, some years ago, in a moss close by, some pieces of a wooden pipe. This pipe is supposed to have been used for the purpose of bringing water to the fort or castle from the hill hard by. It is said that Garbh-MacStairn set Fingal’s castle on fire, after which Fingal left the place, and resided at Fianntach, already alluded to. This tradition seems very probable. The marks of some great calamity are yet to be seen.
In the neighbourhood of Selma are a great number of those stones that are supposed by some to have been Druidical temples. I think they are more likely to be stones erected to the memory of fallen warriors – “the dark gray stones” of Ossian. The Fall of Connel – Ossian’s “roaring Lora” – is only about three miles from Selma. Not far from Connel is the “Luath,” one of Ossian’s streams. “Dwells there no joy in song, with hand of the harp of Luath?” Opposite Selma, on the other side of Loch-Etive, is Dunstaffnage Castle, the residence of Sir Angus Campbell, Bart., and the Dun-Lora of Ossian. The Lora – Loch-Etive – washes its base. The Gaelic name of it is Dun-sta-innis, but more properly Dun-da-innis, from two islands near by. The noise of the roaring Lora is certainly awful during flood-tides. In a calm summer evening it is heard in the island of Liosmor, distant at least ten or twelve miles.4
After what has been said, I do not think it is necessary to say more. That there was a race of people called the Feinn or Fingalians, I think no unprejudiced mind can question. That these Fingalians were traditionally remembered throughout the Highlands is perfectly certain, and that much of their poetry has been plentifully scattered and is well known there still, is equally true.
I have given the names of some from when I myself have got Ossianic poetry, and I could give the names of ten times more from whom I could get it. I know where and with whom it is to be got in abundance, and, did necessity require it, I could easily procure it. Some, I believe, imagine, in the simplicity of their heart, that MacPherson, the translator, was the author of Ossian’s poems. Perhaps it was MacPherson that also composed the thousand and one Fingalian tales that are floating throughout the Highlands? and all the anecdotes of the Fingalians? Well, if so, I can only say that MacPherson must have been very busy in his day.
Why should not Ossian’s poetry be handed down from generation to generation like the rest of the Fingalian tales? I do not think that any case can be found bold enough to question the authenticity of the tales. I do not believe that any can be found bold enough to question the authenticity of the tales. I do not believe that any person doubts the antiquity of the Celtic fables and romances. It is more than probable they were composed at least three thousand years ago, and brought by the Celtic nations in their migrations from the East. If, therefore, the Celtae have preserved their fabulous tales and romances for the long period of three thousand years or more, and repeat them still, why not, on the same principle, preserve amongst them the magnificent creations of Ossian for, at least, half the time?
Homer flourished more than nine hundred years B.C., and his poems floated amongst the Greeks for more than five hundred years, till the Greek historian collected them. Yet their authenticity was never questioned. Were the ancient Greeks more addicted to poetry, and consequently more capable of preserving the creations of Homer than the Celtae those of Ossian? I can hardly believe so. There is a very strong resemblance betwixt Homer and Ossian. Both flourished in a primitive state of society, and both are equally the poets of nature and of nature’s laws. If there is an analogy betwixt Homer and Ossian, why not betwixt the preservation of their works?
That poetry of the most magnificent description has been common throughout the Highlands from ages immemorial is unquestionable; that much of that poetry has always been ascribed to Ossian is equally certain; and that he was the author of much of it is more than probable. The ancient Highlanders never for a single moment doubted the authenticity of Ossian’s poems. The modern Highlanders believe in those which they know and repeat as certainly and as implicitly as they do in the Song of Solomon or the Psalms of David. This I can testify to from personal observation. I believe in them myself – fully believe. I am literally convinced that Fingal lived and that Ossian sang.
ALEXANDER A. CARMICHAEL.
SKYE, 28th November 1861.
– Popular Tales, vol.4, pp.209-227.