[History of the Highlands Contents]
NO question of literary controversy has been discussed with greater acrimony and pertinacity, than that regarding the authenticity of the poems of Ossian, and never did Saxon and Gael exhibit more bitter enmity in mortal strife than has been shown by the knights of the pen in their different rencontres in the field of antiquarian research. We have no wish to revive a controversy, in regard to which in is scarcely possible to add any thing new; but holding as we do the authenticity of these poems, we shall adduce briefly the arguments in their favour as well as those which have been urged against them; leaving to the reader, whose mind has not yet been made up upon the subject, to draw his own conclusions. But it seems really to be a matter of little importance whether the poems from which Macpherson translated, or any part of them were actually composed by Ossian or not, or at what period the poet flourished, whether in the third, or fourth, or fifth centuries. It is, we apprehend, quite sufficient to show that these poems are of high antiquity, and that they belong to a very remote era.
One of the most remarkable traits in the character of the Celtic tribes, was their strong attachment to poetry, by means of which they not only animated themselves to battle, but braved death with joy in the hope of meeting again their brave ancestors who had fallen in battle. Either unacquainted with letters, or despising them as unworthy of a warlike race, the ancient Celts set apart the Bards, whose business it was to compose and recite in verse the military actions of their heroes or chiefs, and by the same means they sought to preserve the memory of their laws, religion and historical annals, which would otherwise have been buried in oblivion. “When the Celts,” says Posodonius, “go to war, they take with them associates whom they call Parasites who sing their praises, either in public assemblies, or to those who wish to hear them privately. These poets are called Bards.” It is well known that the Druids to whom the education of the Celtic youth was committed, spent many years in committing to memory the compositions of the Bards. This peculiarity was not confined to any one of the Celtic nations, but prevailed universally among them. The Bards, according to Buchanan, were held in great honour both among the Gauls and Britons, and he observes that their function and name remained in his time amongst all those nations which used the old British tongue. “They,” he adds, “compose poems, and those not inelegant, which the rhapsodists recite, either to the better sort, or to the vulgar, who are very desirous to hear them; and sometimes they sing them to musical instruments.” And in speaking of the inhabitants of the Hebrides or Western islands, he says that they sing poems “not inelegant, containing commonly the eulogies of valiant men; and their bards usually treat of no other subject.”
Thus the existence of bards from the most remote period among the Celtic population of Scotland is undoubted; and some idea of their importance may be formed from the following observations from the elegant and classical pen of a distinguished scholar. “Although it is well known that the Scots had always more strength and industry to perform great deeds, than care to have them published to the world; yet, in ancient times, they had, and held in great esteem, their own Homers and Maros whom they named bards. These recited the achievements of their brave warriors in heroic measures, adapted to the musical notes of the harp; with these they roused the minds of those present to the glory of virtue, and transmitted patterns of fortitude to posterity. This order of men still exists among the Welsh and ancient Scots (the Highlanders), and they still retain that name (bards) in their native language.”1 So formidable were they considered in rousing the passions against the tyranny of a foreign yoke, by their strains, that Edward I. adopted the cruel policy of extirpating the order of the Welsh bards about the end of the thirteenth century. They continued, however, to exist in England down to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, “till which period,” as Dr. Graham observes, “there was a regular public competition of harpers maintained; and there is, at this day, as Mr. Pennant informs us, in his tour through Wales, a silver harp, awarded during that period, in the possession of the Mostyn family.”
The Bardic order was preserved longer in Scotland than in any other country, for it was not till the year 1726, when Niel Macvuirich the last of the bards died, that the race became extinct. He, and his ancestors had for several generations exercised the office of bard in the family of Clanranald.2 Every great Highland family had their bard, whose principal business was to amuse the chieftain and his friends by reciting at entertainments, the immense stores of poetry which he had hoarded up in his memory, besides which he also preserved the genealogy, and recorded the achievements of the family which were thus traditionally and successively handed down from generation to generation.
At what particular period of time the Caledonian bards began to reduce their compositions to writing, cannot now be ascertained; but it seems to be pretty evident that no such practice existed in the Ossianic age, nor, indeed, for several centuries afterwards. To oral tradition, therefore, as conveyed through the race of bards, are we indebted for the precious remains of Gaelic song which have reached us. But although the bards were the depositories of the muses, there were not wanting many who delighted to store their memories with the poetical effusions of the bards, and to recite them to their friends. The late captain John Macdonald of Breakish, a native of the island of Skye, declared upon oath, at the age of seventy-eight, that he could repeat, when a boy between twelve or fifteen years of age (about the year 1740), from one to two hundred Gaelic poems differing in length and in number of verses; and that he had learned them from an old man about eighty years of age, who sung them for years to his father, when he went to bed at night, and in the spring and winter before he rose in the morning.3 The late Reverend Dr. Stuart, minister of Luss, knew an old highlander in the isle of Skye, who repeated to him for three successive days, and during several hours each day, without hesitation, and with the utmost rapidity many thousand lines of ancient poetry, and would have continued his repetitions much longer, if the Doctor had required him to do so.
A curious illustration of the attachment of the highlanders to their ancient poetry and the preference given to it above all other literary pursuits, is given by Bishop Carsewell, in his preface to the translation into Gaelic of the forms of prayer and administration of the sacraments and catechism of the Christian religion, as used in the reformed church of Scotland, printed at Edinburgh in the year 1567, a work little known and extremely scarce. “But there is,” says Bishop Carsewell, “one great disadvantage, which we the Gael of Scotland and Ireland labour under, beyond the rest of the world, that our Gaelic language has never yet been printed, as the language of every other race of men has been. And we labour under a disadvantage which is still greater than every other disadvantage, that we have not the Holy Bible printed in Gaelic, as it has been printed in Latin and in English, and in every other language; and also, that we have never yet had any account printed of the antiquities of our country, or of our ancestors; for though we have some accounts of the Gael of Scotland and Ireland, contained in manuscripts and in the genealogies of bards and historiographers, yet there is great labour in writing them over with the hand, whereas the work which is printed, be it ever so great, is speedily finished. And great is the blindness and sinful darkness and ignorance and evil design of such as teach, and write, and cultivate the Gaelic language that, with the view of obtaining for themselves the vain rewards of this world, they are more desirous and more accustomed to compose vain, tempting, lying, worldly histories, concerning the Tuatha de dannan, and concerning warriors and champions, and Fingal the son of Cumhall with his heroes and concerning many others which I will not at present enumerate or mention, in order to maintain or reprove, than to write and teach, and maintain the faithful words of God, and of the perfect way of truth.” This attachment continued unabated till about the middle of the last century, when the measures of government produced a change in many of the ancient habits. “Before this period, the recitation of that poetry (the ancient poetry of the Highlands,) was the universal amusement of every winter fire side.”4
That such a vast collection of Gaelic poetry, as that which has reached us, should have been handed down by oral tradition may appear extraordinary to those who have not sufficiently reflected on the power of the human memory, when applied and confined to the acquisition of those sublime and lofty effusions of poetic fancy in which the Highlanders took such delight, as to supersede all other mental pursuits. The mere force of habit in persons who, from their childhood, have been accustomed to hear recitals often repeated, which delighted them, will make an indelible impression, not confined to the ideas suggested, or to the images which float in the imagination, as reflected from the mirror of the mind, but extending to the very words themselves. It was not, therefore, without good reason that the Highland Society observe in their Report, already quoted, “that the power of memory in persons accustomed from their infancy to such repetitions, and who are unable to assist or to injure it by writing, must not be judged of by any ideas or any experience possessed by those who have only seen its exercise in ordinary life. Instances of such miraculous powers of memory, as they may be styled by us, are known in most countries where the want of writing, like the want of a sense, gives an almost supernatural force to those by which that privation is supplied.” Mr. Wood, in his Essay on the original writings and genius of Homer, remarks, with great justice, that we cannot, in this age of dictionaries and other technical aids to memory, judge what her use and powers were at a time when all a man could know was all he could remember, and when the memory was loaded with nothing either useless or unintelligible. The Arabs, who are in the habit of amusing their hours of leisure by telling and listening to tales, will remember them though very long, and rehearse them with great fidelity after one hearing.5
Besides these and other reasons in favour of the oral transmission of the Gaelic poetry, to which we shall afterwards allude, one more important consideration, as far as we can ascertain, has been entirely overlooked, namely, that to insure a correct transmission of the poems in question, through the medium of oral tradition, it was by no means necessary that one or more individuals should be able to recite all of them. To secure their existence it was only necessary that particular persons should be able to recite with accuracy such parts as they might have committed to memory so as to communicate them to others. Doubtless there would be great differences in the powers of acquisition and retention in different persons, but we have no idea that one person could carry in his memory the whole poetry of Ossian. We know, indeed, a gentleman who says, that if the works of Homer were lost, he could almost supply the Iliad and Odyssey from memory; but, although we are disposed to be rather sceptical on this subject, we have no doubt that if the poems of Burns ceased to exist on paper, every word could be supplied by thousands from mere memory.
Besides these arguments in support of oral tradition, the following reasons are given by the Right Honourable Sir John Sinclair, Baronet,6 in support of the preservation of the Poems of Ossian through that medium: 1, The beauty of the poetry, of which it is impossible to form an adequate idea from any translation hitherto given; 2, The partiality which the Highlanders naturally entertained for songs, which contained the traditional history of the greatest heroes, in the ancient annals of their country; 3, It is to be observed that the Bards were for a long time a distinct class or caste, whose whole business it was, either to compose verses themselves, or to recite the poetry of others; 4, Though the poems were not composed in rhyme, yet there was an emphasis laid upon particular syllables of a particular sound in every line, which greatly assisted the memory; 5, The verses were set to particular music, by which the remembrance of the words was greatly facilitated; and, 6, The Highlanders, at their festivals and other public meetings, acted the poems of Ossian, and on such occasions, those who could repeat the greatest number of verses were liberally rewarded. What also tended greatly to preserve the recollection of the Gaelic poetry, was a practice followed by the Highlanders of going by turns to each others houses in every village during the winter season, and reciting or hearing recited or sung the poems of Ossian, and also poems and songs ascribed to other bards.
The first person who made a collection of Gaelic poetry was the Reverend John Farquharson, a Jesuit missionary in Strathglass, about the year 1745, of which collection some interesting information will be afterwards given.
Alexander Macdonald, a schoolmaster at Ardnamurchan, was the next who made a collection of Gaelic poetry, which was published in Gaelic at Edinburgh, in the year 1751. In an English preface Macdonald assigns two reasons for the publication; 1, That it may raise a desire to learn something of the Gaelic language, which he states may be found to contain in its bosom the charms of poetry and rhetoric; and, 2, To bespeak the favour of the public to a great collection of poems, in all kinds of poetry that have been in use among the most cultivated nations, with a translation into English verse, and critical observations on the nature of such writings, to render the work useful to those who do not understand the Gaelic language.
Jerome Stone a native of the county of Fife, and who had acquired a knowledge of the Gaelic language during some years’ residence in Dunkeld, where he kept a school, was the third person who collected several of the ancient poems of the Highlands, and was the first person who especially called public attention to the beauty of these poems in a letter which he addressed “To the Author of the Scots Magazine,”7 accompanied with a translation in rhyme of one of them, both of which appeared in that periodical in January, 1756. As Stone was only twenty or twenty-one years of age when he made this translation, and being besides in an obscure situation, and with few opportunities of cultivating his native genius or talents, he could not be supposed capable of giving a very happy or impressive translation of Gaelic poetry, especially when fettered with rhyme, which, even in the ablest hands, and those most accustomed to the construction of English verse, affords always an unfaithful, and generally an imperfect transcript of ancient poetry. His place of residence, too, was unfavourable either to the acquirement of pure Gaelic, or the collection of the best copies of the ancient poetry of the Highlands.8
The next and most noted collector of Gaelic poetry was the celebrated James Macpherson, whose spirited translations, or forgeries, as some writers maintain, have consigned his name to immortality in the literary world. The circumstances which gave rise to this collection were as follow:- In the summer of 1759, John Home, the author of Douglas, having met Mr. Macpherson at Moffat, learned from him in conversation that he was possessed of some pieces of ancient Gaelic poetry in the original, one or two of which Mr. Home expressed a desire to see an English translation of as a specimen. Accordingly Mr. Macpherson furnished Mr. Home with two fragments which the latter very much admired, and which he sometime thereafter showed to the celebrated Dr. Hugh Blair and other literary friends, as valuable curiosities. The Doctor, as well as Mr. Home, was so struck with the high spirit of poetry which breathed in them, that he immediately requested an interview with Macpherson, and having learned from him, that, besides the few pieces of Gaelic poetry which he had in his possession, greater and more considerable poems of the same strain were to be found in the Highlands, and were well known to the natives there; Dr. Blair urged him to translate the other pieces which he had, and bring them to him, promising that he, Dr. Blair, would take care to circulate and bring them out to the public, to whom they well deserved to be made known. Dr. Blair informs us that Macpherson was extremely reluctant and averse to comply with his request, saying, that no translation of his could do justice to the spirit and force of the original; and that besides injuring them by translation, he apprehended that they would be very ill relished by the public as being so different from the strain of modern ideas and of modern, correct, and polished poetry. It was not till after much and repeated importunity on the part of Dr. Blair, and after he had represented to Macpherson the injustice he would do to his native country by keeping concealed those hidden treasures, which, he was assured, if brought forth, would serve to enrich the whole learned world, that he was at length prevailed upon to translate and bring to the Reverend Doctor the several poetical pieces which he had in his possession. These were published in a small volume at Edinburgh in the year 1760, under the title of Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland; to which Dr. Blair prefixed an introduction. “These Fragments,” says Dr. Blair, “drew much attention and excited, among all persons of taste and letters, an earnest desire to recover if possible, all those considerable remains of Gaelic poetry which were said still to exist in the Highlands.”9
Several eminent literary men of the day were extremely desirous to have these literary treasures immediately collected; and Mr. Macpherson was spoken to on the subject and urged by several persons to undertake the search; but he showed extreme unwillingness to engage in it, representing to them his diffidence of success and of public approbation, and the difficulty and expensiveness of such a search as was requisite throughout the remote Highlands. At length, to encourage him to undertake it, a meeting was brought together at a dinner, to which Mr. Macpherson was invited; and Dr. Blair from whom this account is taken, says he had a chief hand in convoking there many of the first persons of rank and taste in Edinburgh. Patrick, Lord Elibank, took a great lead at that meeting, together with Principal Robertson the Historian, Mr. John Home, Dr. Adam Ferguson and many others, who were all very zealous for forwarding the proposed discovery; and after much conversation with Mr. Macpherson, it was agreed that he should disengage himself from all other employment, and set out without delay on this poetical mission through the Highlands; but, as his circumstances did not admit of his engaging in this at his own expense, that the whole expense he might incur was to be defrayed by a collection raised from the meeting with the aid of such other friends as they might choose to apply to for that purpose. When this meeting was about breaking up, Mr. Macpherson followed Dr. Blair to the door and told him, that from the spirit of the meeting, he now, for the first time, entertained the hope that the undertaking to which he had so often prompted him would be attended with success; that hitherto he had imagined they were merely romantic ideas which the Doctor had held out to him, but now he saw them likely to be realized, and should endeavour to exert himself so as to give satisfaction to all his friends.
Under this patronage Mr. Macpherson set out on his literary journey to the Highlands in the year 1760; and during his tour he transmitted from time to time to Dr. Blair and his other literary friends, accounts of his progress in collecting, from many different and remote parts, all the remains he could find of ancient Gaelic poetry, either in writing or by oral tradition. In the course of his journey he wrote two letters to the Rev. James McLagan, formerly minister of Amalrie, afterwards of Blair in Athole, which, as they throw much light on the subject of these poems, and particularly on the much contested question, whether Macpherson ever collected any manuscripts, are given entire. The first of these letters is dated from Ruthven, 27th October, 1760, and is as follows:-
“REV. SIR, – You perhaps have heard, that I am employed to make a collection of the ancient poetry in the Gaelic. I have already traversed most of the Isles, and gathered all worth notice in that quarter. I intend a journey to Mull and the coast of Argyle, to enlarge my collection.
“By letters from Edinburgh, as well as gentlemen of your acquaintance, I am informed, that you have a good collection of poems of the kind I want. It would be, therefore, very obliging should you transmit me them as soon as convenient, that my book might be rendered more complete, and more for the honour of our old poetry. Traditions are uncertain; poetry delivered down from memory must lose considerably; and it is a matter of surprise to me, how we have now any of the beauties of our ancient Gaelic poetry remaining.
“Your collection, I am informed, is pure, as you have taken pains to restore the style. I shall not make any apology for this trouble, as it will be for the honour of our ancestors, how many of their pieces of genius will be brought to light. I have met with a number of old manuscripts in my travels; the poetical part of them I have endeavoured to secure.
“If any of that kind falls within your hearing, I beg it of you, to have them in sight.
“I shall probably do myself the pleasure of waiting on you before I return to Edinburgh. Your correspondence in the meantime will be very agreeable. You will excuse this trouble from an entire stranger, and believe me, &c.
(Signed) James McPherson.
“Inform me of what you can of the tradition of the poems: direct to me by Edinburgh and Ruthven, inclosed to Mr. Macpherson, postmaster here.”
The second letter is dated from Edinburgh, 16th January, 1761, and runs thus:-
“REV. SIR, – I was favoured with your letter inclosing the Gaelic poems, for which I hold myself extremely obliged to you. Duan a Ghairibh is less poetical and more obscure than Teantach mor na Feine. The last is far from being a bad poem, were it complete, and is particularly valuable for the ancient manners it contains. I shall reckon myself much obliged to you for any other pieces you can send me. It is true I have the most of them from other hands, but the misfortune is, that I find none expert in the Irish orthography, so that an obscure poem is rendered doubly so, by their uncouth way of spelling. It would have given me real pleasure to have got your letter before I left the Highlands, as in that case I would have done myself the pleasure of waiting on you; but I do not despair but something may soon cast up that may bring about an interview, as I have some thoughts of making a jaunt to Perthshire. Be that, however, as it will, I shall be always glad of your correspondence; and hope that you will give me all convenient assistance in my present undertaking.
“I have been lucky enough to lay my hands on a pretty complete poem, and truly epic, concerning Fingal. The antiquity of it is easily ascertained, and it is not only superior to any thing in that language, but reckoned not inferior to the more polite performances of other nations in that way. I have some thoughts of publishing the original, if it will not clog the work too much.
“I shall be always ready to acknowledge the obligation you have laid upon me, and promise I will not be ungrateful for further favours. – It would give me pleasure to know how I can serve you, as I am, &c.
(Signed) “JAMES McPHERSON.”
The districts through which Mr. Macpherson travelled were chiefly the north-western parts of Inverness-shire, the Isle of Skye, and some of the adjoining islands; “places, from their remoteness and state of manners at that period, most likely to afford, in a pure and genuine state, the ancient traditionary tales and poems, of which the recital then formed, as the Committee has before stated, the favourite amusement of the long and idle winter evenings of the Highlanders.”10 Before returning to Edinburgh Mr. Macpherson paid a visit to an early acquaintance, the Rev. Andrew Gallie, then missionary at Badenoch, who was a proficient in the Gaelic language, to whom, and to Mr. Macpherson of Strathmashie in Badenoch, he exhibited the poems and manuscripts which he had collected during his tour. “They consisted,” says Mr. Gallie, “of several volumes, small octavo, or rather large duodecimo, in the Gaelic language and characters, being the poems of Ossian, and other ancient bards. I remember perfectly,” continues the Reverend Gentleman, “that many of those volumes were, at the close, said to have been collected by Paul Macmhuirich, Bard Clanraonuil, and about the beginning of the 14th century. Mr. Macpherson and I were of opinion, that though the bard collected them, yet that they must have been writ by an ecclesiastic, for the characters and spelling were most beautiful and correct. Every poem had its first letter of its first word most elegantly flourished and gilded, some red, some yellow, some blue, and some green: the material writ on seemed to be a limber yet coarse and dark vellum: the volumes were bound in strong parchment. Mr. Macpherson had them from Clanronald.”11 Mr. Macpherson, on the occasion of his visit to Mr. Gallie, availed himself of the able assistance of that gentleman, and of his namesake Mr. Macpherson of Strathmashie, in collating the different editions or copies of the poems he had collected, and in translating difficult passages and obsolete words.
On his return to Edinburgh from his poetical tour, Mr. Macpherson took lodgings in a house at the head of Blackfriars’ Wynd, immediately below that possessed by his chief patron, Dr. Blair, and immediately set about translating from the Gaelic into English. He soon afterwards, viz., in 1761, published one volume in quarto, containing FINGAL, an epic poem, in six books, and some other detached pieces of a similar kind. He published, in the year 1762, another epic poem called TEMORA, of one of the books or divisions of which he annexed the original Gaelic, being the only specimen he ever published, though at his death he left L.1000 to defray the expense of a publication of the originals of the whole of his translations, with directions to his executors for carrying that purpose into effect. Various causes contributed to delay their appearance till the year 1807, when they were published under the sanction of the Highland Society of London.
Such is the brief history of Macpherson’s connexion with those remarkable poems, which have excited the admiration of the literary world, and given occasion to a controversy which, for nearly half a century, agitated the breasts of philologists and antiquaries, and which even now does not seem to be set at rest; for we find that in a modern publication,12 a writer of great penetration and extensive erudition, thus speaks of these poems: “Some fragments of the songs of the Scottish Highlanders, of very uncertain antiquity, appear to have fallen into the hands of Macpherson, a young man of no mean genius, unacquainted with the higher criticism applied to the genuineness of ancient writings, and who was too much a stranger to the studious world to have learnt those refinements which extend probity to literature as well as to property. Elated by the praise not unjustly bestowed on some of these fragments, instead of insuring a general assent to them by a publication in their natural state, he unhappily applied his talents for skilful imitation to complete poetical works in a style similar to the fragments, and to work them into the unsuitable shape of epic and dramatic poems.
“He was not aware of the impossibility of poems, preserved only by tradition, being intelligible after thirteen centuries to readers who knew only the language of their own times; and he did not perceive the extravagance of peopling the Caledonian mountains, in the fourth century, with a race of men so generous and merciful, so gallant, so mild, and so magnanimous, that the most ingenious romances of the age of chivalry could not have ventured to represent a single hero as on a level with their common virtues. He did not consider the prodigious absurdity of inserting as it were a people thus advanced in moral civilization between the Britons, ignorant and savage as they are painted by Cæsar, and the Highlanders, fierce and rude as they are presented by the first accounts of the chroniclers of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Even the better part of the Scots were, in the latter period, thus spoken of:- ‘In Scotland ye shall find no man lightly of honour or gentleness: they be like wylde and savage people.’13 The great historian who made the annals of Scotland a part of European literature, had sufficiently warned his countrymen against such faults, by the decisive observation that their forefathers were unacquainted with the art of writing, which alone preserves language from total change, and great events from oblivion.14 Macpherson was encouraged to overleap these and many other improbabilities by youth, talent, and applause: perhaps he did not at first distinctly present to his mind the permanence of the deception. It is more probable, and it is a supposition countenanced by many circumstances, that after enjoying the pleasure of duping so many critics, he intended one day to claim the poems as his own; but if he had such a design, considerable obstacles to its execution arose around him. He was loaded with so much praise that he seemed bound in honour to his admirers not to desert them. The support of his own country appeared to render adherence to those poems, which Scotland inconsiderately sanctioned, a sort of national obligation. Exasperated, on the other hand, by the, perhaps, unduly vehement, and sometimes very coarse attacks made on him, he was unwilling to surrender to such opponents. He involved himself at last so deeply as to leave him no decent retreat. Since the keen and searching publication of Mr. Laing, these poems have fallen in reputation, as they lost the character of genuineness. They had been admired by all the nations, and by all the men of genius in Europe. The last incident in their story is perhaps the most remarkable. In an Italian version, which softened their defects, and rendered their characteristic qualities faint, they formed almost the whole poetical library of Napoleon, a man who, whatever may be finally thought of him in other respects, must be owned to be, by the transcendant vigour of his powers, entitled to a place in the first class of human minds. No other imposture in literary history approaches them in the splendour of their course.”
A sentence so severe and condemnatory, proceeding from an author of such acknowledged ability as Sir James Mackintosh, and who we presume had fully considered the question, must have considerable effect but we apprehend it is quite possible that minds of the first order may, even in a purely literary question, be led astray by prepossessions. That Macpherson endeavoured to complete some of the poetical fragments he collected, in his translation, may, we think, be fairly admitted; and, indeed, the Committee of the Highland Society, with that candour which distinguished their investigation in answering the second question to which their inquiries were directed, namely, How far the collection of poetry published by Mr. Macpherson was genuine, considered that point as rather difficult to answer decisively. The Committee reported, that they were inclined to believe that Mr. Macpherson “was in use to supply chasms, and to give connexion, by inserting passages which he did not find, and to add what he conceived to be dignity and delicacy to the original composition, by striking out passages, by softening incidents, by refining the language, in short, by changing what he considered as too simple or too rude for a modern ear, and elevating what in his opinion was below the standard of good poetry. To what degree, however, he exercised these liberties it is impossible for the Committee to determine. The advantages he possessed, which the Committee began its inquiries too late to enjoy, of collecting from the oral recitation of a number of persons, now no more, a very great number of the same poems, on the same subjects, and then collating those different copies or editions, if they may be so called, rejecting what was spurious or corrupted in one copy, and adopting from another something more genuine and excellent in its place, afforded him an opportunity of putting together what might fairly enough be called an original whole, of much more beauty, and with much fewer blemishes, than the Committee believes it now possible for any person, or combination of persons, to obtain.” But this admission, when all the other circumstances which are urged in favour of the authenticity of these poems are considered, assuredly does not detract in any material degree from their genuineness; more particularly when the history of Mr. Farquharson’s collection of Gaelic poetry, shortly to be noticed, is taken into account; a collection with which the Committee were totally unacquainted, till it was brought to light by the patriotic exertions of Sir John Sinclair, seconded by those of the late highly respected Bishop Cameron.
While we readily subscribe to the position as to the impossibility of poems, preserved only by tradition, being intelligible after thirteen centuries to readers who knew only the language of their own times, we cannot agree to the assumption that the Gaelic of the Highlands, as it was spoken in the Ossianic era, has been so materially altered or corrupted as to be unintelligible to the Gaelic population of the present age. That some alterations in the language may have taken place there can be no doubt; but, in an original and purely idiomatic language, these must have been necessarily few and unimportant. No fair analogy can be drawn between an original language, as the Gaelic unquestionably is, and the modern tongues of Europe, all, or most of which, can be deduced from their origin and traced through their various changes and modifications; but who can detect any such in the Gaelic? “A life of St. Patrick,” says the Rev. Dr. John Smith,15 “written in the sixth century, in Irish verse, is still intelligible to an Irishman; and a poem of near one hundred verses, of which I have a copy, and which was composed about the same time by St. Columba, though for ages past little known or repeated, will be understood, except a few words, by an ordinary Highlander.” And if such be the case as to poetical compositions, which had lain dormant for an indefinite length of time, can we suppose that those handed down uninterruptedly from father to son through a long succession of generations, could by any possibility have become unintelligible? “The preservation of any language from total change” does not, we apprehend, depend upon the art of writing alone, but rather upon its construction and character, and on its being kept quite apart from foreign admixture. Owing to the latter circumstance all the European languages, the Gaelic alone excepted, have undergone a total change notwithstanding the art of writing. In connexion with this fact it may be observed, that the purest Gaelic is spoken by the unlettered natives of Mull and Skye, and the remote parts of Argyleshire and Inverness-shire; and it has been truly observed, that “an unlettered Highlander will feel and detect a violation of the idiom of his language more readily than his countryman who has read Homer and Virgil.”16
The high state of refinement and moral civilization depicted in the poems of Ossian affords no solid objection against their authenticity. The same mode of reasoning might with great plausibility be urged against the genuineness of the Iliad and Odyssey. Fiction is essential to the character of a true poet; and we need not be surprised that one so imaginative and sublime as Ossian should people his native glens with beings of a superior order.
We have already alluded to a collection of Gaelic poems made by Mr. Farquharson, which unfortunately does not now exist. The history of this collection being very interesting, as throwing a flood of light on the Ossianic question, and supporting, in an essential manner, the views of the defenders of the authenticity of Ossian’s poems, we hope we shall be excused for drawing the attention of the reader to the documents which detail the circumstances relating to that collection. Sir John Sinclair Baronet, having accidentally heard that Dr. Cameron, the Catholic Bishop of Edinburgh, could furnish some interesting information regarding the authenticity of Ossian, with that praiseworthy zeal which has ever distinguished the honourable Baronet, addressed the following card to the Bishop, dated Charlotte Square, Edinburgh 7th February, 1806.
“Sir John Sinclair presents his compliments to Bishop Cameron. Has accidentally heard that the Bishop can throw some new light upon the controversy regarding the authenticity of the poems of Ossian, and takes the liberty, therefore, of requesting his attention to the subjoined queries.
“1. Does the Bishop ever recollect to have seen, or heard of any ancient Gaelic manuscripts in France?
“2. Did they contain any of the poems of Ossian, and what were they?
“3. Did the Bishop compare them with Macpherson’s translation, and did it seem to be a just one?
“4. Can the Bishop recollect any other person or persons, now living, who saw those manuscripts?
“5. Where did he see them; and is there any chance of those being yet recovered, or copies of them obtained?”
To which application, Bishop Cameron returned for answer, that he had taken the necessary steps for acquiring and laying before Sir John the most satisfactory account he could, of a manuscript Gaelic collection, which contained a very considerable part of what was afterwards translated and published by Macpherson – that the collector had died in Scotland some years before – that the manuscript had been lost in France; but there was at least one alive, who, being much pleased with the translation, although he did not understand the original, saw them frequently compared, and had the manuscript in his hands – and that Sir John’s queries, and whatever else could throw any light on the subject, would be attended to.
In answer to a second application from Sir John, the Bishop regretted that the information he had hitherto received, concerning the manuscript of Ossian’s poems, was not so complete as he expected – and that the MS. was irreparably lost – that the Rev. James Macgillivray declared, that he remembered the manuscript perfectly well; that it was in folio, large paper, about three inches thick, written close, and in a small letter – the whole in Mr. John Farquharson’s handwriting – that Mr. Macgillivray went to Douay College, in 1763, where Mr. Farquharson was at the time Prefect of Studies – that Gaelic poetry and the contents of the MS. were frequently brought upon the carpet – that about 1766, Mr. Glendonning of Parton sent Macpherson’s translation of the poems of Ossian to Mr. Farquharson – that the attention of every one was then drawn to the MS. in proportion to the impression made upon their minds by the translation. Mr. Macgillivray saw them collated hundreds of times – that the common complaint was, that the translation fell very far short of the energy and beauty of the original – and Mr. Macgillivray was convinced that the MS. contained all the poems translated by Macpherson. 1. Because he recollected very distinctly having heard Mr. Farquharson say, after having read the translation, that he had all these poems in his collection. 2. Because he never saw him at a loss to find the original in the MS. when any observation occurred upon any passage in the translation – that he knew the poems of Fingal and Temora were of the number, for he saw the greater part of both collated with the translation, and he heard Mr. Farquharson often regret that Macpherson had not found or published several poems contained in his MS., and of no less merit than any of those laid before the public – that Mr. Farquharson came to Scotland in 1773, leaving his MS. in the Scots’ College of Douay, where Mr. Macgillivray had occasion to see it frequently during his stay there till 1775; but, he said, it had got into the hands of young men who did not understand the Gaelic, and was much tattered, and that several leaves had been torn out – that the late Principal of that College, who was then only a student there, remembered very well having seen the leaves of the mutilated manuscript torn out to kindle the fire in their stove.
Bishop Cameron believed the collection was made before the middle of last century. He was personally acquainted with Mr. Farquharson from 1773 to 1780, and the poems were often the subject of their conversation, that whatever opinion the literary world might form of them, it was not easy to foresee that Macpherson should be seriously believed to be the author of them, and it was hoped he would publish the originals. In that persuasion perhaps few Highlanders would have copied them, for the value of any trifling variation.
Bishop Cameron afterwards acquainted Sir John, that he considered the testimony of Mr. Macgillivray, on the subject of Mr. Farquharson’s collection of Gaelic poems, as of the greatest weight with him, for many reasons. The impression made upon Mr. Macgillivray by the translation enhanced his veneration for the original. The manuscript appeared to him, in a very different light, from that in which it was seen by those who had from their infancy been accustomed to hear the contents of it recited or sung by illiterate men, for the entertainment of the lower classes of Society – that the account then given by Mr. Macgillivray, was the same which he gave him thirty years ago; for he, Bishop Cameron, took notes of it then, and had frequently repeated it since on his authority.
On receipt of the communication alluded to, Sir John drew up the following queries which he transmitted to Bishop Cameron to be communicated to his friends.
“Queries for the Rev. Dr. John Chisholm, and for the Rev. James Macgillivray, to be answered separately.
“1. Did you recollect a manuscript of Gaelic poetry, at the college of Douay in Flanders?
“2. At what time do you recollect receiving that manuscript?
“3. Was it an ancient or modern manuscript?
“4. By whom was it supposed to be written, and at what period?
“5. Did it contain other poems, and of equal or inferior merit?
“6. To whom were the poems ascribed?
“7. Did you compare the Celtic manuscript with Macpherson’s translation, and what similarity existed between them?
“8. To what extent did you make the comparison, or was it made in your presence?
“9. Were the Gaelic scholars at Douay perfectly satisfied with the result of the comparison?
“10. Was there any communication of the circumstance made to any in Great Britain, so far as your knowledge goes?
“11. How long did the manuscript remain at the College of Douay?
“12. What was the cause of the loss thereof?
“13. Is there any chance of recovering a copy, or any part of it?
“14. Are there any other persons in Scotland who saw the manuscript, and can certify the comparison above-mentioned?
“15. Did you ever hear of any other manuscript of Ossian, either in France, or in Rome?
“16. Do you entertain any doubt respecting the authenticity of the poems of Ossian, and that Mr. Macpherson was merely the translator thereof?
“17. Do you think that his translation did justice to the original?
To these queries Bishop Chisholm replied as follows:-
1. That he recollected the manuscript in question. 2. That he remembered having seen it in the hands of the Rev. Mr. John Farquharson, a Jesuit in the years 1766-67, &c., but could not then read it. 3. Mr. Farquharson wrote it all when (4.) missionary in Strathglass, before and after the year 1745. 5. It contained, as Mr. Farquharson said, Gaelic poems not inferior to either Virgil or Homer’s poems, according to his judgment, called (6.) by him Ossian’s poems. 7. The Bishop did not, but Mr. Farquharson did, compare the Celtic manuscripts with Macpherson’s translation, and he affirmed the translation was inferior to the original, and, (8.) he said so of the whole of Mr. James Macpherson’s translation. 9. There was not one scholar at Douay, that could read the Gaelic in his, Bishop Chisholm’s, time. 10. Mrs. Frazer of Culbokie spoke of the manuscript to him on his return to Scotland, and told him she had taught Mr. Farquharson to read the Gaelic on his arrival in Scotland, in which his progress in a short time exceeded her own. She likewise had a large collection, of which she read some passages to him, when he could scarcely understand the Gaelic, and which escaped his memory since; the manuscript was in fine large Irish characters, written by Mr. Peter Macdonel, chaplain to Lord Macdonel of Glengary, after the Restoration, who had taught Mrs. Frazer, and made such a good Gaelic scholar of her: she called this collection a Bolg Solair, that Mr. Frazer of Culbokie, her grandson, could give no account of it. 11. The manuscript was at Douay, 1777, when the Bishop left that place. 12. That he could not say what might have been done with it since; it was then much damaged, that Mr. John Farquharson, in Elgin, formerly prefect of studies, and at the time of the French Revolution, Principal of the Scotch College, was the only one that could give any account of it, if he remembered it. 13. The Bishop feared that neither it nor any part of it could be recovered. 14. Mr. Farquharson, Mr. James Macgillivray, Mr. Ronald Macdonald, and the Bishop had seen it. The 15th query was answered in the negative. 16. The Bishop never doubted the authenticity of Ossian’s poems, and never thought Macpherson any thing but a translator. 17. By what he had seen of the original he believed it was impossible for Macpherson to do justice to it; that it was likewise his opinion, he had it in his power to do more justice to it than he had done, and was convinced he had not taken up the meaning of the original in some passages. The Bishop added that Mr. Macgillivray was a great proficient in poetry, and was much admired for his taste, that he never saw one more stubborn and stiff in denying the merit of Highland poets, till Macpherson’s translation appeared, which, when compared with Mr. Farquharson’s collection made a convert of him; and none then admired Ossian’s more than he.
Mr. Macgillivray in answering Sir John’s communication stated, that Mr. Farquharson was a man of an excellent taste in polite literature, and a great admirer of the ancient poets. When he went to Strathglass, where he lived upwards of thirty years, he knew very little of the Erse language, and was obliged to begin a serious study of it; that he was greatly assisted in this study by that Mrs. Frazer of Culbokie, who passed for the best Erse scholar in that part of the country. From this lady he learnt the language grammatically, and to read and write it; she likewise gave him a high opinion of Erse poetry, by the many excellent compositions in that language, with which she made him acquainted; that in consequence of this, when he became master of the language he collected every thing of the kind he could meet with, and of such collections was formed the MS. in question.
He first saw the MS. in the possession of Mr. Farquharson, when he was a student in the Scotch College of Douay, and afterwards at Dinant in the county of Liege, Mr. Farquharson being then prefect of studies. That it remained in Mr. Farquharson’s possession from the year 1763, when Mr. McG. went first to the college, until 1773, when he and Mr. Farquharson left Dinant, the latter to return to Scotland, and the former to prosecute his studies at Douay. That Mr. Farquharson, on his return to Scotland, passed by Douay where he left his MS. That Mr. McG. saw it there till the summer of 1775 when he left Douay, and was at that time in a much worse condition than he had ever seen it before: that it had got into the hands of the students, none of whom, he believed, could read it: that it was much tattered in many places, and many leaves had been torn out. That from the manner in which it was then treated, very little care had been taken of it afterwards; but allowing that what remained of it had been carefully kept, it must have perished with every thing else in that house, during the French Revolution. That the MS. was a large folio about three inches thick, and entirely in Mr. Farquharson’s own handwriting. As it consisted wholly of poems collected by himself, it was written pretty close, so that it must have contained a great deal. Mr. McG. could not say positively how Mr. Farquharson had collected the poems; that many of them certainly must have been obtained from hearing them recited, and he had a sort of remembrance that Mr. F. frequently mentioned his having got a great many of them from Mrs. Frazer, and indeed it must have been so, as she first gave him a relish for Gaelic poetry, by the fine pieces with which she made him acquainted. That Mr. McG. could say nothing at all of the particular pieces which Mr. F. got from her, or from any other person, as he did not remember to have heard him specify any thing of the kind. Mr. Macgillivray farther observes, that in the year 1766 or 1767, Mr. Farquharson first saw Mr. Macpherson’s translation of Ossian. It was sent to him by Mr. Glendoning of Parton. That he remembered perfectly well his receiving it, although he did not recollect the exact time, but Mr. Farquharson said, when he had read it, that he had all the translated poems in his collection. That Mr. McG. had an hundred times seen him turning over his folio, when he read the translation, and comparing it with the Erse; and he could positively say, that he saw him in this manner go through the whole poems of Fingal and Temora. Although he could not speak so precisely of his comparing the other poems in the translation with his manuscript, Mr. McG. was convinced he had them, as he spoke in general of his having all the translated poems; and he never heard him mention that any poem in the translation was wanting in his collection; whereas he has often heard him say that there were many pieces in it, as good as any that had been published, and regret that the translator had not found them, or had not translated them. Mr. McG. does not remember to have ever heard Mr. F. tax Mr. Macpherson’s translation with deviating essentially from the sense of the original, which he would not have failed to have done, had he found grounds for it; for he very frequently complained that it did not come up to the strength of the original, and to convince his friends of this, he used to repeat the Erse expressions, and to translate them literally, comparing them with Macpherson’s. This difference, however, he seemed to ascribe rather to the nature of the two languages, than to any inaccuracy or infidelity in the translator.
With regard to the time at which Mr. Farquharson collected the poems he had, it was evident that it must have been during his residence in Strathglass, as he brought them from Scotland to Douay with him. Mr. McG. did not know the very year he came to Douay, but he was sure it was before 1760, and he always understood that Mr. F. had collected them long before that time. When Mr. Farquharson first received Macpherson’s translation, Mr. McG. was studying poetry and rhetoric, and he thought that nothing could equal the beauties of the ancient poets, whom he was then reading. He says that he used with a sort of indignation, to hear Mr. Farquharson say, that there were Erse poems equal in merit to the pieces of the ancients, whom he so much admired; but when he saw the translation, he began to think his indignation unjust, and consequently paid more attention to the comparison which Mr. F. made of it with his own collection, than he would otherwise have done.
“This is all the information,” says Mr. Macgillivray, “I can give relative to Mr. Farquharson’s manuscript; I have often regretted, since disputes began to run so high about the authority of Ossian’s poems, that I did not ask Mr. Farquharson a thousand questions about them, which I did not think of then, and to which, I am sure, he could have given me the most satisfactory answers; at any rate, what I have so often heard from him, has left on my mind so full a conviction of the authenticity of the poems, or at least that they are no forgery of Macpherson’s, that I could never since hear the thing called in question, without the greatest indignation. It is certain that Mr. Farquharson made his collection before Macpherson’s time, and I am sure that he never heard of Macpherson till he saw his book. I sincerely wish that persons of more judgment, and more reflection than I had at the time, had had the same opportunities of seeing and hearing what I did, and of receiving from Mr. Farquharson, whose known character was sincerity, the information he could have given them; in that case, I believe, they would have been convinced themselves, and I make no doubt but they would have been the means of convincing the most incredulous.”
Bishop Cameron, after sending the communications alluded to, to Sir John Sinclair, informed him that besides Dr. Chisholm and Mr. Macgillivray, two other persons had been named, who were students in the Scots College of Douay, in the year 1773, when Mr. Farquharson, returning to Scotland, from Dinant, spent some days amongst his countrymen, and left his manuscript with them – that the first of these two afterwards president of the College, and then residing in Elgin, had declared to the Bishop, that he remembered the MS., that no one in the College could read it, and that he had seen the leaves torn out of it, as long as it lasted, to light the fire.
That the second, the Rev. Ronald Macdonald, residing in Uist, declared, that he had a clear remembrance of having seen the manuscript. But it was after his return to Scotland in 1780, after he had acquired a more perfect knowledge of the Gaelic, when he discovered that the poems of Ossian were not so common, or so fresh in the memory of his countrymen, when the public began to despair of Mr. Macpherson’s publishing his original text, and when some people doubted, or affected to doubt, the existence of an original, it was then Mr. Macdonald formed some idea of the value of the manuscript, and often expressed his regret that he had not brought it to Scotland, for he was confident no objection would have been made to his taking it.
The following extracts from the Bishop’s last letter to Sir John, are curious and interesting:-
“From the year 1775, when he came to Scotland, to 1780, when I went to Spain, where I resided more than twenty years, Mr. Macgillivray and I lived in a habit of intimacy and friendship. Our interviews were frequent, and we were not strangers to Macpherson’s translation of the poems of Ossian. It was then Mr. Macgillivray gave me the first account of the manuscript. The Rev. John Farquharson, to whom it belonged, lived at that time with his nephew, Mr. Farquharson of Inverey, at Balmorral. Amongst many others who visited in that respectable family, it is probable Lord Fife may still recollect the venerable old man, and bear testimony of the amiable candour and simplicity of his manners. I knew him, and he confirmed to me all that my friend, Mr. Macgillivray, had told me. He added, that when he was called to Douay, I believe about the year 1753, he had left another collection of Gaelic poems in Braemar. He told me by whom and in what manner it had been destroyed; and made many humorous and just observations, on the different points of view, in which different people may place the same object. He seemed to think that similar, and even fuller collections might still be formed with little trouble. He was not sensible of the rapid, the incredible, the total change, which had taken place in the Highlands of Scotland, in the course of a few years.
“The Poems of Ossian, were sometimes the subject of my conversation with my friends in Spain. I wished to see them in a Spanish dress. The experiment was made; but the public reception of the specimen did not encourage the translator to continue his labour. The author of a very popular work on the Origin, Progress, and present state of Literature, had confidently adopted the opinion of those, who thought, or called Mr. Macpherson, the author, not the translator, of the poems; and the opinion became common amongst our literati. This gave me occasion to communicate to my friends, the grounds of my opinion. To that circumstance, I ascribe my having retained a distinct memory of what I have now related; and upon that account alone, I have taken the liberty of troubling you with this perhaps no less unimportant than tedious relation.
“The Right Rev. Dr. Eneas Chisholm, informs me, that the late Mr. Archibald Frazer, major in the Glengary Fencibles, son of Mrs. Frazer, Culbokie, so renowned for her Gaelic learning, assured him, that his mother’s manuscripts had been carried to America. Her son, Simon, emigrated thither with his family, in 1773. He had received a classical education, and cultivated the taste which he had inherited for Gaelic poetry. When the American war broke out, Simon declared himself for the mother country. He became an officer in the British service, was taken prisoner, and thrown into a dungeon, where he was said to have been very cruelly used, and where he died; understood two of his sons, William and Angus, are now in Canada, but I can learn nothing of the fate of his manuscripts.”
In consequence of the allusion by Bishop Chisholm to the Rev. John Farquharson who had been President of the Scotch College at Douay, as knowing something of his namesake’s collection, Sir John Sinclair requested that he would send him all the particulars he could possibly recollect as to the MS. alluded to, and his opinion regarding the authenticity of Ossian. He also wished to be informed if there was a chance of recovering the whole, or any part of the Douay MS.? or if any copy of any part of it was extant? To which request Mr. Farquharson replied, that he perfectly recollected to have seen in 1775 and 1776 the MS. mentioned, but being no Gaelic scholar, all that he could attest was his having repeatedly heard the compiler assert, it contained various Gaelic songs, a few fragments of modern composition, but chiefly extracts of Ossian’s poems, collected during his long residence in Strathglass, previous to the rebellion of Forty-five; and to have seen him compare the same with Macpherson’s translation, and exclaiming frequently at its inaccuracy; that the MS. might be about three inches thick, large paper, scarce stitched, some leaves torn, others lost, and of course little heeded, as the Highland Society’s and Sir John Sinclair’s patriotic exertions were not then thought of. What its subsequent fate had been, he could not positively say; for, thrown carelessly amongst other papers into a corner of the college archives, no care whatever had been taken of it, being in a manner en feuilles detachées, in a handwriting scarcely legible, and of a nature wholly unintelligible.
The documents referred to establish beyond the possibility of doubt, that long before the name of Macpherson was known to the literary world, a collection of manuscript Poems in Gaelic did exist which passed as the Poems of Ossian, and that they were considered by competent judges as not inferior to the poems of Virgil or Homer: they demonstrate the absurdity of the charge that Macpherson was the author of the poems he published, and annihilate the rash and unfounded assertion of the colossus of English literature, Dr. Samuel Johnson, that “the poems of Ossian never existed in any other form than that which we have seen,” in Macpherson’s translation and, “that the editor or author never could show the original, nor can it be shown by any other.”17 Whether the celebrated Lexicographer, had he lived to witness the publication of the Gaelic manuscripts under the sanction of the Highland Society of London, would have changed his opinion is a question which cannot be solved; nor is it necessary to speculate on the subject. Every unprejudiced mind must now be satisfied of the authenticity of these poems, and may adopt “the pleasing supposition that Fingal lived and that Ossian sung.”
The most formidable objection against the genuineness of the poems of Ossian, and which has been urged with great plausibility, is the absence of all allusions to religion. “Religion,” says Mr. Laing, “was avoided as a dangerous topic that might lead to detection. The gods and rites of the Caledonians were unknown. From the danger, however, or the difficulty of inventing a religious mythology, the author has created a savage society of refined atheists; who believe in ghosts, but not in deities, and are either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the existence of superior powers. In adopting Rousseau’s visions concerning the perfection of the savage state, which was then so popular, Macpherson, solicitous only for proper machinery, has rendered the Highlanders a race of unheard-of infidels, who believed in no gods but the ghosts of their fathers.”
It is certainly not easy to account for this total want of religious allusions, for to suppose that at the era in question the Caledonians were entirely destitute of religious impressions, or in other words, a nation of atheists is contrary to the whole history of the human race. That the druidical superstition was the religion of all the Celtic tribes is placed beyond all doubt, and that the influence and power of imperial Rome gradually weakened and finally extinguished that system is equally certain. The extinction of that superstition took place long before the supposed era of Ossian, but to imagine that all recollection of the ancient belief had also been obliterated, is to suppose what is far from probable. Indeed, the well known traditions respecting the disputes between the Druids, and Trathal and Cormac, ancestors to Fingal, in consequence of the attempts of the former to deprive Trenmor, grandfather to Fingal, of the office of Vergobretus or chief Magistrate which was hereditary in his family, show plainly that Ossian could not be ignorant of the tenets of the Druids; and as the Fingalian race from the circumstance noticed were the enemies of the Druids, the silence of Ossian respecting them and their tenets is not much to be wondered at.
It cannot, however, be denied that this silence has puzzled the defenders of the poems very much, and many reasons have been given to account for it. The reason assigned by Dr. Graham of Aberfoil in his valuable Essay appears to be the most plausible. “We are informed,” says he, “by the most respectable writers of antiquity, that the Celtic hierarchy was divided into several classes, to each of which its own particular department was assigned. The Druids, by the consent of all, constitute the highest class; the Bards seem to have been the next in rank; and the Eubages the lowest. The higher mysteries of religion, and probably, also, the science of the occult powers of nature, which they had discovered, constituted the department of the Druids. To the Bards, again, it is allowed by all, were committed the celebration of the heroic achievements of their warriors, and the public record of the history of the nation. But we know, that in every polity which depends upon mystery, as that of the Druids undoubtedly did, the inferior orders are sedulously prevented from encroaching on the pale of those immediately above them, by the mysteries which constitute their peculiar badge. Is it not probable, then, that the Bards were expressly prohibited from encroaching upon the province of their superiors by intermingling religion, if they had any knowledge of its mysteries, which it is likely they had not, with the secular objects of their song? Thus, then, we seem warranted to conclude upon this subject, by the time that Ossian flourished, the higher order of this hierarchy had been destroyed; and in all probability the peculiar mysteries which they taught had perished along with them: and even if any traces of them remained, such is the force of habit, and the veneration which men entertain for the institutions in which they have been educated, that it is no wonder the Bards religiously forbore to tread on ground from which they had at all times, by the most awful sanctions been excluded. In this view of the subject, it would seem, that the silence which prevails in these poems, with regard to the higher mysteries of religion, instead of furnishing an argument against their authenticity, affords a strong presumption of their having been composed at the very time, in the very circumstances, and by the very persons to whom they have been attributed.”
But it is unnecessary to enlarge further on this subject. The publication of the original poems, so long withheld from the world by the unaccountable conduct of Macpherson, has settled the question of their authenticity, and there are few persons now so sceptical as not to be convinced that these poems are of very high antiquity.
1 “Quamvis intelligunt omnes plus semper virium et industriæ Scotis fuisse ad res gerendas, quam commentationis ad prædicandas, habuerunt tamen antiquitus, et coluerunt suos Homeros et Marones, quos Bardos nominabant. Hi fortium virorum facta versibus heroicis et lyræ modulis aptata concinebant; quibus et præsentium animos acuebant ad virtutis gloriam, et fortitudinis exempla ad posteros transmittebant. Cujusmodi apud Cambros et priscos Scotos nec dum desiere; et nomen illud patrio sermone adhuc retinent.” J. Johnston in Præfat. ad Hist. Scot.
2 The following curious and interesting declaration of Lachlan Mac Vuirich, son of Niel, taken by desire of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the poems of Ossian, will throw much light on the bardic office.
In the house of Patrick Nicolson, at Torlum, near Castle Burgh, in the shire of Inverness on the ninth day of August, compeared, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, Lachlan, son of Niel, son of Lachlan, son of Niel, son of Donald, son of Lachlan, son of Niel Mòr, son of Lachlan, son of Donald, of the sirname of Mac Vuirich, before Roderick McNeil, Esq. of Barra, and declared, That, according to the best of his knowledge, he is the eighteenth in descent from Muireach, whose posterity had officiated as bards to the family of Clanranald; and that they had from that time, as the salary of their office, the farm of Staoiligary, and four pennies of Drimisdale, during fifteen generations; that the sixteenth descendant lost the four pennies of Drimisdale, but that the seventeenth descendant retained the farm of Staoiligary for nineteen years of his life. That there was a right given them over these lands, as long as there should be any of the posterity of Muireach to preserve and continue the genealogy and history of the Macdonalds, on condition that the bard, failing of male issue, was to educate his brother’s son, or representative, in order to preserve their title to the lands; and that it was in pursuance of this custom that his own father, Niel, had been taught to read and write history and poetry by Donald, son of Niel, son of Donald, his father’s brother.
He remembers well that works of Ossian written on parchment, were in the custody of his father, as received from his predecessors; that some of the parchments were made up in the form of books, and that others were loose and separate, which contained the works of other bards besides those of Ossian.
He remembers that his father had a book, which was called the Red Book made of paper, which he had from his predecessors, and which, as his father informed him, contained a good deal of the history of the Highland clans, together with part of the works of Ossian. That none of those books are to be found at this day, because when they (his family) were deprived of their lands, they lost their alacrity and zeal. That he is not certain what became of the parchments, but thinks that some of them were carried away by Alexander, son of the Rev. Alexander Macdonald, and others by Ronald his son; and he saw two or three of them cut down by tailors for measures. That he remembers well that Clanranald made his father give up the red book to James Macpherson from Badenoch; that it was near as thick as a Bible, but that it was longer and broader, though not so thick in the cover. That the parchments and the red book were written in the hand in which the Gaelic used to be written of old both in Scotland and Ireland, before people began to use the English hand in writing Gaelic; and that his father knew well how to read the old hand. That he himself had some of the parchments after his father’s death, but that because he had not been taught to read them, and had no reason to set any value upon them, they were lost. He says that none of his forefathers had the name of Paul, but that there were two of them who were called Cathal.
He says that the red book was not written by one man, but that it was written from age to age by the family of Clan Mhuirich, who were preserving and continuing the history of the Macdonalds, and of other heads of Highland clans.
After the above declaration was taken down, it was read to him, and he acknowledged it was right, in presence of Donald McDonald of Balronald, James McDonald of Garyhelich, Ewan McDonald of Griminish, Alexander McLean of Hoster, Mr. Alexander Nicolson, minister of Benbecula, and Mr. Allan McQueen, minister of North-Uist, who wrote this declaration.
LACHLAN X MAC VUIRICH
RODERICK MAC NIEL, J. P.
3 Appendix No. I. to the edition of Ossian, published under the sanction of the Highland Society of London.
4 Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland on Ossian’s poems.
5 Acerbi’s Remarks on Lapland.
6 Dissertation on the authenticity of Ossian’s Poems, p. 60.
7 As the letter in question is curious, and displays considerable talent, it is here given entire:-
Dunkeld, Nov. 15th, 1755.
SIR, – Those who have any tolerable acquaintance with the Irish language must know, that there are a great number of poetical compositions in it, and some of them of very great antiquity, whose merit entitles them to an exemption from the unfortunate neglect, or rather abhorrence, to which ignorance has subjected that emphatic language in which they were composed. Several of these performances are to be met with, which, for sublimity of sentiment, nervousness of expression, and high spirited metaphor, are hardly to be equalled among the chief productions of the most cultivated nations. Others of them breathe such tenderness and simplicity, as must be affecting to every mind that is in the least tinctured with the softer passions of pity and humanity. Of this kind is the poem of which I here send you a translation. Your learned readers will easily discover the conformity there is betwixt the tale upon which it is built, and the story of Belerophon, as related by Homer; while it will be no small gratification to the curiosity of some, to see the different manner in which a subject of the same nature is handled by the great father of poetry and a Highland bard. It is hoped the uncommon turn of several expressions, and the seeming extravagance there is in some of the comparisons I have observed in the translation, will give no offence to such persons as can form a just notion of those compositions which are the productions of simple and unassisted genius, in which energy is always more sought after than neatness, and the strictness of connexion less adverted to than the design of moving the passions and affecting the heart. – I am &c.
8 Report of Highland Society referred to.
9 Letter from Dr. Blair to Henry Mackenzie Esq., in Appendix to Highland Society’s Report referred to.
10 Report of the Committee of the Highland Society.
11 Letter from Mr. Gallie to Charles Macintosh, Esq., W.S., dated March 12th, 1799, inserted in Report referred to.
12 History of England. By the Right Honourable Sir James Mackintosh, L.L.D. M.P., vol. i. p. 86.
13 Berner’s Froisart, xi. 7. Lond. 1812.
14 Buchan. Rer. Scotic. lib. ii. in intio.
15 Letter to Henry Mackenzie, Esq., in Report referred to.
16 Essay on the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems, by Dr. Patrick Graham, p. 103.
17 Journey to the Western Islands, ed. 1798, p. 205.
5 thoughts on “Chapter II. – Poetry of the Celts – Antiquity and Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian, pp.36-59.”