James Macpherson and the Ossianic Controversy
In 1760 a young Edinburgh schoolmaster named James Macpherson (1736-1796) published a translation of ancient Scottish verse titled Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland
. Prompted by the enthusiastic response this work received, Macpherson next translated two longer epic poems, Fingal
, both supposedly composed by a 3rd century bard named Ossian.
The poems were instant, international successes and propelled Macpherson to fame and riches. Eighteenth-century readers found that the simple, melancholy virtues of the heroic characters in the poems provided an appealing contrast to the complexity and deceit of the modern world. In addition, the discovery of an ancient literature older than any England could boast gave a boost to Scottish cultural nationalism.
But all were not impressed. While touring Scotland in 1773 Samuel Johnson searched for the original Gaelic manuscripts that Macpherson had translated. He couldn't find them, and he returned home to denounce the works as fakes.
What followed was an almost fifty year controversy about the authenticity of the works. Macpherson kept promising to produce the originals, but it wasn't until his death that scholars really got a chance to examine his sources. Then it became clear that while there were some legitimate manuscript sources, Macpherson had greatly expanded and altered them. In other words, the poems were principally written by Macpherson himself, not by a 3rd century Scottish bard.
Although Macpherson is now mainly remembered as a fraud, he did help to draw attention to the ancient and disappearing oral tradition of Scottish balladry, which was real.
- Haywood, Ian. The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to Eighteenth-Century Ideas of History and Fiction. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986.
- Murphy, Peter T. "Fool's Gold: The Highland Treasures of MacPherson's Ossian. ELH, Volume 53, Issue 3 (Autumn, 1986): 567-591.
Text copyright © 2002 Alex Boese