James Macpherson

Born 27 October 1736, at Ruthven near Kingussie, Macpherson was the son of a farmer. He passed through Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities before taking up a position in charge of a charity school at Ruthven in 1756. He became interested in ancient Gaelic poetry, and in 1760 published a small book of 'translations', called Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland. This was reasonably well received. He had collected Gaelic manuscripts and had spoken Gaelic poems transcribed, all with the encouragement of several friends, including Hugh Blair, Professor of Rhetoric at Edinburgh University.

In an unsigned preface to Fragments, Blair had hinted that epic poetry relating to Fingal and passed on by his son Ossian might still exist. This was despite the received wisdom that no Gaelic manuscript existed from earlier than the 10th century.

A subscription was raised, allowing Macpherson to travel through the Highlands to look for more manuscripts. His findings resulted in two more publications; Fingal (1762), and Temora (1763). In 1773, 'a carefully corrected, and greatly improved' edition was published as The Poems of Ossian. The success of this, not only in Britain, but also in Europe, took everyone by surprise. The romantic spirit and simple sentiment of the poetry was enjoyed by all who read them.

But there were some who doubted the authenticity of the poems, notably Samuel Johnson who branded them a fraud. None of these good critics knew any Gaelic of course, which may well have been a handicap in their literary judgments. After Macpherson's death, a committee of the Highland Society of Scotland made a thorough investigation of the whole case. Their report, published in 1805, concluded that 'poems existed which could called Ossianic, and that Macpherson had liberally added passages of his own to create the epics'.

There now seems to be little doubt that genuine fragments of ancient Gaelic poetry existed, that Macpherson did not fully realise the full worth of what he had found, and that he did add much of his own writing in order to publish sensible epic poems. His star, in other words, is reasonably bright and on the up. More useful perhaps, is the realisation that literary works do not burst out of the ground complete, finished, and with neither earlier contact with similar material, nor with their contemporaries. Poetry is never written in isolation in other words. We write what we think, and what we think has been beaten on many forges.

Macpherson died on 17 February 1796, at Belville, Inverness.