Orality, Ossian and Translation

by Gerald Bär (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 200 Pages
Series: passagem

Table Of Content


Bibliographic Information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available in theinternet at

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for at the
Library of Congress.

About the editors

GERALD BÄR is Assistant Professor at the Universidade Aberta of Portugal where he teaches online in the areas of Cutural Studies, German and Comparative Literature. He is Senior Researcher of CECC, co-editor of the Revista de Estudos Alemães in Portugal and has published widely on the motif of the “Doppelgänger” in literature and film and on the reception of Ossian.

HOWARD GASKILL is Honorary Fellow in German at the University of Edinburgh. His major research interests have included Sturm und Drang, Romanticism, Scottish-German literary relations (in particular Macpherson’s Ossian), literary translation, and more recently Arthur Koestler. In 2019 his translation into English of Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion appeared with Open Book Publishers, and he is now working on a new translation of Goethe’s Werther.

About the book

The aim of this book is to revisit Ossian, whilst broadening the scope of oral literature and translation to embrace cultural contexts outside of Europe. Epics, ballads, prose tales, ritual and lyric songs, as genres, existed orally before writing was invented. Serious debate about them, at least in modern Western culture, may be said to have begun with James Macpherson and Thomas Percy. Considering the ongoing debate on orality and authenticity in the case of Ossian, this book includes ground-breaking, previously published essays which provide essential information relating to orality, Ossian and translation, but have been frequently overlooked. Its contributions focus on the aspects of authenticity, transmediation, popular poetry and music, examining Scottish, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, African, American Indian, Indian and Chinese literatures.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.



Fiona Stafford

Dr Johnson and the Ruffian: New Evidence in the Dispute between Samuel Johnson and James Macpherson

Howard Gaskill

What Did James Macpherson Really Leave on Display at His Publisher’s Shop in 1762?

Gauti Kristmannsson

James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian: A Translation of “Low” Culture into “High”?

Sebastian Mitchell

Ossian and Orality; or the Sound of Ossian

Gerald Bär

Genre and Gender: Ossianic Poetry from Oral Tradition to National Epic and Lyrical Drama

Thiago Rhys Bezerra Cass

“Original Harmony”: Ossianic Voices in Alencar’s Indianist Novels

James Porter

Ossian in the New World: Alexandre Levy’s Symphonic Poem, Comala

Landeg White

Confessions of a Justified Folklorist

Ana Paula da Silva Machado

The American Indian Oral Tradition

Margarida Pereira Martins

Fictional Representations of Cultural Realities: Orality and Literature in Novels of Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy

Ana Costa Lopes

Different Pathways in Traditional Portuguese and Chinese Literature


Notes on Contributors

Fiona Stafford’s essay appeared originally in Notes and Queries, 36 (1989), 70–77. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for permission to reproduce it in this volume.

Howard Gaskill’s essay appeared originally in Scottish Gaelic Studies, 16 (1990), 67–89. Many thanks to Moray Watson and the editors of SGS for permission to reproduce it in this volume.

The essay of James Porter is an excerpt from chapter 14 of James Porter’s book Beyond Fingal’s Cave: Ossian in the Musical Imagination (Eastman Studies in Music vol. 158). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press (2019). Many thanks to the editors of University of Rochester Press for permission to reproduce it in this volume.

The essay of Ana Costa Lopes was adapted from Confluências e Divergências Culturais nas Tradições Contísticas Portuguesa e Chinesa (Cultural Confluences and Divergences in the Portuguese and Chinese Storytelling Traditions), Lisbon, CEPCEP, 2000, with new added material. Translation by Kevin Rose, Catholic University of Portugal.

←10 | 11→


We’re book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Micro-filming didn’t pay off; we were always travelling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it’s here. And the hour is late. And the war’s begun. And we are out here, and the city is there, all wrapped up in its own coat of a thousand colours. What do you think, Montag?’

‘We’ll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth, and let our children wait, in turn, on the other people. A lot will be lost that way, of course. But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them. It can’t last’ (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).

The return to oral literature, as practised under the threat of a totalitarian regime in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is, of course, an idea conceived before the digital age, although the possibility of micro-filming against literary loss had been already considered an option.

With European oral literature, we associate names, such as Homer, Ossian, the brothers Grimm; the Iliad, the Nibelungenlied, the Kalevala, Beowulf and Fingal are examples of epics, the rediscovery of which contributed to the shaping of national identities. This subject was debated in volume 6 of the Peter Lang series ‘passagem’: Ossian and National Epic (eds. Bär and Gaskill, 2012). In Orality, Ossian and Translation our aim is to revisit Ossian, whilst at the same time, broadening the scope of oral literature and translation to embrace cultural contexts outside of Europe.

Epics, ballads, prose tales, ritual and lyric songs, as genres, existed orally before writing was invented. Serious debate about them, at least in modern Western culture, may be said to have begun with James Macpherson (Ossianic texts, 1760–65) and Thomas Percy (Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765). The first focus, from ‘Ossian’ in the eighteenth to Zulu ‘Izibongo’ in the twentieth century, was on the authenticity of texts, as collected and written. Were collectors justified in trying to create ‘ur’ texts from scattered fragments? Or was this tantamount to forgery? What got lost and what was added in these processes that often implied translation? In her recent study Literary Translation and the Making of Originals (2017) Karen Emmerich claims that there is no such thing as one, stable, source text. In the procedure of translation the binary view of source and target texts and the expectation of ‘equivalence’ and ‘faithfulness’ tend to ←11 | 12→lead to accusations of ‘loss’ and even forgery. She argues that a literary work only becomes an ‘original’ when another derivative text appears to make it so. In the case of Macpherson’s Ossianic texts, the process of editing and translation, as ‘iterative proliferation’, did not play that role of establishing an ‘original’, but created the inevitable demand for one.

The second focus was on the mechanics of performance, turning on so-called oral formulaic theory and the invention of oral man (see Parry, Lord, McLuhan, Ong, etc.). Only recently has debate considered oral ‘texts’ as literature - Svetozar Kolljevic in the case of Balkan epics and Vail & White, Coplan and Hofmey in the case of southern African oral performance.

As in Dietrich Scheunemann’s collection of essays, Orality, Literacy, and Modern Media (1996), there is neither a common theoretical starting point, nor an overall conceptual framework that the contributors to this volume seek to explore. Important issues are aspects of orality, translation and transmediation, which are evident in James Porter’s seminal book Beyond Fingal’s Cave: Ossian in the Musical Imagination (2019), but going beyond musical adaptation as in Howard Gaskill’s essay “Why Ossian? Why Comala?” (2019).1 In my contribution on Ossianic poetry from oral tradition to national epic and lyrical drama, I also address the problem of genre and gender expectation in translation and in the process of transmediation.

However, considering the ongoing debate on orality and authenticity in the case of Ossian - for example in The International Companion to James Macpherson and The Poems of Ossian (2017),2 edited by Dafydd Moore - this volume opens ←12 | 13→with two ground-breaking, previously published essays by Fiona Stafford and Howard Gaskill. They provide essential information relating to orality, Ossian and translation, but have been frequently overlooked: “Dr Johnson and the Ruffian: New Evidence in the Dispute between Samuel Johnson and James MacPherson” (1989) and “What did James Macpherson really leave on display at his publisher’s shop in 1762?” (1990). Both focus on what Macpherson himself actually meant by ‘originals’, as opposed to what others, notably Samuel Johnson, claimed that he meant. As a result of thorough scholarly investigation these articles examine the case by juxtaposing letters of Johnson, Macpherson and his editor Strahan. They offer insight into extant source materials, their adaptation and, ultimately, into the nature of the feud between Macpherson and Dr Johnson.

Gauti Kristmannsson’s contribution examines the way in which popular poetry (folk poetry) was redefined through translation and rewriting in the eighteenth century. Macpherson’s Ossianic translations produced more than a flurry of imitators, changed the perceptions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, and most of all gave the budding national literatures of Europe the impetus to become literatures in their own right, based on their own heritage.

By exploring the dimensions of the “sound of Ossian”, Sebastian Mitchell adds another important aspect to Ossian and orality, emphasizing the contemporary oral aspect of the poetry: “the way in which Ossian demonstrably and self-reflexively declares itself to be an oral creation in which one of its principal concerns is the relationship of utterance to the circumstances from which it arises”.

In “ ‘Original Harmony’: Ossianic Voices in Alencar’s Indianist Novels” Thiago Rhys Bezerra Cass analyses the cultural, linguistic, and literary transcreations of the founding father of the Brazilian novel who, borrowing from Ossian, tropicalized a then perceptibly European genre.

The results of James Porter’s research on musical adaptations of Ossianic poetry add further important aspects of orality and performance to this volume. He considers Rust’s piece ‘Colma’ (1780) as perhaps the closest to the spirit of the text, and admires Gouvy’s cantata Le dernier Hymne d’Ossian (1858) for its meticulous orchestration. However, his contribution is also on Ossian in the New World: Alexandre Levy’s Symphonic Poem, Comala (1890).

Certainly, James Hogg, the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, continued the tradition of oral Scottish literature. In his last essay,3 Landeg White humorously examines the ←13 | 14→Confessions of this “Justified Folklorist”, which leads him to Ossian and even to Zulu praise poetry. He claims that “none of these beliefs, paradigms, assumptions or theories arose from, or are related in any way to the concerns of the people from whom this material was being recorded”.

Ana Paula Machado explores the American Indian oral tradition, in which the oral transmission of myth and lore is central to community cohesion and cultural survival. Writing, on the other hand, tends to silence the voices and to foster an amnesia of orality; it hardens their fluidity; and it encourages inflexibility.

The approach of Margarida Martins focuses on fictional representations of cultural realities: Orality and Literature in novels of Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy. In a post-colonial context, these writers, as perpetuators of culture, enlist their nation’s narratives to produce and spread new and regenerated visions of India, through new voices that could be read, heard and listened to while read.

Portuguese oral literature includes the Romanceiro (collection of short epic poems for songs) and the ‘trovas populares’ (Cancioneiros). Ana Costa Lopes compares the different pathways in traditional Portuguese and Chinese literature, emphasizing the vastly differing scale of their territories, histories and population numbers through to the age of each respective nation, one with over four-thousand years of existence and the other, Portugal, with only 875 years. This difference would not be relevant if marginal literatures such as orally transmitted Chinese poetry and tales had not been collected and written since the beginning of this civilization.

As for the reception and transmediation of Ossian in Portugal, the first and only translation of Fingal by Maria Adelaide Fernandes Prata, published as late as 1867 in an inconspicuous volume, is certainly worth remembering, as well as Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso’s watercolour painting, Promontory Head Anil MARES D’OSSIAN Rose orange (ca. 1916), a rare pictorial approach to the subject in Portuguese art:

←14 |


Promontório Cabeça índigo MARES d’OSSIAN Rose Orange/wax painting/Private Collection

José-Augusto França suggested that the picture’s title must have been chosen by misunderstanding caused by oral transmission: “Océan” was Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso’s phonetic approximation to the “Ossian of the Romantics”.4 In fact, this picture was certainly inspired by Rimbaud’s opening lines of his poem “Métropolitain” in Les Illuminations (1873–1875):

“Du détroit d’indigo aux mers d’Ossian, sur le sable rose et orange qu’a lavé le ciel vineux viennent de monter et de se croiser des boulevards de cristal habités incontinent par de jeunes familles pauvres qui s’alimentent chez les fruitiers.”

Gerald Bär

←15 | 16→

1Gaskill points out that Denis Diderot, who translated the dialogue, or rather duet, ‘Shilric and Vinvela’ into French, “was no doubt attracted to the Fragments by the innovative mixing of the genres, the lyric, and epic, and dramatic, all this in a language that hovered tantalizingly between verse and prose” (Gaskill, 2019: 9).

2Lesa Ní Mhunghaile’s contribution on “Ossian and the Gaelic World” focuses on Macpherson’s source texts, namely “the various interlinked strands of the heroic corpus, with a particular emphasis on the Fiannaigheacht ballad tradition” (Moore, 2017: 26). In the chapter on “Ossian and the State of Translation” Gauti Kristmannsson suggests that the issue is far more complex than often assumed, and therefore that the ‘translational’ history of Ossian is due for re-examination. He reminds us that the dispute between Samuel Johnson and Macpherson has often been cast as an argument about ‘truth’ and ‘deception,’ whereas “the underlying argument about different views of translation and aesthetics has rarely been discussed in this context” (Moore, 2017: 46). In her “Nostalgic Ossian and the Transcreation of the Scottish Nation,” Cordula Lemke uses the term ‘transcreation’ to summarize and simplify the debate on Ossian: “Macpherson employs the Gaelic folk ballads he finds in the Highlands to create his own oeuvre” (Moore, 2017: 54).

3We shall be forever grateful to Landeg who sent us his contribution shortly before he passed away in December 2017.

4“«Oceano» será, para Amadeo, uma aproximação fonética do «Ossian» dos românticos que baptiza, no catálogo de 1916, uma pintura a cera, em termos mitológicos que nada têm que ver com a sua diligência; a passage terá sido feita em provável confusão ou ignorância, pelo francês «Océan» que é o título assim mesmo atribuído a outras peças de então” (José-Augusto França, “Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso: O Português à Força”. In J.-A. França. Amadeo & Almada. Venda Nova: Bertrand, 1986, pp. 92–93).

←16 | 17→

Fiona Stafford


Dr Johnson and the Ruffian: New Evidence
in the Dispute between Samuel Johnson and
James Macpherson

Mr James Macpherson – I received your foolish and impudent note. Whatever insult is offered me I will do my best to repel, and what I cannot do for myself the law will do for me. I will not desist from detecting what I think a cheat, from any fear of the menaces of a Ruffian.

You want me to retract. What shall I retract? I thought your book an imposture from the beginning, I think it upon yet surer reasons an imposture still. For this opinion I give the publick my reasons which I here dare you to refute.

But however I may despise you, I reverence truth and if you can prove the genuineness of the work I will confess it. Your rage I defy, your abilities since your Homer are not so formidable, and what I have heard of your morals disposes me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you can prove.

You may print this if you will.

Jan 20. 1775 Sam. Johnson1

Johnson’s letter to Macpherson is well known. It has long been upheld as a symbol of the great Doctor’s defiant spirit: as evidence that Samuel Johnson could not be deterred from exposing the fake or fraudulent, whatever personal risk might be involved. Biographers have always made much of the quarrel with Macpherson, eagerly it to “one of the famous minor episodes in literary history”.2 The details vary slightly from writer to writer, but the general picture that emerges is essentially the same. The publication of A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) provoked violent threats from James Macpherson, whose alleged translations of the ancient Gaelic poems of Ossian had been attacked by Johnson ←17 | 18→as forgeries. Dr Johnson accordingly armed himself with “an oak-plant of tremendous size” (Hawkins, 1787: 491) and wrote the crushing letter which effectively ended the dispute. Thus Johnson emerges as the hero of the hour: not only as the fearless investigator, but also as the great English author whose pen was mighty enough to quell the rage of a marauding Highlander.

The image of Macpherson, on the other hand, is rather less complimentary. Most early biographers gave no background information about Macpherson, while modern scholars tend to gloss him briefly as the translator/forger of the Ossian poems, which hardly seems a major claim to fame today. Although W. J. Bate devotes a few paragraphs to the Ossian question, he still follows the tradition of using Macpherson as a foil for Johnson and so we are informed that “Macpherson was a large, heavy man, noted for his thick legs, which he tried to hide by wearing high boots” – a paraphrase from Alexander Carlyle’s description of Macpherson in 1760, some fifteen years before the episode in question.3 While Johnson emerges as the eloquent hero then, Macpherson appears as a ludicrous bully, whose only resort after his literary crimes have been exposed, is to gross physical violence.

If Johnson’s letter of 20 January 1775 were the only solid piece of evidence, the traditional view of the dispute would not seem unreasonable. Recently, however, important new information has come to light which places the “famous minor episode” in a very different perspective. It comes in the form of two letters written by William Strahan to James Macpherson in January 1775, when Strahan was publishing Johnson’s Journey. The letters, which are published here for the first time, raise important questions about the traditional view of the dispute, and about the character and behaviour of those involved.

Macpherson’s side of the correspondence was first published by Leslie Stephen in The Academy, 19 October 1878, and although L. F. Powell included it in an Appendix to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, it is worth quoting again, in the light of the new Strahan letters.4 Macpherson´s letters make it clear that he did not at first approach Johnson directly, but decided to ask William Strahan to take a diplomatic role, furnishing the publisher with a letter to be shown privately to the author of the Journey. The first note is dated 15 January, which suggests that Macpherson heard of the offensive passages in Johnson’s Journey only after the ←18 | 19→first edition had been distributed among London booksellers on 13 January.5 He does not appear to have read the book himself and may have been unaware that it was already in the shops, but he had obviously been shown the following sentence by a friend:

I suppose my opinion of the poems of Ossian is already discovered. I believe they never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. The editor, or author, never could shew the original; nor can it be shewn by any other; to revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt (Johnson, 1985: 98).

It is not clear who conveyed the quotation (Strahan seems unlikely, since he must have known about the passage for several months and would hardly wish to cause a row just as the Journey appeared), but its effect on Macpherson is obvious in the letter he sent Strahan (The Academy, 383):

Dear Sir, - Upon mature consideration, I have sent the enclosed ostensible letter. However unwilling I may be at this time especially to do anything that may create noise, I find I cannot pass over the expressions contained in Dr Johnson’s pamphlet. I desire, therefore, that you will use your endeavours with that impertinent fellow to induce him to soften the expressions concerning me, though it should occasion the loss of a few days in the publication. If he has a grain of common sense. I suppose, he will see the impropriety of the words and prevent further trouble. You may show to him the inclosed, but to none else; and take care to keep it in your own hands. I am,

Dr Sir.

Yours affectionately,


Manchester Buildings,

Jan. 15, 1775

The enclosure is as follows:

Dear Sir, - A friend of mine has, this moment, put into my hands a sentence from a work entitled A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which, I am informed, is written by Dr Johnson. In expressing his incredulity, with regard to the authenticity of the poems of Ossian, he makes use of the words insolence, audacity, and guilt. To his want of belief on this subject I have not the smallest objection. But I suppose you will agree with me, that such expressions ought not to be used by one gentleman to another; and that whenever they are used, they cannot be passed over with impunity. To prevent consequences that may be, at once, disagreeable to Dr Johnson and to myself. I desire the favour that will wait upon him, and tell him that I expect he will cancel from his Journey the injurious ←19 | 20→expressions above mentioned. I hope that, upon cool reflection, he will be of opinion, that this expectation of mine is not unreasonable.

I am, Dear Sir,

Your most obedient humble servant,


Manchester Buildings,

Jan. 15th, 1775.

William Strahan, Esq.

Although L. F. Powell discerned hints of a duel in this note, the letter actually contains no threat of physical violence. It is also significant that Macpherson’s objection is not to Johnson’s disbelief in the authenticity of Ossian, but to the moralizing rhetoric which attends the charges of fraud. Macpherson, who was notorious for his “Highland pride”, found the accusations of “insolence”, “audacity” and “guilt” highly insulting and was anxious to have them expunged.

At this stage in the dispute, Macpherson was certainly not seeking publicity. He says explicitly that he is “unwilling … at this time especially to do anything that may create noise” and instructs Strahan to keep the matter to himself. Indeed, both Macpherson and Strahan had good reasons for keeping the matter quiet since Macpherson was busily occupied with the final stages of another major publication: The History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of The House of Hanover. The work had been commissioned by Strahan as a continuation of David Hume’s highly successful History of Great Britain, since le bon David had, after years of deliberation, determined not to undertake the final volumes himself.6 The new History had absorbed Macpherson’s energies for almost two years, involving extensive research in England and France.7 Macpherson had been fortunate enough to gain access to the collection of Thomas Carte, a Jacobite antiquary, which included the unpublished papers of Nairne, a Jacobite Under-Secretary of State, and those of the house of Brunswick-Lüneberg. His History therefore contained controversial material ←20 | 21→relating to recent political events and personalities, which would undoubtedly be attacked as untrue by those offended. Macpherson was so anxious to avoid being discredited that he was publishing not only the History itself, but also transcripts of manuscript sources under the title, Original Papers; containing the Secret History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover. A revival of the Ossian controversy, casting doubts over Macpherson’s reliability, would thus be very inopportune.

Nevertheless, when Macpherson received no immediate promise of satisfaction from Johnson, his temper began to rise and the next note to Strahan is rather less controlled (The Academy, 383):

Dear Sir, - As I expect to have Dr. Johnson’s final answer to my, I think, very just demands, at seven o’clock, I beg leave to inclose to you the purport of such an advertisement, as would satisfy me. As I am very serious upon this business I insist, that you will keep it to yourself; for were it not (for) the present circumstances of an affair, in which you (as well as I) are concerned, I should before this time have traced out the author of this journey, in a very effectual manner. Unless I have a satisfactory answer, I am determined (indeed it is necessary) to bring that business to a conclusion before I begin any other. I am,

Dear Sir,

Yours, &c., &.,

Past 4 o’clock.                                                                     J. MACPHERSON

The ‘Advertisement’ ran as follows (The Academy, 383):

The author of the Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland finding, when it was too late to make alterations, that some expressions in page and have given offence to the gentleman alluded to, he takes this method of informing the public, that he meant no personal reflection; and that, should this work come to a second impression, he will take care to expunge such words as seem, though undesignedly, to convey an affront. This is a piece of justice, which the author owes to himself as well as to that gentleman.

By now, Macpherson seems to have realized that the first edition was beyond recall, which probably explains the angry tone of his note to Strahan. He therefore prepared a public apology to himself, containing a promise that future editions would be revised.

Until today, the only known response to Macpherson’s demands has been Johnson’s famous letter of 20 January, which appears to be a reply to some subsequent note. The two new letters which have recently emerged, however, shed further light on the issue. They are William Strahan’s replies to Macpherson, apparently written after the arrival of the second note, containing the Advertisement:

←21 |

Dear Sir,

Dr Johnson was gone out for the Day before I could get to him; but I shall see him before I sleep, and shall do ever thing in my Power to obtain you some kind of Satisfaction, and such as may be agreeable to you. I shall do in it as if it were my own affair, and as I would wish a friend to do by me. The Appendix, I have just now received which I shall also shew him, the moment I can get sight of him; so pray be as easy as you can in the mean time.

I have sent you with this a Proof of the Title Pages as now altered; and am

        Dear Sir,

Your affectionate and obedient Servant,

New Street,                                                                Will. Strahan

Anyone who thinks of Strahan as “Dr Johnson’s Printer” will be surprised by the tone of this note. Far from dismissing Macpherson as a faintly ludicrous “ruffian”, Strahan was anxious to appease him, taking on the task “as if it were his (my) own affair”. Not only was Macpherson a personal friend and fellow Scot, but he was also a valuable author, in whose work Strahan had already invested a great deal of time and money. Apart from the personal obligations, Macpherson had considerable influence in social, political, and literary circles, so he was not a man to antagonize lightly. Strahan’s determination to soothe Macpherson’s wrath can be seen by the rapid success of his quest for Johnson. Not only did he deliver Macpherson’s letter and Advertisement, but he also obtained something of an apology from Dr Johnson:

Dear Sir,

I have seen Dr Johnson. He declares under his Hand to me, that be meant no personal affront to you, and we shall take care that exceptionable Words shall be left out in all future Editions, the present ones being already too much dispersed to admit of Alteration. He says it is not to Temora but to Fingall he makes Objections, yet I find by Advertisement, in your second Collection of Poems, that it was the original of Fingal that was left for several months in Beckett’s Hands, for the Inspection of the Curious. I think this is sufficient, especially as you declare yourself indifferent with regard to a Want of Belief in others. I am,

        Dear Sir,

Your most obedient Servant,

New Street                                                       Will, Strahan

January 18. 17759

←22 | 23→

The image of Johnson making a solemn declaration that “he meant no personal affront” to Macpherson is rather different from the stubbornly defiant figure of literary tradition. The phrase is clearly an echo of Macpherson’s Advertisement and the description of Johnson’s declaration “under his Hand” suggests that Strahan had obtained a written endorsement of the apology and a firm promise to remove the offending sentence form future editions of the Journey.

Presumably Macpherson was satisfied? And yet, the next communication to have survived is Johnson’s famous letter of 20 January, apparently written in response to some angry tirade from Macpherson. What happened then, in the interval between the arrival of Strahan’s reassuring letter and that of Johnson’s aggressive snub? Unfortunately, the “impudent note” from Macpherson which provoked Johnson’s letter survives only in the anecdotes of those spectators who revelled in the dispute. Bibliographical evidence pertaining to the publication of Johnson’s Journey, however, may be relevant here.

The Advertisement sent by Macpherson to Johnson refers explicitly to the removal of offensive terms from any ‘second impression’ of the Journey. Macpherson was obviously aware that the first edition was complete and unalterable, but what he does not appear to have known was that the second edition was also in the press by the time he began to make objections. The first edition of 2000 copies was due for publication on 18 January 1775, but some time before this, the decision had been made to issue a second edition of a further 2000. The evidence from Strahan’s ledger, published by W. B. Todd, suggest that the second edition appeared either simultaneously with the first, or slipped onto the market within a fortnight of the initial publication.10 When Macpherson made his protest on 15 January, then, it was already too late to make the necessary change.

William Strahan must have known this when he received Macpherson’s note, and yet been anxious to avoid confrontation. It seems strange that he had not anticipated Macpherson’s reaction and used his own influence to have the passage altered at an early stage, but perhaps Dr Johnson had been unwilling to co-operate? Or perhaps Strahan did not consider Johnson’s opinion particularly offensive and, having ordered an increased run, was caught in the unexpectedly awkward situation? Although minor revisions to earlier parts of the text were still possible, the decision to increase the print run from 2000 to 4000 had been taken at sheet S – the very sheet containing the offending passage. Cancellations at this stage would thus involve a great deal of extra work and further delays in production.11

←23 | 24→

Strahan’s solution to the dilemma can be seen in the second letter, describing Johnson’s apology. Not only did he give Macpherson the satisfaction of imagining Johnson’s humiliation, but he also promised that the words should be removed from “all future Editions”. Significantly, Strahan made no mention of the “second impression” and presumably hoped that by the time demand for the Journey exceeded 4000 copies, Macpherson would have lost interest or Johnson would be happy to revise his text. The fact that Strahan avoided making a public advertisement for the second edition suggests that he may have been hoping to keep James Macpherson ignorant of its existence. Strahan’s letter to Macpherson, written on the very day of publication, certainly gives the impression that Macpherson’s demands have been satisfactorily answered. If Macpherson were then to discover that not only a first but also a second edition had appeared without alteration or apology, he would have been justifiable annoyed. Macpherson’s own copy of the Journey, now in Aberdeen University Library, is a second edition, complete with the unaltered passage describing the “insolence”, “audacity”, and “guilt” of the translator of Ossian. Such a purchase would surely have been sufficient to occasion the subsequent outburst.

The document which might fill this gap in the story is Macpherson’s final letter to Johnson which, interestingly, was delivered not by Strahan this time, but by Macpherson’s friend William Duncan.12 This letter might well contain some reference to Strahan’s note and perhaps more detail about why Macpherson was so annoyed. The summarized version included in John Clark’s Answer to Mr Shaw’s Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Ossian (Edinburgh 1781) certainly indicates that Macpherson has ceased to regard Johnson as an ‘impertinent fellow’ and is now accusing him of duplicity:

Mr Macpherson had written to him (J) by the hands of a gentleman, that as he had declined to withdraw from his book the injurious expressions reflecting on Mr Macpherson’s private character, his age and infirmities, alone, protected him from the treatment due to an infamous liar and traducer (Clark, 1781: 48).

The reference to Johnson as a “liar” could well have referred to what Macpherson interpreted as the breaking of a vow, that is, the publication of an unaltered second edition. Contemporaries, however, invariably assumed that the row hinged on the authenticity of Ossian and this emphasis can be seen in what appears to be ←24 | 25→the fullest report of Macpherson’s note, in a letter of 15 February 1775 by Sir William Forbes:

The public discussion of the “Cards” makes it strange that no accurate text of Macpherson’s letter has survived. It is very surprising to find Boswell, who was in Edinburgh during this period, denying any accurate knowledge of Macpherson’s note and casts doubt over the reported versions that do survive (Boswell’s Life, ii, 298). Boswell may have made a simple editorial decision to exclude Macpherson’s note from his account of the quarrel. Perhaps the reference to Johnson’s “age and infirmities” did not fit in with the series of anecdotes selected to accompany Johnson’s letter to Macpherson as evidence of the Doctor’s great “personal courage”. Perhaps Boswell’s own doubts about Johnson’s opinion of Ossian made him evade the issue. But he certainly seems to have had no inkling of Johnson meeting with Strahan, despite his explicit request for “a full and pointed account of what passed between” Johnson and Macpherson.14

Johnson’s letter, on the other hand, is remarkable for its prevalence. Although William Shaw (1785: 147) implied that Johnson had kept only one copy which he had since lost, Dr Fleeman (Journey, xxx) has listed at least six (possibly seven). In addition to the versions dictated to Shaw and Boswell (now lost), there is the copy dictated to John Hoole, now in the Hyde collection, as well as two holographs, one of which was sent to Reynolds and is now in the National library of Scotland, the other is now also part of the Hyde collection. It is also possible that Sir John Hawkins saw a copy of the letter, though the text included in his Life of Johnson, 1787, bears close resemblance to that published by Shaw in 1781 and 1785.

←25 | 26→

With so many copies extant, the authority of the ‘original’ (also in the Hyde collection) might be subject to some doubt. The fact that it was received by Macpherson can, however, be proved by the notes on the outside. The first, in Macpherson’s hand, records the date and the author of the letter, while the second observes “Most curious, original Note”, and is initialled “N.W.W.” – that is Nathaniel William Wraxall, who sorted through Macpherson’s papers in 1805.15 The history of Johnson’s letter between 1805 and its appearance in the sale of George Linnecar, in 1850, remains a mystery, though it seems possible that Wraxall was responsible for removing it from the Macpherson family chests.

The differences between the original letter and the copies may seem small, but are in fact significant. In Johnson’s letter to James Macpherson, he announces his intention to repel “whatever insult” may be offered. In the versions dictated to Shaw and Boswell, however, the “insult” has become “violence” which changes the entire tone of the letter. Although the myth of the marauding Macpherson may have derived largely from the partisan biographers of the eighteenth century, it appears that Dr Johnson was himself fond of dictating his letter, while the dramatic brandishing of the oak-plant must have confirmed the notion of physical violence.

It is possible that Johnson really feared an assault, but it seems unlikely that had Macpherson lost control to such an extent, Johnson’s letter would have averted an attack. Certainly the idea of a well-known author, on the point of publishing a major History, risking arrest by bursting upon the aged Samuel Johnson with a cudgel seems distinctly implausible. The story has, however, continued to grip the imagination of Johnsonians and invariably diverts attention from Johnson’s misguided remarks on “Erse” manuscripts.

Macpherson himself was undoubtedly annoyed by the quarrel with Johnson. As expected, the revival of the Ossian question damaged his reputation and he blamed the “malignity of the Johnsonians” for any adverse criticism of his History and Original Papers.16 The History was nevertheless successful and ←26 | 27→Strahan paid him £3000 for the copyright, though it is tempting to speculate on whether the publisher’s generosity was in any way related to his embarrassment over Johnson’s Journey, earlier in the year.17 Although Macpherson continued to vent his anger privately, composing “many coarse epigrams, lampoons and parodies” on Johnson, he avoided any public attack.18 In 1779, however, Donald McNicol’s Remarks on Dr Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Hebrides was published and Macpherson appears to have taken his revenge by contributing passages of personal abuse to NcNicol’s book.19 Again, it seems surprising that under normal circumstances, Strahan should have allowed Macpherson to tamper with the text, but perhaps some sense of guilt over the events of January 1775 was hovering in the background.


Bate, W. J. (1978). Samuel Johnson. London: Chatto & Windus.

Birkbeck Hill, G. (1934–1950). Boswell’s Life of Johnson [1791], 6 vols. Revised edition by L. F. Powell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carlyle, A. (1973). Anecdotes and Characters of the Times [1860]. Ed. J. Kinsley. London: Oxford University Press.

Carruthers, R. (1843). The Highland Note Book. Edinburgh: Black.

Chance, J. F. (1898). “Corrections to James Macpherson’s Original Papers”. EHR, XIII, 533–49.

Chapman, R. W. (ed.). (1952). The Letters of Samuel Johnson, 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, J. (1781). An Answer to Mr Shaw’s Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Ossian. Edinburgh: C. Elliot; London: T. Longman and T. Cadell.

←27 | 28→

Cochrane, J. A. (1964). Dr Johnson’s Printer: The Life of William Strahan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Davies, G. (1920). “Macpherson and the Nairne Papers”. EHR, XXXV, 367–76.

Greig, J. Y. T. (ed.). (1932). The Letters of David Hume, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harlan, R. D. (1960). “William Strahan: Eighteenth Century London Printer and Publisher”. PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Hawkins, J. (1787). The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D. London: J. Buckland [and 40 others].

Horn, D. B. (1961). “Some Scottish Writers of History”. Scottish Historical Review, XL, 1–18.

Johnson, S. (1985). A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland [1775]. Ed. J. D. Fleeman. Oxford: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.

MacDonald, J. (1927). Memoirs of an Eighteenth-Century Footman, John Macdonald: Travels (1745–1779)/with an Introduction by John Beresford. London: Routledge.

Metzdorf, R. F. (1970). “M’Nicol, Macpherson and Johnson”. Eighteenth Century Studies in Honour of Donald F. Hyde. Ed. W. H. Bond. New York: Grolier Club, 45–61.

Parnell, A. (1897). “Macpherson and the Nairne Papers”. English Historical Review, XII, 254–84.

(The) Poems of Ossian in the Original Gaelic, with a Literal Translation Into Latin, by the Late Robert Macfarlan, A.M. Together with a Dissertation On The Authenticity Of The Poems, by Sir John Sinclair, Bart. And a Translation from the Italian of the Abbè Cesarotti’s Dissertation on the Controversy Respecting the Authenticity of Ossian, with Notes and a Supplemental Essay, by John M’Arthur, LL. D. Published under the Sanction of the Highland Society of London. 3 vols. London: G. and W. Nicol, 1807.

Saunders, B. (1894). The Life and Letters of James Macpherson. London: S. Sonnenschein & co.

Shaw, W. (1785). Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Late Dr Samuel Johnson. London: J. Walker.

Stephen, L. (19 October 1878). “Dr Johnson and Macpherson”. The Academy, xiv, 383.

Thornton, P. M. (1886). “The Hanover Papers”. EHR, I, 756–77.

Tinker, C. B. (ed.). (1924). The Letters of James Boswell. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Todd, W. B. (1953). “The Printing of Johnson’s Journey (1775)”. Studies in Bibliography. VI, 247–54.

1The Letters of Samuel Johnson, No. 373, ii. 3.

2W. J. Bate, Samuel Johnson, 519. See also Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1791, ed. G. Birkbeck Hill, rev. edn L. F. Powell (Oxford, 1934–1950), ii. 298–9; J. Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D (London, 1787), 490–2; W. Shaw, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the late Dr Samuel Johnson (London, 1785), 145–148.

3Bate, 521; cf. Carlyle, 203.

4L. Stephen, “Dr Johnson and Macpherson”. The Academy, xiv (19 October 1878), 383; Boswell’s Life, ii. 511–512.

5See S. Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, ed. J. D. Fleeman, 1985, editor’s introduction, xxiii.

6The Letters of David Hume, passim. Strahan’s persistence is documented by J. A. Cochrane, Dr Johnson’s Printer: The Life of William Strahan, 52–59. Hume did not approve Strahan’s choice: “Macpherson has Style and Spirit; but is hot-headed, and consequently without Judgement” (Letters, ii. 269); he regarded the final work as “one of the most wretched Productions that ever came from your Press” (Letters, ii. 304).

7B. Saunders, The Life and Letters of James Macpherson, 223–8. See also the account of J. MacDonald, Macpherson’s manservant on the Paris trip, Memoirs of an Eighteenth Century Footman, 183–4.

8Private Collection of W. D. Macpherson.

9Private Collection of W. D. Macpherson.

10W. B. Todd, “The Printing of Johnson’s Journey (1775)”, 247–54. See also Fleeman (ed.), Journey, xviii–xxviii.

11I am indebted to Dr Fleeman for this information.

12W. Duncan to John Sinclair, 9 June 1806, “I was the bearer (which perhaps you do not know) of a letter of challenge he (JM) wrote to the late Dr Samuel Johnson, in consequence of what the Doctor published in the year 1775”, The Poems of Ossian, edited by J. Sinclair, 1807, i.ccxx.

13National Library of Scotland, MS 3112 no 25, also cited by Fleeman, Journal, xxx.

14Boswell to Johnson, 2 February 1775, The Letters of James Boswell, ed. C. B. Tinker, No. 134, i. 209.

15Facsimile in The R. P. Adam Library, 3 vols (London and New York, 1929), i. 58. When researching his Historical Memoirs, Wraxall was allowed access to Macpherson’s papers by latter’s executor, Sir John Macpherson.

16The Academy, 383 (this final letter pertains to the Original Papers rather than to the dispute with Johnson). Macpherson’s reputation as a historian continued to suffer from the Ossian controversy: see Arthur Parnell’s attack, “Macpherson and the Nairne Papers”. English Historical Review, xii (1897), 254–84; and the defense of JM by P. M. Thornton, “The Hanover Papers”. EHR, i (1886), 756–77; J. F. Chance, “Corrections to James Macpherson’s Original Papers”. EHR, xiii (1898), 533–49; G. Davies, “Macpherson and the Nairne Papers”. EHR, xxxv (1920), 367–76; D. B. Horn, “Some Scottish Writers of History”. Scottish Historical Review, xl (1961), 1–18.

17The figure is quoted in The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, xiii (1830), 223, which was edited by Macpherson’s son-in-law, David Brewster. Although the figure seems high, it was not exceptional for a work of this kind – see Robert Dale Harlan, “William Strahan: Eighteenth Century London Printer and Publisher” (1960).

18As described by Robert Carruthers who saw Macpherson’s papers at his Highland mansion, Belleville (cf. R. Carruthers, The Highland Notebook, 309).

19Fleeman, Journey, xxxiv. See also R. F. Metzdorf, “M’Nicol, Macpherson and Johnson”, Eighteenth Century Studies, ed. W. H. Bond (New York, 1970), 45–61.

←28 | 29→

Howard Gaskill


What Did James Macpherson Really Leave on
Display at His Publisher’s Shop in 1762?

On 18 January 1775 Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland was published. The very next day there appeared in the press the following statement by Thomas Becket, publisher of James Macpherson’s Fingal and Temora:

To the Public.

Doctor Johnson having asserted in his late publication that the Translator of Ossian’s Poems “never could show the original, nor can it be shown by any other,” I hereby declare that the originals of Fingal and other poems of Ossian lay in my shop for many months in the year 1762, for the inspection of the curious. The public were not only apprised of their lying there for inspection, but even proposals for publishing the originals of the poems of Ossian were dispersed through the kingdom and advertised in the newspapers. Upon finding that a number of subscribers sufficient to bear the expenses were not likely to appear, I returned the manuscript to the proprietor, in whose hands they still remain. (quoted in Saunders, 1895: 249)

On 27 January Boswell asked Johnson: “What does Becket mean by the Originals of Fingal and other poems of Ossian, which he advertises to have lain in his shop?” (Boswell, 1980: 576). It is a good question, and one to which Johnson apparently did not bother to respond.

But, as we shall see, he had already given his answer, and it was probably truer than he knew. If Dr Johnson was in no way disconcerted or embarrassed by Becket’s revelation, the same cannot be said of those later critics who have made honest attempts to determine precisely what James Macpherson collected and the use he made of it. At the beginning of his invaluable examination of the Gaelic sources of Ossian Derick Thomson thinks it “strange that no definite or accurate account has been preserved of the MSS. which Macpherson said he left on show with his London publisher” (Thomson, 1952: 2). The doubts about the nature of the material, or indeed whether anything was exhibited at all, seem to have vanished by page 74 where Donald T. Mackintosh is credited with having convincingly shown that the nineteen Gaelic MSS. handed over to Henry Mackenzie’s Committee of Enquiry in 1803 by John MacKenzie, secretary of the Highland Society of London (and Macpherson’s literary executor), “were ←29 | 30→the same as those deposited by Macpherson in the shop of Becket, his publisher, in 1762.” It is the contention of this essay that Mackintosh’s argument has been too readily accepted, and that his evidence will not in fact stand up to close scrutiny. For the purposes of answering Boswell’s question it will be convenient to trace some of the steps which led Mackintosh to his conclusion.

Donald T. Mackintosh published two versions of what is basically the same essay, “James Macpherson and the Book of the Dean of Lismore” (Mackintosh, 1936; 1949). In both he takes as his starting-point the statement by John McArthur, one of the editors of the Gaelic Ossian of 1807, according to which:

The MSS. left at Becket’s for public inspection by Mr Macpherson were the originals now published, also a valuable miscellaneous collection of Gaelic original MSS. afterwards presented by the Highland Society of London to the Highland Society of Edinburgh in January, 1803, containing no less than 11,000 verses, composed at different periods. (Poems of Ossian, 1807: III, 347)

McArthur’s identification of these documents with the 1803 MSS. is said by Mackintosh, for reasons which never become entirely clear, to be authoritative. Moreover, the further statement about the “originals now published” is glossed over in the first version of the essay, and ignored altogether in the second (Mackintosh, 1936: 349; 1949: 11). Admittedly, Mackintosh’s major concern is to associate James Macpherson with the Book of the Dean (the most significant of these MSS.), and this he succeeds in doing, even if, as will later be argued, his assumptions as to how and when it came into Macpherson’s hands are probably mistaken. Mackintosh appears to be on rather more solid ground when he locates his evidence in the challenge thrown out to Johnson in a book which appeared in 1779/80, the Reverend Donald MacNicol’s Remarks on Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Hebrides.1 This work was “prepared for the press by a friendly embellisher” (Shaw, 1782: 46), and it seems certain that the following challenge emanated from James Macpherson himself:

But as the Doctor may think it too great a trouble to travel again to the Highlands for a sight of old manuscripts, I shall put him upon a way of being satisfied nearer home. If he will but call some morning on John Mackenzie, Esq., of the Temple, Secretary to the Highland Society at the Shakespeare, Covent-Garden, he will find in London more volumes in the Gaelic language and character than perhaps he will be pleased to look ←30 | 31→at, after what he has said […] Among these are two volumes, which are remarkable. The one is a large folio MS., called An Duanaireadh Ruadh, or the Red Rhymer, which was given by Mr. Macdonald of Glenealladel in Muideart to Mr. Macdonald of Kyles in Cnoideart, who gave it to Mr. Macpherson. It contains a variety of subjects, such as some of Ossian’s poems, Highland Tales, &c.––The other is called An Leabhar Dearg, or the Red Book, which was given to Mr. Macpherson by the Bard Macvurich.2 (MacNicol, 1779: 303–304)

To be true, the “Red Rhymer” has since disappeared (or has yet to be positively identified), and the Red Book (of Clanranald) mentioned here was probably not the Red Book at all, but the so-called Little Book.3 Moreover, neither formed part of the 1803 MSS., though the Little Book was earlier obtained from John Mackenzie and placed at the disposal of Henry Mackenzie’s Committee of Enquiry. Nor is there any mention of anything remotely resembling the Book of the Dean. Johnson did not of course take up the invitation to inspect these treasures, but William Shaw did. His accounts of what he saw are not entirely consistent, but it seems clear that he had sight of at least one Clanranald MS., his description matching the Little Book. Of this he adds:

We have every reason to believe that this is the very manuscript, if any, that was left at Becket’s, by Mr Macpherson some time ago, with a view to impose it as that of Ossian; for I am credibly informed, this very piece was sent to Mr. Mackenzie by him. (Shaw, 1782: 47)

The significance, and even the logic of this statement is not by any means self-evident, though much is made of it by Mackintosh. The relevant passage in ←31 | 32→MacNicol’s book had made no secret of the derivation of the MSS. in Mackenzie’s. charge, and though they were said to contain “some of Ossian’s poems”, it had never been claimed that they constituted Macpherson’s originals. They were being offered as a disproof, which they certainly were, of Johnson’s assertion that Gaelic Scotland had no literary culture in written form. Whatever justified misgivings one may have about the source, I therefore see no reason to question the veracity of John Clark’s statement, authorized by Macpherson himself:

Mackintosh calls this “a palpably mendacious statement” (Mackintosh, 1949: 17):

As we know now [?]; Shaw’s shrewd guess was quite accurate. Why was it thought necessary to deny it so emphatically? Well, Shaw was not an expert in ancient Gaelic documents, but he had acumen enough to see that no connection of any kind existed between the manuscripts at John Mackenzie’s chambers and Macpherson’s Ossianic translations. If that was so, and if these manuscripts were the same as those deposited at Becket’s in 1762, then the proceedings in 1762 had been more than an empty gesture; they had been an attempt to deceive the public. So their identity had to be denied at all costs. (Mackintosh, 1936: 357)

One ought perhaps to ponder the significance of the “ifs” in the penultimate sentence. McArthur’s unsubstantiated assertion and Shaw’s “shrewd guess” have now assumed the status of incontrovertible proof, in the light of which Macpherson is not only made out to be a liar (that can reasonably be argued), but also a very silly one. Whatever opinion Shaw might have held of Macpherson, he certainly did not think him stupid. That is why he is led to dispute that anything was genuinely exhibited at Becket’s in the first place:

This MS. was never seen by any person. Why was it not left there at the time the advertisement was published? The reason is plain – as he had no MS. of the poems, he was afraid that some Irish gentleman might inspect it, and find, in place of Ossian’s poetry, ←32 | 33→the genealogy of his own family, and his relation with some of the monarchs of Ireland.5 (Shaw, 1782: 8)

Whatever the validity of the premise, Shaw here makes out an excellent case for Macpherson’s not displaying such MSS. as the “originals” of his Ossian. What was true in 1780 would not have been less so in 1762. London was surely not then so small a place that it could be guaranteed not to contain the odd curious (and literate) Irishman. Macpherson would have been exposing himself and his Ossian to grave and unnecessary risk by relying on nobody’s being able to decipher the various authentic MSS. which he had collected. Assuming that he would have been well aware of this himself, it therefore makes more sense to conclude, either that he did not really display anything at all, or that he exhibited something else entirely. As for the ancient MSS. themselves, they could at least serve as proof of his conscientiousness as a collector and perhaps impress carefully selected visitors. It seems likely that no later than 1778, on the formation of the Highland Society of London (one of whose declared aims was the need to rescue from oblivion the valuable remains of Celtic literature), he entrusted many or most of them to its first secretary, his friend John Mackenzie. But had he thought that the authenticity of his Ossian rested on these MSS. alone, and that they could therefore be used as a devastating weapon against him, he would never have let them out of his hands at all. And he would certainly have ensured that Shaw never caught sight of them.

Macpherson had of course been somewhat injudicious in boasting of his manuscript finds, thus providing Johnson in particular with an angle of attack which he mercilessly exploited. As Johnson himself admitted in a letter to Boswell of ←33 | 34→25 February 1775: “If he [Macpherson] had not talked unskilfully of manuscripts, he might have fought with oral tradition much longer”6 (Boswell, 1980: 589). His problem of course was not, as Johnson thought, that he had no MSS., nor even that what he had contained no Ossianic verse – the Clanranald manuscript certainly did, not to mention the Book of the Dean. But whatever resemblances might be found between Macpherson’s English and such written sources, there could be no question of the latter having been literally translated, and this would have been obvious even to the untrained eye of a William Shaw who could recognize Irish when he saw it (even if, like Macpherson, he could not read it). There is no doubt that prior to the appearance of his major Ossianic publications Macpherson had been an extremely effective and persuasive collector, and that for a time in 1760 he had had at his disposal the expertise of men such as Ewan Macpherson, Alexander Morison, and particularly Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie who could read Gaelic corr-litir and transcribe it into Roman characters. But valuable as this facility was, particularly in helping to establish the cultural credentials of a “barbarous” people, the younger Macpherson is generally careful not to lay too much stress on the manuscript tradition as the source of poetry he was publishing. In none of his prefaces or dissertations does he claim to have a single MS. containing a complete epic, insisting rather on his own role in arranging the constituent parts:

Several gentlemen in the Highland and isles generously gave me all the assistance in their power; and it was by their means that I was enabled to compleat the epic poem. (Fingal; Macpherson, 1996: 36)

The story of the poem, with which I had been long acquainted, enabled me to reduce the broken members of the piece into the order in which they now appear. (Temora; Macpherson, 1996: 215)

In a preface to Fingal Macpherson had written of his Highland peregrination of six months during which “the translator collected from tradition, and some manuscripts” all the poems in the collection (Macpherson, 1996: 51; emphasis mine). And indeed the second epic, Temora, would seem to be ascribed almost entirely to oral tradition. When Macpherson talks of “originals” he usually means, not ancient documents, but his own transcripts.

Boswell had asked what Becket meant by the “originals” of Fingal and other poems of Ossian. Surely it is more to the point to ask what Macpherson meant. For it is rather curious to observe that discussion of the matter seems to focus exclusively on Becket’s statement and ignore what Macpherson himself actually ←34 | 35→claimed he left at his publisher’s shop. And yet one has only to consult Temora in order to find out. There we find, preceding the Gaelic version of Book VII of the epic, an ‘Advertisement’, which is worth quoting in full:

The stressing of an equivalence between what was left at Becket’s shop and what is being offered here surely suggests that the earlier “originals” too had consisted, not of miscellaneous ancient MSS., but transcripts in Macpherson’s own fair hand (or that of helpful amanuenses). The fact that he calls them a “copy” puts the matter beyond any doubt. In order to underline that this is how Macpherson’s “originals” are to be understood, one might refer to his response to Thomas Jefferson’s request that a copy be made for him:

I cannot, having refused them to so many, give a copy of the Gaelic poems, with any decency, out of my hands. The labour, besides, would be great. I know of none that could copy them. My manner and my spelling differ from others: and I have the vanity to think, that I am in the right. (letter to Charles McPherson, 7 August 1773; quoted in Black, 1925–7: 360–61)

One’s immediate response to this is to interpret it as the embarrassed evasion and lame excuse of one whose cupboard is bare (cf. Black, 1925–7: 356). That misses the point. What is most interesting about the letter is this: there is no attempt to pretend that what would be copied, if a copy were to be made, would consist of anything other than a Gaelic text prepared by James Macpherson himself. How else can the reference to “my manner and my spelling” be explained?

←35 | 36→

It was not until July 1784 that Macpherson’s hand was forced and he was confronted with the task of publishing the “originals” of Ossian, some rather too helpful Scottish gentlemen in India having raised £1000 for the purpose. It is generally assumed that it was between then and his death in 1796 that Macpherson, aided and abetted by Captain Alexander Morison, laboriously translated most of his English text back into half-remembered (and execrable) Gaelic. Even so eleven of the minor poems were missing from the transcripts which the Reverend Thomas Ross painfully (and, one must presume, faithfully)8 re-transcribed in the orthography of the Gaelic New Testament and which later appeared as the Gaelic Ossian of 1807. What justification do we have for believing that a substantial portion of a preliminary Gaelic version, namely much or all of Fingal, might have been extant as early as 1762? It is of course known that well before 1784 Macpherson had arranged for the floating in manuscript form of bits and pieces of Gaelic, such as ‘Malvina’s Dream’ (published by Shaw in his Analysis as an example of Gaelic prosody, and thought to have reached him via Henry Home),9 and the famous Address to the Sun from ‘Carthon’ which Morison claimed to have found amongst Macpherson’s papers, probably as early as 1760.10 In the late 1760s Macpherson had sent Klopstock Gaelic samples from Fingal ←36 | 37→and ‘Comala’ which the German poet subsequently used (without the text) in his Vom deutschen Hexameter to illustrate Ossian’s measure. Adam Ferguson, who remained in Macpherson’s confidence (to a degree at least) right to the end, visited him early in 1761 when Fingal was being produced, saw some of his materials, and either then or not very much later had access to Gaelic specimens which so impressed him that many years after he would write to Bishop Douglas:

There is also a ring of truth to John Mackenzie’s diary account of Macpherson’s rummaging around in attic trunks, searching for the original of ‘Berrathon’ which he fears he may have lost in Florida (he was there in the mid-1760s).12 An edition of the English Ossian found amongst Macpherson’s papers records in the margin the delivery to John Mackenzie of various portions of the Gaelic, one of the notes reading: “Delivered all that could be found of Carthon …” (Mackenzie, 1805: 83). And indeed, a substantial part of ‘Carthon’ is missing from the 1807 edition. Macpherson had obviously forgotten that he had used it for his Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland which was published in 1771.13 Considerable carelessness is also suggested by the failure of the 1807 pseudo-originals to ensure agreement with the many snippets of Gaelic quoted in the footnotes to the English text. The existence of these snippets does not of course in itself prove that extensive passages of Ossian were already extant in Gaelic, but the possibility has to be conceded. Moreover, the Gaelic of the 1807 edition is by no means uniformly bad; Fingal and some other pieces, including the seventh book of Temora, are said to be better than the rest, and even Celtic scholars far from sympathetic to Macpherson have admitted to being stunned by the occasional beauty of the verse.14 This unevenness of quality is consistent with the Gaelic’s either being the work of different hands, or being written by the same hand over different periods. I would suggest that Macpherson’s main occupation ←37 | 38→in the late 1780s and early 1790s was the composition of the Gaelic Temora, together with the laborious reconstitution of those parts of the “originals” which he had mislaid (and these might well have been quite extensive). He may also have been tinkering with the Gaelic he already had in order to make it conform to the revised English edition of 1773.15

In the ‘Advertisement’ preceding Fingal, which appeared in December 1761, Macpherson, after apologising for having abandoned his previously announced plans to publish the Gaelic by subscription (nobody subscribed), announced that plans were “on foot to print the Originals, as soon as the translator shall have time to transcribe them for the press” (Macpherson, 1996: 32). In the light of this it might seem strange that only some six weeks or so later he appears to have been able to deposit such transcriptions with Becket. But it was one thing to display manuscripts of his own unorthodox Gaelic for casual visitors in a shop on the Strand, quite another to see them enshrined in print for all the world to scrutinize. We know from the response to Jefferson and of course from the ‘Advertisement’ preceding the Temora specimen that he was not a little vain about his new system of spelling (quite apart from the absurd notion of using Greek characters). When he eventually did find the time to prepare his Gaelic text for the press, he claimed to be establishing the language itself “on primitive, clear, unerring and incontrovertible principles.”16 Not that even then he was able to offer the printers (or Thomas Ross) very clean copy. According to Malcolm Laing (1805: I, xli), “Macpherson’s Earse version […] when shewn at Edinburgh, was filled with the interlineations, alterations, and additions of an author correcting his own productions.” But whatever stage the Gaelic Ossian had reached in December 1761, the balance of probability would suggest that Fingal at least was already well under way, and that Macpherson at that time honestly envisaged publication. As early as January of the same year, in a letter to James Maclagan, whom he can have had no real interest in impressing or misleading, Macpherson ←38 | 39→writes of his first epic: “I have some thoughts of publishing the original, if it will not clog the work too much” (Mackenzie, 1805: App., 155).

However fictional Macpherson’s accounts of his working methods as “translator” may have been, he would naturally have known right from the beginning that, in order to sustain these fictions (if such they were), he would eventually have to display a Gaelic version. After all, if much had been taken down from oral recitation, then a transcript would first have to have been made. The point was not lost on Johnson who, well before he became obsessed with ancient MSS., is recorded as having remarked in conversation with Boswell: “If the poems were really translated, they were certainly first written down. Let Mr. Macpherson deposit the manuscript in one of the colleges at Aberdeen, where there are people who can judge, and, if the professors certify the authenticity, then there will be an end of the controversy.”17 (The notion that sufficient expertise at that time existed amongst Aberdeen professors to settle the matter on the spot is rather quaint, the more so when one considers how long it actually took nineteenth-century Celtic scholars finally to dispose of the 1807 Ossian as authentic ancient Gaelic.) It has therefore to be considered inherently likely that Macpherson’s thoughts would have turned to the Gaelic Ossian long before sceptics began to clamour for it. That the latter were bound to do so once Fingal appeared he would have been able to predict from the mixed English reception of the Fragments. The Fragments of Ancient Poetry were published in Edinburgh in June 1760, some nine months after Macpherson had shown the first of them to John Home at the famous meeting in Moffat. After, by his own account, having cajoled Macpherson into allowing it at all, Hugh Blair had seen the Fragments through the press, supplying them with an anonymous Preface based on information derived from the (equally anonymous) translator. This Preface, which has not always been read with the attention it deserves, contains two significant clues about the genesis of Macpherson’s Ossianic undertaking.

As has already been mentioned, Donald T. Mackintosh’s account of the Becket episode forms part of an argument linking Macpherson to the Book of the Dean of Lismore. Since the Book of the Dean was one of the 1803 MSS., since these MSS. were obtained from John Mackenzie who was both secretary of the Highland Society of London and Macpherson’s literary executor, and since it is known that Macpherson entrusted at least some of his manuscript finds to Mackenzie before 1780, a good case can be made for Macpherson’s having found it (if not exactly having brought it to light). But that still leaves the ←39 | 40→question when, and perhaps less importantly, where? Mackintosh himself locates the source as Alexander Macpherson, a blacksmith in Portree, known to have been visited (and plundered) by James Macpherson when he visited Skye in the autumn of 1760 (Mackintosh, 1949: 19–20). Yet oddly enough Mackintosh also refers to information which might suggest a different and more likely source. In the first version of his essay he quotes from Sir John Sinclair’s Prospectus of the intended publication of Ossian’s Poems in the original Gaelic of 1804 (Mackintosh, 1936: 351). Here we learn that when Macpherson was still employed as tutor at Balgowan to the young Thomas Graham he made the acquaintance of one of his predecessors as tutor, the Reverend George Fraser, minister of nearby Redgorton, and nephew of Thomas Fraser who was minister of Boleskine. “When Mr Macpherson took his Northern tour, for the purpose of collecting the Gaelic poems which he afterwards translated and published, he was introduced by Mr Fraser of Regorton to Mr Fraser of Bolleskin, then in the eighty-seventh year of his age, and he prevailed upon him to deliver up these manuscript collections.”18 The Frasers appear to have been connected with former Deans of the Isles, and there seems a strong likelihood that Thomas Fraser was the person from whom Macpherson obtained the Book of the Dean. His northern tour did not admittedly begin until August 1760, after the publication of the Fragments. But a visit to Boleskine is not elsewhere recorded in any of the accounts of Macpherson’s collecting expeditions to the Highlands.19 If we take as strictly accurate the statement that Thomas Fraser (1673–1766) was then “in the eighty-seventh year of his age, Macpherson’s prospecting visit could just as well have occurred in 1759. And there is indeed some evidence that Macpherson had already begun collecting Gaelic poetry as a schoolmaster in Ruthven in the mid-1750s and continued when working as a tutor for Graham of Balgowan.20 George Fraser would presumably have known of this interest at the time, so that it is not inherently improbable that the introduction to his uncle should have been given well before Macpherson undertook his sponsored journeys. It might also be noted that a day-trip to Boleskine would have been quite feasible from Macpherson’s home area of Badenoch.

←40 | 41→

From the perfectly reasonable supposition that Macpherson at some time acquired the Book of the Dean it does not of course follow that he would have been able to do very much with it. Thomson observes that Macpherson’s Ossianic works show a resemblance to ballads in the Book in four instances. But at no point is it suggested that, even with whatever help was available, he was ever in a position to do more than derive a very general idea of the subject of a poem (Thomson, 1952: 79, 40). Though it is not written in corr-litir, the eccentric phonetic spelling conventions observed in the Book of the Dean present formidable obstacles to comprehension, and would certainly have defeated far better Gaelic scholars than Macpherson. But he could read dates, such as “Anno Domini Millesimo Quingentesimo duodecimo”. If the compilation of the Book began in the early years of the sixteenth century, then it could be assumed that the Gaelic poetry contained in it dated mostly from the fifteenth. Now it is curious, given the tendency of many modern critics to play down Macpherson’s competence, that he seems to have known very well how old most of the Ossianic ballads he collected were. He consistently refers slightingly to inferior productions of the fifteenth century, and this is indeed when many of them took the general shape in which we know them. Of what he calls the “Irish poems, concerning Fion”, Macpherson writes disparagingly in the Dissertation preceding Temora:

Every stanza, nay almost every line, affords striking proofs, that they cannot be three centuries old. Their allusions to the manners and customs of the fifteenth century, are so many, that it is matter of wonder to me, how any one could dream of their antiquity. (Macpherson, 1996: 217; cf. 223)

This insistence by Macpherson, which also recurs in the notes to Ossian, on the fifteenth-century origins of these, his only authentic sources, would indeed be remarkable if it were based on intrinsic proofs alone.21 But what is genuinely remarkable is that the earliest such reference is to be found in Blair’s Preface to the Fragments. There we read:

The diction too, in the original, is very obsolete; and differs widely from the style of such poems as have been written in the same language two or three centuries ago. (Macpherson, 1996: 5)

Even if the above allusion cannot be said to constitute conclusive proof that Macpherson’s acquisition of the Book of the Dean predates the appearance of ←41 | 42→the Fragments (and I would suggest that it is a strong indication), it does at the very least show Macpherson’s determination right from the beginning to detach his own Ossianic work from its immediate sources. Before condemning this out of hand as evidence of the forger’s effrontery, one might consider a more charitable view of Macpherson’s motivation. A (postulated) perusal of the Dean’s Book would have revealed a manuscript full of alterations, additions and deletions, indicating the existence of different versions of the same poems. Since Macpherson also collected enough himself to be aware of the transformation, not to say degeneration, to which the same ballad material could be subjected over the centuries, particularly after 1600 with the decline of Classical Gaelic, he might well have made the not altogether unjustified assumption that he was dealing for the most part with a meagre and debased form of something rather more grand. The ballads transcribed from oral recitation by (or for) Macpherson, and those sent to him by collectors such as James Maclagan do in fact in the main represent examples of semi-bardic, sophisticated literature which has gone demotic.22 Macpherson knew this. He also knew that Ossian was supposed to have lived in the third century AD. Whether he convinced himself at any time that the ballads he knew were the vulgar, contaminated remnants of work which actually derived from Ossian is another matter. But I do not consider it improbable. He could see his own work as reconstructing the original Ossian as he might once have been, and could become again, once all the ribaldry, impurities, vulgarities, absurdities and anachronisms were removed. Macpherson, those who assisted him, and his later imitators (such as John Smith and the Glenorchy school of fabricators), could see themselves as engaged in an act of restoration, returning a sublime work of genius to something resembling its putative original purity.23 And this would necessitate composing in Gaelic.

The common and no doubt legitimate view of the Gaelic pseudo-originals of 1807 is that they constitute a worse fraud than the English translations. For the latter at least, and particularly the Fingal volume as it originally appeared, contain many passages which could pass as loose translation and creative adaptation of authentic Gaelic sources (Thomson, 1963:14). Yet the 10,232 verses of the Gaelic Ossian would appear to contain just a single one which is identical with a line in a genuine ballad.24 Moreover, it is not simply a matter of phrasing – the rhythm, ←42 | 43→assonance, alliteration and rhyme (when employed at all) all tend to depart from the conventions of the traditional ballad. The obvious explanation is that the Gaelic version is a translation from the English, undertaken without reference to the original sources. And yet there is something distinctly odd about this. Given the authentic material which we know to have been at Macpherson’s disposal, it seems extraordinary that he did not make life easier for himself by wherever possible incorporating it into his Gaelic. It is or course true that such a procedure would generally have made him seem an inaccurate English translator. But then so does the 1807 Gaelic as we have it: the nineteenth-century defenders of Ossian, both here and on the Continent, never tire of pointing to Macpherson’s inability to capture, not only the matchless beauty of the “originals”, but in many cases the actual meaning, presenting him as an honest but incompetent bungler. One must therefore conclude that the most likely explanation of the differences between Macpherson’s Gaelic and that of the ballads is that these differences are the result of deliberate policy.

Reference has already been made to the preface to Temora which makes a concerted attack on the fifteenth-century ballads, dismissing them as Irish corruptions. That same volume also includes the first published specimen of the Gaelic Ossian in the form of the seventh Book of Temora, selected, as we are told, on account of the variety of its versification. In the voluminous notes to his epic Macpherson has much to say about such matters. We learn, for instance, that the “lyric pieces, scattered through the poems” are very beautiful in the original:

Similarly, in a note at the beginning of the fifth Book, Macpherson writes:

These abrupt addresses give great life to the poetry of Ossian. They are all in a lyric measure. The old men, who retain, on memory, the compositions of Ossian, shew much satisfaction when they come to those parts of them, which are in rhime, and take great pains to explain their beauties. and inculcate the meaning of their obsolete phrases, on the minds of their hearers. This attachment does not proceed from the superior beauty of these lyric pieces, but rather from a taste for rhime which the modern bards have established among the highlanders. Having no genius themselves for the sublime and pathetic, they placed the whole beauty of poetry in the returning harmony of similar sounds. The seducing charms of rhime soon weaned their countrymen from that attachment they long had to the recitative of Ossian […] Rhiming, in process of time, became so much reduced into a system, and was so universally understood that every cow-herd composed tolerable verses. (Macpherson, 1996: 502, n. 2)

←43 | 44→

Macpherson, not wishing to compete with cow-herds, insists then on the rhymelessness of the narrative part of his originals which, lyrical set-pieces aside, are written in a “measured sort of prose”, in fact something remarkably like the English “translations” (and very unlike the ballads). And indeed, when we look at the 1807 pseudo-originals we find variable line length and erratic use of end-rhyme, so that one can legitimately speak here of a form of Gaelic blank, or even free verse which is clearly distinct from anything Macpherson could have found in his sources, his authentic ones at least. This determination to create a new type of Gaelic poetry (or re-create a lost one) does not, however, emerge only here, with Temora and its ‘Specimen’. It can be traced back much further, to the very beginning of Macpherson’s Ossianic work. In the Preface to the Fragments Blair is made to say:

Is Macpherson, perhaps having read Lowth on Hebrew poetry, committing himself in advance to the form his “originals” will eventually assume? Is he simply describing his own English practice? (‘The Six Bards’, a poem transmitted in manuscript to Gray and Shenston and set out in free-rhythmic verse form, later appears with otherwise little variation as “measured prose”.)25 Or is it not more likely that he is referring here to something which he has already tried out, and in Gaelic?

The suggestion – offered here tentatively and with due diffidence – that some at least of Macpherson’s English Ossian might have been literally translated from pre-fabricated Gaelic is not new. It was first argued by W. F. Skene, in his Introduction to the Book of the Dean. Skene, who also believes in Gaelic models for the Fragments, assumes that the Gaelic Ossian was prepared in Badenoch, on Macpherson’s return from his first Highland tour (mid-October?), and that Strathmashie and Morison lent their more skilful hands to the task (Skene, 1862: lvi). Stern, though believing the bulk of the Gaelic Ossian as we have it to be a composition of a much later date, finds himself arguing that ‘Ullin’s War-Song’, which appears in the fourth Book of Fingal, must have been literally translated from a Gaelic text later transmitted to Mackenzie’s Committee by Andrew Gallie, by whose fire-side in Badenoch this and other fabrications emerged from the pen of Strathmashie.26 More recently the precedence of the Gaelic Ossian was ←44 | 45→forcefully argued by Paul Van Tieghem (1917: I, 82 ff.). Otto Jiriczek, however, points out that, even assuming Macpherson to have been back in Badenoch by mid-October, his stay there must have lasted weeks rather than months, since by January he had moved to Edinburgh, having in the meantime fitted in a journey to Mull. The time available for the fabrication of both a Gaelic and an English Ossian would therefore have been strictly limited (Jiriczek, 1940: III, 25 ff.). It is or course impossible to reconstruct with any confidence what might have gone on in Gallie’s house in late autumn 1760. Gallie’s own account suggests that Macpherson was mainly engaged in the translation into English of ancient MSS. (Mackenzie 1805: 30 ff.) an unlikely hypothesis, even assuming prior transcription into Roman characters by Strathmashie. It is interesting, however, that Gallie does remark on Macpherson’s facility to come up with authentic sounding substitutions for indecipherable passages in worm-eaten manuscripts, which might suggest an initial use of Gaelic (Mackenzie, 1805: 34). There is also a possibly revealing slip when Gallie writes:

With much labour I have recovered some scattered parts of the translation made at my fire-side, I should rather say of the original translated there …27

There then follow some Gaelic verses transmitted to him by Strathmashie. This certainly suggests the concoction of at least some Gaelic at Gallie’s, and perhaps conjures up images of Macpherson translating it as fast as Strathmashie could produce it. But one is inclined to agree with Jiriczek that this is not a particularly convincing scenario. Perhaps more likely (assuming, as I do, that Gallie’s account represents honest recollection, albeit forty years after the event) is that Macpherson arrived in Badenoch loaded with manuscripts of various kinds, and that these consisted of authentic MSS., together with genuine or doctored transcriptions from oral recitation, and finally – freely composed sketches of a complete Gaelic epic. Some of the time would have been used to transcribe relevant parts of the MSS., simply in order to see what could possibly be used to fit into a poem whose general outlines were already clear. For Macpherson knew what he expected of Ossian and obviously had a keen eye for the spurious accretions of later centuries. MSS. were not to be trusted, since however ancient ←45 | 46→they might be they would postdate Ossian by at least a thousand years. As Gallie amusingly recounts:

As for the genuine ballads which had been recorded from oral recitation in the Highlands and Islands, the same procedure would again have been employed, their being sifted for anything which might accord with preconceived notions of the dignity and sublimity of the Bard (and this is more than Macpherson’s detractors are prepared to allow). Where appropriate they could then be rewritten in the authentic Ossianic style. Some translation would undoubtedly have been undertaken in Badenoch, though one has to assume that the bulk of the English Fingal was the product of the first few months of 1761 which Macpherson spent in Edinburgh under the watchful eye of Hugh Blair.

Jiriczek argues that the Badenoch period was too short for a Gaelic version to have been produced (though we are really only talking about Fingal), and that it would in any case have been a useless, timewasting undertaking, since Macpherson was only really interested in his English-speaking audience. Besides, the English Ossianic style is already fully developed in the Fragments, must therefore precede the period of collaboration with Strathmashie, and this rules out the possibility that the style was evolved by translating synthetic Gaelic (Jiriczek, 1940: III, 26). Yet evidence that work on a Gaelic Ossian had already begun at a very early stage is provided by an extant version of two passages from the third Book of Fingal, one of them substantial.29 According to Stern, the first must predate the publication of the English Fingal since it uses names which are later changed, namely (authentic) Garbh instead of Swaran. What he does not note is that this change is already anticipated in the Fragments, namely in Blair’s Preface. Blair in fact provides in advance a fairly comprehensive summary of the plot of Fingal (Macpherson, 1996: 6). And three of the Fragments themselves are said to be parts of “the epic poem mentioned in the preface” (seven of the others ←46 | 47→also later featuring in the Fingal volume). But the Garve of Fragment XIV has already become Swar[th]an in Blair’s Preface. From this one can only conclude that the above-mentioned Gaelic draft must in fact antedate the publication of the Fragments.

Assuming the pre-existence of portions of a Gaelic Ossian, even before June 1760, one question which has to be asked is who composed them. The finger of suspicion seems to point at Strathmashie who had after all some familiarity with Classical Gaelic and was a reasonable poet in his own right. It is he who is said to be responsible for the “Specimen” in Temora, for a draft of the Gaelic version of the seventh Book is alleged, though not on strong evidence, to have been found amongst his papers (he died in 1767).30 (When this is known it seems to have a remarkable effect on the quality of the Gaelic, and non-experts will be forgiven for being puzzled by the widely differing judgments which have been passed on it.) Strathmashie also implicates himself through his testimony to Blair:

In the year 1760, I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend Mr Macpherson, during some part of his journey in search of the poems of Ossian, through the Highlands. I assisted him in collecting them; and took down from oral tradition, and transcribed from old manuscripts, by far the greatest part of those pieces he has published. Since the publication, I have carefully compared the translation with the copies of the original in my hands, and find it is amazingly literal, even in such a degree as to preserve, in some measure, the cadence of the Gaelic versification. (Mackenzie, App. 28)

The last remark is certainly that of an initiate, echoing as it does Macpherson’s own comments. Whether Strathmashie should be assigned a major or even dominant role in the whole undertaking is, however, quite another matter, particularly if we have reason to suspect that detailed plans were laid before the publication of the Fragments. Derick Thomson, admittedly, quotes one source according to which Macpherson “lived many years in the family of […] Strathmashie”, though this appears not to be otherwise substantiated (Thomson, 1958: 177). But two considerations speak against Strathmashie’s involvement going beyond that of transcriber, and perhaps polisher of Macpherson’s Gaelic. One, argued by Jiriczek, is the nature of Strathmashie’s own poetry – on such unsublime subjects as whisky, breeches, and mice – which would seem to make him an altogether unlikely candidate for the evolution of the Ossianic style. (Too much should not be made of this perhaps, since he was also capable of fine ←47 | 48→elegiac verse, and in the context of the times there is an underlying seriousness to his satirical songs.) The other is James Macpherson’s own authorial vanity. His initial reluctance to consent to the publication of the Fragments seems to have been motivated at least in part by the fact that “his Highland pride was alarmed at appearing to the world only as a translator.”31 If one agrees with Laing that Macpherson’s arranging to have his body interred in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey was “in order to assert, by this last act, his genuine and exclusive claim as an author to the poems of Ossian,” one might also give consideration to his further comment that the £1000 left in Macpherson’s will for the publication of the Gaelic version indicated an intention to “establish his reputation as a poet in his native tongue” (Laing, 1805: liv).

It is of course often asserted that Macpherson’s Gaelic was poor. But when one looks for the evidence one finds that it is usually flimsy or misunderstood, and invariably emanates from supporters of the authenticity of Ossian, anxious to minimize Macpherson’s role in proceedings (Gaskill, 1986: 124 ff.). His competence in his mother tongue is never questioned, for instance, by William Shaw who credits him with some of the most beautiful verses ever composed in the language. The matter will probably be settled only when and if Macpherson’s extant Gaelic correspondence is published. Until then one is at liberty to assume that his command of vernacular Scottish Gaelic would have been by no means defective (at least as long as he still had regular opportunities to exercise it), even if he could do little with literary Irish. His acquaintance with bardic, as opposed to popular literary traditions would naturally have been very limited, though even here he was clearly not entirely ignorant.32 Since conventions for the writing of what Macpherson called Erse had not yet been established in 1760 (and of course he did have his own ambitions in this respect), it is a ludicrous anachronism to regard his idiosyncratic spelling as proof of his incompetence in the language. But whatever his linguistic shortcomings, one may be certain that Macpherson himself was blissfully unaware of them, and this surely is the point. Macpherson was not a modest man. Had he been nothing more than a clever and ←48 | 49→unscrupulous confidence-trickster, he would probably have been able to play his role a great deal more convincingly. But whatever else about him might have been spurious, his literary aspirations and ambitions were undoubtedly genuine; that is to say, he craved recognition. He had a vision of himself as the last in the line of the Gaelic bards (Stafford, 1988: 111). He was capable, in all seriousness, of imagining that in the Gaelic Ossian he was creating a fitting monument to his greatness as a poet in his native tongue.

It has been argued that a considerable part of a Gaelic Fingal was probably in existence by the early months of 1762, and that it was this, and not any manuscript finds, which would have been exhibited in Becket’s shop. Why then did Macpherson not publish? Why the subsequent reluctance to allow his “originals” to be subjected to a proper examination? One plausible answer, at least to the first question, is that given by Macpherson himself: subscribers were not forthcoming. But a more significant factor is likely to have been the appearance of Temora in 1763. It may reasonably be assumed that, apart from the seventh Book, little or nothing of it was prepared in Gaelic: authentic sources have been established only for the opening of the epic, and that had already been published as part of the Fingal volume. The first epic had been long in the planning. The sequel produced in London, was basically a hurried, crude (and very bulky) attempt to mine what had proved to be a rich seam. And this is how it was largely perceived, at least amongst English literati. Disenchantment on Macpherson’s part, together with his subsequent departure for America, would have ensured that the Gaelic version remained in a fragmentary state. Even on his return to England, he lacked any real incentive to burden himself with a task which by now was surely becoming increasingly difficult and uncongenial. The controversy and mystery surrounding his Ossian, far from damaging its success with the reading public, if anything served to keep interest alive. But it must in any case have been clear to him that incredulity had by now so hardened that there was nothing he could do which would satisfy the sceptics; and to the extent that he was in fact being unjustly maligned, his pride prevented him from even trying. Unwisely, however, he felt obliged to rise to Johnson’s bait.

The reaction to Becket’s statement is instructive, since it indicates just how little would have been settled by the production of the “originals”. The St James Chronicle, which published regular extracts from Johnson’s Journey in the first few months of 1775, also included lively correspondence on the controversy. Many wrote in to enquire since when Becket had been acquainted with Erse and what credentials he had to determine whether the papers left in his hands were genuine, or “a Heap of unintelligible Jargon”. Moreover:

←49 | 50→

Similarly, Johnson himself insists in a letter to the wavering Boswell:

His copies, if he had them, and I believe him to have none, are nothing. Where are the manuscripts? (7 February 1775; Boswell, 1980: 578).

But he adds that he would even distrust ancient MSS., if they were now to be produced. By this stage of course positions had become entrenched beyond any possibility of reconciliation. Macpherson’s attempts to persuade Johnson to retract or at least attenuate his harsh judgments in the Journey, before the work was published, had undoubtedly been clumsy and ill-advised. But before he resorted to threats, he had at least tried reasoned argument. One correspondent in the St James Chronicle, who appears to have inside information (and belongs to Johnson’s camp), gives an account of the negotiations preceding the open outbreak of hostilities:

Mr Macpherson put Dr Johnson in Mind that he had exposed the MSS. to public View at Mr Becket’s Shop – The Doctor, who is not oversolicitous to mince Matters, replied that he believed so, but that he supposed the MSS. were of his own framing.34

Even if he did not mean it, the good Doctor was right as usual.


Black, George F. 1925–1927. “President Jefferson and Macpherson’s Ossian”. Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. 33, 355–361.

Black, Ronald. 1979. “In Search of the Red Book of Clanranald”. Clan Donald Magazine. 8, 43–51.

Boswell, James. 1963. Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. Edited by F. A. Pottle and C. H. Bennett. London: Heinemann.

Boswell, James. 1980. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, John F. 1893. Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Orally Collected. IV. London: A. Gardner.

←50 | 51→

Clark, John. 1781. An Answer to Mr Shaw’s Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Ossian. Edinburgh: C. Elliot; London: T. Longman and T. Cadell.

Curley, Thomas M. 1987. “Johnson’s Last Word on Ossian: Ghostwriting for William Shaw”. In Aberdeen and the Enlightenment. Edited by J. J. Carter and J. H. Pittock. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press. 375–431.

Gaskill, Howard. 1986. “ ‘Ossian’ Macpherson: Towards a Rehabilitation’. Comparative Criticism. 8, 113–146.

Graham, Patrick. 1807. Essay on the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian. Edinburgh: A. Constable.

Grant, James. 1814. Thoughts on the Origin and Descent of the Gael: with an Account of the Picts, Caledonians, and Scots; and Observations relative to the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian. Edinburgh: A. Constable.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 200 pp., 4 fig. col., 5 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Gerald Bär (Volume editor)

GERALD BÄR is Assistant Professor at the Universidade Aberta of Portugal where he teaches online in the areas of Cutural Studies, German and Comparative Literature. He is Senior Researcher of CECC, co-editor of the Revista de Estudos Alemães in Portugal and has published widely on the motif of the "Doppelgänger" in literature and film and on the reception of Ossian. HOWARD GASKILL is Honorary Fellow in German at the University of Edinburgh. His major research interests have included Sturm und Drang, Romanticism, Scottish-German literary relations (in particular Macpherson’s Ossian), literary translation, and more recently Arthur Koestler. In 2019 his translation into English of Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion appeared with Open Book Publishers, and he is now working on a new translation of Goethe’s Werther


Title: Orality, Ossian and Translation