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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter II. Macpherson’s death—Estimates of his character.


WRITING from the manse of Laggan to a Mrs Mackintosh, Glasgow, of date 20th February 1796, Mrs Grant thus touchingly describes the closing scene at Belleville on the 17th of that month, in the fifty-ninth year of the translator’s age :—

“‘Why dost thou build the tower, son of the winged days? Soon wilt thou depart with thy fathers. The blast from the desert shall rush through thy Hall and sound upon thy bossy shield! ’ Do you recollect, dear madam, when I stopped with you at the gate of Belleville, I repeated those lines, and observed what a suitable inscription they might prove for the front of poor James Macpherson’s new house? It would appear I was moved by a prophetic impulse when I predicted that he never would see it finished. Friday last R. dined there; James had been indisposed since the great storm, yet received his guests with much kindness, seeming, however, languid and dispirited; and towards evening he sunk much, and retired early. Next morning he appeared, but did not eat, and looked ill; R. begged he would frank a letter for Charlotte; he did so, and never more held a pen. When they left the house he was taken extremely ill, unable to move or receive nourishment, though perfectly sensible. Before this attack, finding some inward symptoms of his approaching dissolution, he sent for a consultation, the result of which arrived the day after his confinement. He was perfectly sensible and collected, yet refused to take anything prescribed to him to the last, and that on the principle that his time was come, and it did not avail. He felt the approaches of death, and hoped no relief from medicine. ... It pleased the Almighty to render his last scene most affecting and exemplary. He died last Tuesday evening, and from the minute he was confined till a very little before he expired, never ceased imploring the divine mercy in the most earnest and pathetic manner. . . . He was a very good-natured man ; and now that he had got all his schemes of interest and ambition fulfilled, he seemed to reflect and grow domestic, and showed of late a great inclination to be an indulgent landlord, and very liberal to the poor; of which I could relate various instances, more tender and interesting than flashy or ostentatious. His heart and temper were originally good; his religious principles were, I fear, unfixed and fluctuating. But the primary cause that so much genius, taste, benevolence, and prosperity did not produce or diffuse more happiness, was his living a stranger to the comforts of domestic life. ... So lived, so died, James Bellavill, for that is the true Highland name of the place. I have been diffuse, perhaps tedious, in what concerns the exit of this extraordinary man, because I thought you might, like me, be anxious to know how people quit the world who have made any noise or figure in it. His death found me sad, and has made me sadder.”

Devotedly attached as Macpherson was to his native hills and the people of Badenoch, to whom he proved a most generous benefactor, and who were naturally proud of the fame of their countryman, his death was deeply mourned over the whole district. There was no railway communication with the great metropolis in those days, and it would appear from Dean Stanley’s ‘Memorials of Westminster Abbey’ that the remains of Macpherson were about a fortnight on the way between Belleville and the famous “Poets’ Corner,” where they were finally laid to rest beside the ashes of “rare Ben Jonson,” and so many other of Britain’s illustrious dead. The following is the inscription to his memory on the tombstone in the Abbey:—

JAMES MACPHERSON, Esq., M.P.,
BORN AT RUTHVEN, COUNTY OF INVERNESS, 27TH OCTOBER 1736.
DIED I7TH FEBRUARY 1796.

“The courtesy,” says Dr Carruthers in giving an account of a visit to Belleville —“the courtesy of Miss Macpherson threw open to us some new facts and information relative to the celebrated translator. We had previously gleaned part in the course of a day—one of the dies notandi on which we delight to look back —spent on the banks of the Spey with Sir David Brewster, the distinguished son-in-law of Macpherson. The poet left a mass of manuscripts and correspondence behind him. Part of these his executors lent to Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, who made use of them in his ‘Historical Memoirs’; and in this way, through negligence, many valuable papers were lost. There is not a line existing among the manuscripts to throw any light on the Ossianic controversy. Macpherson left a sum of ^1000 for the purpose of completing a translation of Ossian into Gaelic; and this subject appears to have engaged his attention in the latter years of his life. Various notes passed between him and his friend Mr Mackenzie of the Temple, appointing meetings in London and its vicinity, to enjoy what they termed ‘ a dish of Gaelic.’ The turmoil of politics and party warfare, added to the labour of historical compilation, would seem to have withdrawn the translator of Ossian, in a great degree, from service to the muses. It is not generally known that Macpherson was the Scczvola of Junius. He attacked Junius under a dozen of other signatures, in defence of the Ministry of the day. He wrote some successful political pamphlets, and was a regular ally of the Administration. The acrimonious attack by Johnson irritated him extremely; and there are many coarse epigrams, lampoons, and parodies among his unpublished papers, in which the great moralist is treated very unceremoniously. Macpherson’s genius was at all times an overmatch for his taste, and his principles were liable to be overpowered by the impulse of the moment. His returning good sense, or right feeling, however, prevented the publication of such effusions, which appear to have been thrown aside when the fit was off. The following lines are worthy of preservation. Macpherson was mediocre enough when he had not the groundwork of Ossian to build upon; yet this stanza has a portion of classic elegance, as well as warmth, with a touch of the polished diction of Gray. It is indorsed on the back, ‘First Stanza of an Address to Venus—

1785’;—

‘Thrice blest, and more than thrice, the morn Whose genial gale and purple light
Awaked, then chased the night On which the Queen of Love was born!
Yet hence the sun’s unhallowed ray—With native beams let beauty glow;
What need is there of other day Than the twin-stars that light those hills of snow?’

“James Macpherson was a remarkable man, full of lofty aspirings, true genius, and certainly of marvellous success. The publication of ‘Ossian’ formed an era in the history of British literature. . . . Read what Gray says of the ‘Celtic Fragments,’ which so powerfully caught his imagination. David Hume, too, pored over them as a precious bequest to these later days. But David, who wrote his History on a sofa (not much of a ‘task’ to him), could never rise to the region of poetical imagination; he thought Shakespeare somewhat of a barbarian, and therefore we do not place much faith in his critical judgments. But Macpherson’s ‘ Ossian ’ was the Scott or Byron of his day—a new day to the blind, old Celtic bard, when he was chanted in hall and boudoir, and in the sunny regions of the south, so different from his stern mountain solitude in Glen Almond, where

‘He sang of battles, and the breath
Of stormy war and violent death.’

“Napoleon carried ‘Ossian’ about with him even in his camp. It is true he wrote the bard’s name Ocean; but Sheridan could not spell—the Duke of Marb borough was not over-correct (as, for example, ‘pictars’ for pictures); and the man who is imbued with a taste for orthoepy may afford occasionally to despise orthography ! The poetical schoolmaster of Badenoch became a Napoleon among authors, overturning old dynasties, and erecting in their stead the rude produce of moor and mountain, glen and stream. Strains which had cheered the firesides of cottars in their lonely huts, when winter nights were long and dark, were suddenly elevated into a rivalship with Homer and Shakespeare. A thousand pens were at work inditing dissertations and criticisms; even Johnson was moved to leave Bolt Court, and forego the Mitre Tavern and the club, to travel to the Hebrides—in quest of ‘ Ossian ’ and in seach of trees! Abroad, the poems were translated into various languages, and found admirers among all classes. James Macpherson’s fortune was made: he rose like an aeronaut. The poems themselves brought in large sums; his short enjoyment of the situation of Surveyor of the Leeward Islands secured him a pension of 300 per annum; his labours for the Ministry would, in those unscrupulous times, be well rewarded; his History of Great Britain ’ was sold for ^"3000; and his situation as Secretary for the Nabob of Arcot was a mine of wealth. So faithfully did he discharge those duties, that the Nabob’s son wished him to undertake the management of his affairs, and sent him a bond for ^20,000. Six months before the bond became due, the secretary died, and his family have never been able to recover the money. The poet, after attaining honour and riches, retired to his native mountains, built this splendid mansion among the scenes where in lowly life he first felt the aspirations of genius, and laboured to improve the condition of his countrymen, the broken and dispersed Gael.”


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