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Macpherson's Ossian


It is quite unnecessary here to enter on the question of the authenticity of the poems of Ossian, as edited by Macpherson. The subject has been so largely treated in numerous publications, that we consider it better to give a short historical sketch of the publication, with such specimens as may serve to show the character of the work.

The first of Macpherson's publications appeared in the year 1760. It is entitled "Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language." The first edition of this volume was immediately followed by a second, and the deepest interest was excited in the subject of Celtic literature among literary men. The work originally consisted of fifteen fragments, to which a sixteenth was added in the second edition. These are all in English, there not being one word of Gaelic in the book. Not that there is any reason to doubt that the fragments are genuine, and that Macpherson spoke what was perfectly consistent with truth when he said, as he does at the beginning of his preface, " The public may depend on the following fragments as genuine remains of ancient Scottish poetry." Still it is to be regretted that the original Gaelic of these compositions was not given. It would have enabled the public, in the Highlands at least, to have judged for themselves on the question of their authenticity, and it would have afforded a guarantee for the accuracy of the translation. This, however, was not done, and there are none of the fragments contained in this little volume, the original of which can now be found anywhere.

In his preface to these "Fragments", Macpherson gives the first intimation of the existence of the poem of "Fingal". He says :- "It is believed that, by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius, no less valuable than those now given to the world, might be found in the same country where these have been collected. In particular, there is reason to hope that one work of considerable length, and which deserved to be styled an heroic poem, might be recovered and translated, if encouragement were given to such an undertaking. The subject is an invasion of Ireland by Swarthan, king of Lochlyn, which is the name of Denmark in the Erse language. Cuchulaid, the general or chief of the Irish tribes, upon intelligence of the invasion, assembles his forces; councils are held, and battles fought; but after several unsuccessful engagements the Irish are forced to submit. At length Fingal, king of Scotland, called in this poem 'The Desert of the Hills', arrives with his ships to assist Cuchulaid. He expels the Danes from the country, and returns home victorious. This poem is held to be of greater antiquity than any of the rest that are preserved; and the author speaks of himself as present in the expedition of Fingal". In the "Fragments" the opening of this poem is given, but whether from tradition or MS. is not said. It proceeds :- "Cuchulaid sat by the wall, by the tree of the rustling leaf. His spear leaned against the mossy rock. His shield lay by him on the grass. Whilst he thought on the mighty Carbre, whom he slew in battle, the scout of the ocean came, Moran the son of Fithil." In 1762 there appeared a quarto volume, edited by Macpherson, containing the poem of "Fingal" and several other compositions. The poem commences, "Cuchullin sat by Tura's walls; by the tree of the rustling leaf. His spear leaned against the mossy rock. His shield lay by him on the grass. As he thought of the mighty Carbar, a hero whom he slew in war, the scout of the ocean came, Moran the son of Fithill." It will be seen that there are several variations in the two versions, and as we proceed these will appear to be more numerous and more marked. It is somewhat remarkable that the Garve of the earlier version should become Swaran in the second. The whole comparison is interesting, and sheds some light on the progress of the poems in the hand of the editor. It may be interesting, in juxtaposition with the above extracts, to give the Gaelic, as furnished at a later period, by the executors of Macpherson. It is as follows:-

"Shuidh Cuchullin aig balla Thura,
Fo dhbhra craoibh dhuille na fuaim;
Dh'aom a shleagh ri carraig nan cs,
A sgiath mhr r'a thaobh air an fheur.
Bha smaointean an fhir air Cairbre,
Laoch a thuit leis an garbh-chmhrag,
'N uair a thinig fear-coimhid a' chuain,
Luath mhac Fhithil nan ceum rd."

The English in both the versions - that of 1760 and that of 1762 - is a pretty accurate rendering of this. In some cases the Gaelic expletive is awanting, as in "garbh-chmhrag", and the name Moran is, in the last line, substituted for the Gaelic description, "The swift son of Fithil, of bounding steps." These, however, are allowable liberties in such a case. The variations are, however, more considerable as the several versions proceed, but that of 1760 turns out to be a mere fragment of the first book of the great epic of 1762. The other fragments have also their representatives in the larger work. Some of them appear in the perm called "Carrickthura", and some of them in the epic of "Fingal", but in all these cases the later compositions are great expansions of the shorter poems given in the earlier work. A comparison of these versions is full of interest, and in the hands of fair and acute criticism, is capable, as already said, of shedding much light on the whole question of Macpherson's Ossian. One thing is beyond question, that the names of Ossian's heroes were familiar to the Scottish Highlanders from the earliest period; that they knew more of their deeds, and spoke more of them than those of Wallace and Bruce; that the country was teeming with poetical compositions bearing to have these deeds as their subjects; that the topography of the country was in every quarter enriched with names drawn from Fingal and his men; and that to say that the whole of this was the invention of Macpherson, is nothing but what the bitterest national prejudice could alone receive as truth.

There are many pieces in Macpherson's Ossian of marvellous power. The description of Cuchullin's chariot in the first book of Fingal is equal to any similar composition among the great classical epics. It proceeds:-

"Carbad! carbad garbh a' chmhraig,
'Gluasad thar 'chomhnard le bs;
Carbad cuimir, luath, Chuchullin,
Sr-mhac Sheuma nan cruaidh chs.
Tha 'earr a' lbadh sis mar thonn,
No ce mu thom nan carragh geur,
Solus chlocha - buadh mu'n cuairt,
Mar chuan mu eathar's an oidhche.
Dh'iubhar faileusach an crann;
Suidhear ann air chnmhaibh caoin;
'S e tuineas nan sleagh a th'ann,
Nan sgiath, nan lann, 's nan laoch.
Ri taobh deas a'mhr - charbaid
Chithear an t-each meanmnach, sidear,
Mac ard-mhuingeach, clibh-fharsuing, dorcha,
Ard-leumach, talmhaidh, na beinne;
'S farumach, fuaimear, a chos;
Tha sgaoileadh a dhosain shuas,
Mar cheathach air ros nan os;
Bu shoiller a dhreach, 's bu luath
'Shiubhal, Sithfada b'e 'ainm.
Ri taobh eile a charbaid thall
Tha each fiarasach nan srann,
Caol-mhuingeach, aiginneach, brgach,
Luath-chosach, srnach, nam beann.
Dubh-srn-gheal a b'ainm air an steud-each.
Ln mhile dh'iallaibh tana
'Ceangal a' charbaid gu h-rd;
Cruaidh chabstar shoilleir nan srian
'Nan gialaibh fo chobhar bn;
Tha clochan-boillsge le buaidh
'Cromadh sios mu mhuing nan each,
Nan each tha mar che air sliabh,
A'gilan an triath gu chli.
Is fiadhaiche na fiadh an colg,
Co lidir ri iolair an neart;
Tha 'm fuaim mar an geamhradh borb
Air Gorm-mheall mchta fo shneachd.
'Sa charbad chithear an triath,
Sar mhac treun nan geur lann,
Cuchullin nan gorm-bhallach sgiath,
Mac Sheuma mu'n ireadh dan.
A ghruaidh mar an t-iubhair caoin,
A shuil nach b'fhaoin a' sgaoileadh rd,
Fo mhala chruim, dorcha, chaoil;
A chiabh bhuidhe 'n a caoir m'a cheann,
'Taomadh mu ghnis luinn an fhir,
'S e 'tarruing a shleagh o 'chl
Teich-sa, shr cheannard nan long,
Teich o'n t-sonn's e 'tighuinn a nall,
Mar ghaillinn o ghleann nan sruth."

It is difficult to give an English rendering of the above passage that would convey the elegance and force of the original. The admirer of Gaelic poetry cannot but regret that the English reader cannot peruse the Gaelic version, assured, he feels, that his doing so would raise considerably his estimate of the Gaelic muse. There is not, perhaps, in any language a richer piece of poetical description than the above. Macpherson's English version of it is as follows :-

" The car, the car of battle comes, like the flame of death; the rapid car of Cuchullin, the noble son of Semo. It bends behind like a wave near a rock; like the golden mist of the heath. Its sides are embossed with stones, and sparkle like the sea round the boat of night. Of polished yew is its beam, and its seat of the smoothest bone. The sides are replenished with spears; and the bottom is the footstool of heroes. Before the right side of the car is seen the snorting horse, the high-maned, broad-breasted, proud, high-leaping, strong steed of the hill. Long and resounding is his hoof; the spreading of his mane above is like that stream of smoke on the heath. Bright are the sides of the steed, and his name is Sulin-sifadda. Before the left side of the car is seen the snorting horse; the thin-maned, high-headed, strong-hoofed, fleet, bounding son of the hill; his name is Dusronnal among the stormy sons of the sword. A thousand thongs bind the car on high. Hard polished bits shine in the wreath of foam. Thin thongs, bright-studded with gems, bend on the stately necks of the steeds - the steeds that, like wreaths of mist, fly over the streamy vales. The wildness of deer is in their course, the strength of the eagle descending on her prey. Their noise is like the blast of winter on the sides of the snow-headed Gormal.

"Within the car is seen the chief, the strong, stormy son of the sword; the hero's name is Cuchullin, son of Semo, king of shells. His red cheek is like my polished yew. The look of his blue rolling eye is wide beneath the dark arch of his brow. His hair flies from his head like a flame, as, bending forward, he wields the spear. Fly, king of ocean, fly; he comes like a storm along the streamy vale."

The Gaelic scholar will at once observe that the above is a free but a fair translation of the original Gaelic, and the character of the translation is such as to give no idea of imposition. It is just such a translation as a man of poetic temperament and talent would give of the passage.

In 1763 Macpherson published a second quarto containing the poem of Temora in eight books, along with several other pieces. The first book of the former had appeared in the collection of 1762, the editor saying that it was merely the opening of the poem; but the great interest about the publication of 1763 is that here for the first time we are presented with the Gaelic original of one of the books of the poem. It is not true that Macpherson never offered to publish any portion of the original until he was obliged to do so by the pressure of public opinion, for in this case he published the Gaelic original of a part of the work altogether of his own accord. In a short introductory paragraph to the Gaelic, he says that he chooses the seventh book of Temora, "not from any other superior merit than the variety of its versification. To print any part of the former collection," he adds, "was unnecessary, as a copy of the originals lay for many months in the bookseller's hands for the inspection of the curious." Of this new publication, however, he sees it right to furnish a portion "for the satisfaction of those who doubt the authenticity of Ossian's poems." The editor adds that " though the erroneous orthography of the bards is departed from in many instances in the following specimen, yet several quiescent consonants are retained, to show the derivation of the words." He accounts for the uncouth appearance of the language by the use of the Roman letters, which are incapable of expressing the sounds of the Gaelic. What kind of orthography Macpherson would have selected he does not say. He could not be unacquainted with the phonetic orthography of the Dean of Lismore's book, and may, perhaps, have had it in view of the above remarks. But the orthography which he himself uses is neither the bardic nor the phonetic, and is more uncouth than any orthography which the bards were in the habit of using. One thing is clear, that the Gaelic of the seventh book of Temora was never copied from any manuscript written by a bard. The book opens as follows :-

"O linna doir-choille na Leigo
Air uair eri' ceo taobh-ghrm nan tn;
Nuair dhunas dorsa na h'oicha
Air iulluir shuil-greina nan speur.
Tomhail, mo Lara nan sruth
Thaomas du'-nial, as doricha cruaim;
Mar ghlas-scia', roi taoma nan nial
Snamh seachad, ta Gellach na h'oicha.
Le so edi' taisin o-shean
An dl-ghleus, a measc na gaoith,
'S iad leumach o osna gn osna
Air du'-aghai' oicha nan sian.
Antaobh oitaig, gu palin nan seoid
Taomas iad cach nan speur
Gorm-thalla do thannais nach beo
Gu am eri'fn marbh-rn nan teud."

Translated by Macpherson thus :-

"From the wood-skirted waters of Lego ascend at times grey-bosomed mists; when the gates of the west are closed, on the sun's eagle eye. Wide over Lara's stream is poured the vapour dark and deep; the moon like a dim shield, is swimming through its folds. With this, clothe the spirits of old their sudden gestures on the wind when they stride from blast to blast along the dusky night. Often, blended with the gale, to some warriors grave, they roll the mist, a grey dwelling to his ghost until the songs arise."

Any reader who understands the Gaelic must allow, without hesitation, that while this is a free it is a fair rendering of the original; while he will be constrained to add that in point of force and elegance the Gaelic is superior to the English version. Many of the expletives in Gaelic are not rendered in English at all, and these add largely to the poetic force and beauty of the former. The orthography of the Gaelic will be seen to be most uncouth and unphilosophical. "Linna" for "Linne" has no principle to warrant it; so with "oicha" for "oidhche", "Gellach" for "gealach," "cruaim" for "gruaim", "taisin" for "taibh-sean". Then there are no accents to guide the reader except that the acute accent is used in such extraordinary words as "tn," "fn," which are written for "tonn," "fonn". Altogether it would appear that the writer of the Gaelic of this book of Temora was to a large extent unacquainted with Gaelic orthography, and was unable to write the Gaelic language accurately. The orthography is, indeed, a mere jumble. Still the fact is an interesting and significant one as connected with the whole history of the Ossianic poetry that, at so early a period, Macpherson should have given, as a debt which he felt to be due to the public, a large specimen of one of his poems. If there is any cause of regret connected with the matter, it is that he did not let the country know where he found these poems, and refer others to the sources whence he derived them himself. These have never been discovered by any body else, although numerous pieces of Ossianic poetry are well known in the Highlands to the present day.

There were various versions of Macpherson's collection, but the most interesting of all was the Gaelic original of the whole poems published in 1807. In this edition a Latin translation was furnished by Mr Robert M'Farlane. The book is a very handsome one, and in every way creditable to its editors. Mr M'Lachlan of Aberdeen revised the Gaelic, and no man was more competent for such a duty. The introduction to the editor of 1818 is understood to have been written by an excellent Gaelic scholar, the late Rev. Dr Ross of Lochbroom, and is an eloquent and powerful composition. Several translations of Ossian's poems have appeared, but the interest of the work is mainly associated with the name and labours of James Macpherson.