The earliest collector and publisher of the
poems of Ossian was Mr Jerome Stone at Dunkeld, who furnished the Scots Magazine in
1756 with a translation in rhyme of "Bàs Fhraoich", or the Death of Fraoch.
Stone did not give the Gaelic original of this or of any other of his collections, but
they were found after his death, and a selection of them is printed in the Report of the
Highland Society on Ossian. A Mr Hill, an English gentleman, made some collections in
Argyllshire in 1780; and several pieces were published by a bookseller of the name of
Gilies at Perth, who published an excellent volume of Gaelic poetry in 1786.
Gillies's pieces have the true ring of the ancient poetry of the
Highlands, and are in many cases to be found floating still among the traditional poetry
of the people. In all there are twenty one fragments or whole pieces, some of them of
considerable length, and almost all, if not all, taken down from oral recitation. The list
shows what pieces of professed Ossianic poetry could be found in the Highlands soon after
the publication of Macpherson's work by other and independent compilers. A comparison of
those pieces with Macpherson's Ossian is interesting to the inquirer in this field. The
following specimen of one of Gillies's alleged compositions of Ossian may be given here :-
BRIATHRAN FHINN RI OSCAR
A mhic mo mhic's e thubhairt an rìgh,
Oscair, a righ nan òg fhlath,
Chunnaic mi dealradh do lainne's b'e m'uaill
'Bhi 'g amharc do bhuaidh 's a chath.
Lean gu dlù ri cliù do shinnsireachd
'S na dìbir a bhi mar iadsan.
'N uair bu bheò Treunmhor nan rath,
'Us Trathull athair nan treun laoch,
Chuir iad gach cath le buaidh,
'Us bhuannaich iad cliù gach teugbhail.
'Us mairidh an iomradh 's an dàn
Air chuimhn' aig na baird an déigh so.
O ! Oscair, claoidh thus' an treun-armach,
'S thoir tearmunn do'n lag-lamhach, fheumach;
Bi mar bhuinne-shruth reothairt geamhraidh
Thoirt gleachd do naimhdibh na feinn,
Ach mar fhann-ghaoth sheimh, thlàth, shamhraidh,
Bi dhoibhsan a shireas do chabhar.
Mar sin bha Treunmhor nam buadh,
S bha Trathull nan ruag 'n a dheigh ann,
S bha Fionn 'na thaic do 'n fhann
G a dhion o ainneart luchd-eucoir.
'N a aobhar shìnin mo lamh,
Le failte rachainn 'n a choinnimh,
'Us gheibheadh e fasgath 'us caird,
Fo sgàil dhrithlinneach mo loinne.
ADDRESS OF FINGAL TO OSCAR
Son of my son, so said the king,
Oscar, prince of youthful heroes,
I have seen the glitter of thy blade, and 'twas my pride
To see thy triumph in the conflict.
Cleave thou fast to the fame of thine ancestors,
And do not neglect to be like them.
When Treunmor the fortunate lived,
And Trathull the father of warriors,
They fought each field triumphantly,
And won the fame in every fight.
And their names shall flourish in the song
Commemorated henceforth by the bards.
Oh ! Oscar, crush thou the armed hero,
But spare the feeble and the needy;
Be as the rushing winter, spring-tide, stream,
Giving battle to the foes of the Fingalians,
But as the gentle, soothing, summer breeze
To such as seek for thy help.
Such was Treunmor of victories,
And Trathhull of pursuits, thereafter,
And Fingal was a help to the weak,
To save him from the power of the oppressor.
In his cause I would stretch out my hand,
With a welcome I would go to meet him,
And he would find shelter and friendship
Beneath the glittering shade of my sword.
The above is a true relic of the ancient Ossianic poetry,
full of power and full of life, and indicates the existence of a refinement among the
Celts for which the opponents of Macpherson would not give them credit. Gillies tells us
that his collection was made from gentlemen in every part of the Highlands. It is perhaps
the most interesting collection of Highland song which we possess.
In 1816 there appeared a collection of Gaelic poetry by
Hugh and John M'Callum. It was printed at Montrose, and the original Gaelic version and an
English translation were published simultaneously. The work is called " An Original
Collection of the Poems of Ossian, Orann, Ulin, and other bards who flourished in the same
age". There are twenty six pieces altogether, and the editors give the sources whence
they were all derived, such as Duncan Matheson in Snizort, Isle of Skye , Hector M'Phail
in Torasay, Mull. This collection is a very admirable one, perfectly honest, and presents
us with some compositions of high poetic merit. The addresses of Ossian to the sun, which
Macpherson declines to give in Gaelic, substituting for one of them a series of asterisks,
although he gives it in English, are given in both languages; and the Gaelic versions are
perhaps the finest compositions in the book.
The collection of the M'Callums was a real addition to the
stores of Gaelic poetry, and is most helpful in bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the
whole question of the ancient Gaelic poetry of Scotland. Were there no other Gaelic
compositions in existence save those pieces which this volume contains, they would be
sufficient to prove the high character of the heroic poetry of the Scottish Gael for
everything that constitutes true poetic power.
It would be wrong in such a sketch as this to overlook the
interesting and ingenious contribution made to the discussion of the Ossianic question in
the third and fourth volumes of Mr. J. Campbell's Tales of the West Highlands. The
whole four volumes are full of interesting materials for the student of Gaelic literature
and antiquities, but the third and fourth volumes are those in which a place is given to
the ancient Ossianic poems. Mr. campbell, the representative of a distinguished Highland
family, and unlike many of the class to which he belongs, an excellent Gaelic scholar,
made collections on his own account all over the Highlands. He had as his chief coadjutor
in the work Mr. Hector M'Lean, teacher in Islay, and he could not have had better - Mr.
M'Lean being possessed of scholarship, enthusiasm, and sound judgment. The result is a
very remarkable collection of the oral literature of the Highlands, including selections
from a large amount of poetry attributed to Ossian. This book is a truly honest book,
giving the compositions collected just as they were found among the native Highlanders. We
shall take occasion again to refer to the Sgeulachds, or tales, and shall only refer at
present to the Ossianic remains presented to us by Mr. Campbell.
Mr. Campbell's collections include most of the pieces that
have been brought together in the same way, with some variations, of course, as must be
looked for in the circumstances. He furnishes us with a version of the Lay of the Diarmad,
having peculiar features of its own, but to a large extent identical with the versions of
the Dean of Lismore and of Gillies. It is of much interest to compare this version, taken
down within the last few years, with one taken down one hundred years ago , and another
taken down three hundred and fifty years ago. The retentive power of human memory for
generations is remarkably illustrated by the comparison. Mr. Campbell also gives us
"The Lay of Oscar", "the Praise of Gaul", "The Poem of
Oscar", and several other minor compositions, some of which had never been printed.
These, with Mr. Campbell's own disquisitions, are full of interest; but for the details we
must refer the reader to Mr. Campbell's volumes.
From all that has been written on the subject of these
ancient Gaelic poems of Ossian, it is perfectly clear that Ossian himself is no creation
of James Macpherson. His name has been familiar to the people of both the Highlands and
Ireland, for a thousand years and more. "Oisian an deigh na Feinn," Ossian
after the Fingalians, has been a proverbial saying among them for numberless
generations. Nor did Macpherson invent Ossian's poems. There were poems reputed to be
Ossian's in the Highlands centuries before he was born, and poems , too, which for poetic
power and interest are unsurpassed; which speak home to the heart of every man who can
sympathise with popular poetry marked by the richest felicities of diction; and which
entitles them justly to all the commendation bestowed upon the poems edited by Macpherson.
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