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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter IX. - Cursory Remarks on the Ossianic Controversy

GLENLYON and Fortingall people were not behind other Highlanders in defending Macpherson's "Ossian" against Dr Johnson and other assailants. They boasted that they had twelve forts of the Feinne and Dun-Ossian named after the great bard in their glen. Eight of the forts, which they' called Castullau nam Fiann not "caistealan," as they called the Castles of Meggernie and Garth, Weem and Taymouth, and the like are still visible, and so, of course, is Dun-Ossian. They had screeds of Ossianic poetry to place all the poetic ancient poetry under one label and prose tales handed down through many generations, which contained the personal names and most of the incidents which Macpherson had manipulated; so how could the genuineness or authenticity of his English "Ossian" be doubted by anyone less pigheaded than that "Ollamh Maclan," who wrapped himself in a mantle of prejudice and invincible ignorance to such a degree that he denied the existence of documents written in Gaelic which were older than a few score years before his own time? They knew that James Macgregor, Vicar of Fortingall, before he became Dean of Lismore, and his brother Duncan, had put down in writing between 1500 and 1530 a great deal of the Ossianic poetry then current in the Highlands, and which with little change had remained current until Macpherson had made his gathering of manuscripts and materials. They admitted that his "Ossian" did not in all respects agree with their traditional poetry and prose tales, but they readily jumped to the conclusion that in the Western Isles Macpherson had got hold of manuscripts that contained the poetry and tales in fuller and better form than did their traditional lore. It was only after Macpherson's death and the publication of his Gaelic "Ossian" that they were reluctantly driven to doubt his good faith. As for his having located the Feinne in Alba instead of in Ireland, that had been done long before his time. And truly the localisation in Ireland is open to much the same objection as the Albania one. The mythological and prehistoric belongings of the Celtic race were in both countries freely used to invest new scenes and personages with romantic glamour and ancient drapery. Dr Johnson was utterly wrong in maintaining that there was no ancient Gaelic literature; but he was right in saying that Macpherson's English "Ossian" as presented to the world was an imposture. The Gaelic "Ossian" is not an original but a translation of his English one into good eighteenth century Gaelic. He was a man of genius, but an unprincipled manipulator of materials which, in the main, were undeniably genuine. Subsequent publications of really old Celtic literature have equally confounded him and his John Bull assailant, Dr Johnson.

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