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Ossian is the narrator, and supposed author, of a cycle of poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in the Scots Gaelic. He is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, a character from Irish mythology. The furor over the authenticity of the poems continued into the 20th century.

The poems

In 1760 Macpherson published the English-language text Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and later that year obtained further manuscripts.

In 1761 he claimed to have found an epic on the subject of the hero Fingal, written by Ossian. The name Fingal or Fionnghall means "white stranger".

He published translations of it during the next few years, culminating in a collected edition; The Works of Ossian, in 1765. The most famous of these poems was Fingal written in 1762.

The poems achieved international success (even Napoleon became a great fan) and were proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical writers such as Homer. Many writers were influenced by the works, including the young Walter Scott and the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose own German translation of a portion of Macpherson's work figures prominently in a climactic scene of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Goethe's associate Johann Gottfried Herder wrote an essay titled Extract from a correspondence about Ossian and the Songs of Ancient Peoples in the early days of the Sturm und Drang movement.

The poem was as much admired in Hungarymarker as in France and Germany; Hungarian János Arany wrote "Homer and Ossian" in response, and several other Hungarian writers - Baróti Szabó, Csokonai, Sándor Kisfaludy, Kazinczy, Kölcsey, Ferenc Toldy, and Ágost Greguss, were also influenced by it.

In Italymarker the translation of Ossian by Melchiore Cesarotti made that work highly popular, and among others it influenced Ugo Foscolo who was Cesarotti's pupil in the University of Padua.

The poems also exerted an influence on the burgeoning of Romantic music, and Franz Schubert in particular composed Lieder setting many of Ossian's poems.

Authenticity debate

There were immediate disputes of Macpherson's claims on both literary and political grounds.

Macpherson promoted a Scottish origin for the material, and was hotly opposed by Irishmarker historians who felt that their heritage was being appropriated. However, both Scotland and Ireland shared a common Gaelic culture during the period in which the poems are set and some Fenian literature common in both countries was composed in Scotland.

A great detractor of the Ossian poems was Samuel Johnson, who had no knowledge of the Scottish Gaelic language or of the Gaelic tradition. Johnson believed that they were not only not authentic, but were, moreover, not even good poetry. Upon being asked, "But Doctor Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?" he famously replied, "Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children."

Faced with the controversy, the Committee of the Highland Society enquired after the authenticity of Macpherson's supposed original. It was thanks to these circumstances that the so-called Glenmasan manuscript (Adv. 72.2.3) came to light, a compilation which contains the tale Oided mac n-Uisnig.

This text is a version of the Irish Longes mac n-Uislenn and offers a tale which bears some comparison to Macpherson's "Darthula", although it is radically different in many respects. Donald Smith cited it in his report for the Committee.

The controversy raged on into the early years of the 19th century, with disputes as to whether the poems were based on Irish sources, on sources in English, on Gaelic fragments woven into his own composition as Johnson concluded , or largely on Scots Gaelic oral traditions and manuscripts as Macpherson claimed.

Scottish author Hugh Blair's 1763 A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian upheld the work's authenticity against Johnson's scathing criticism and from 1765 was included in every edition of Ossian to lend the work credibility.

In 1952 Derick Thomson concluded that Macpherson had collected Scottish Gaelic ballads, employing scribes to record those that were preserved orally and collating manuscripts, but had adapted them by altering the original characters and ideas, and had introduced a great deal of his own.


  • 1996: The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill, with an Introduction by Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press).


See also


  • George F. Black, Macpherson's Ossian and the Ossianic Controversy, New York, (1926).
  • Patrick MacGregor, M.A., The Genuine Remains of Ossian, Literally Translated, Highland Society of London, (1841)

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