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Issue 27 - The greatest fraud of all?

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Scotland Magazine Issue 27
June 2006


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The greatest fraud of all?

James Irvine Robertsonon the strange but highly lucrative case of James Macpherson

Culloden was the last battle to be fought on British soil. After centuries of trying to integrate the alien and barbaric culture that had clung on in the north for so long into mainstream Scottish life, it was finally destroyed and could be forgotten.

A few romantics clung on to the myth of the hero prince, but this was a Lowland aberration. Jacobitism and the Gaels that fought for the cause could be placed in the dustbin of history. Scotland became North Britain, and more importantly, its inhabitants were proud to use the appellation.

But within a couple of generations everything had changed. In 1822, King George IV was in Edinburgh clad in a kilt. At a banquet held in the Great Hall of Parliament House, his toast was not to the nation, but to ‘all chieftains and all the clans of Scotland.’ Several factors had brought about this remarkable rehabilitation.

One was the success of the Highland regiments in the British army, but the most important was a fraud.

James Macpherson was born in 1738 at Ruthven in Invernesshire. His family were from the minor gentry of the clan. He was educated for the church, but never took orders, preferring instead a literary career in Edinburgh. In 1758 he published a poem Highlander, which was received with universal indifference, but he was in the right place at the right moment.

The great men of the Scottish Enlightenment were proving to the world, and to themselves, that the intellectual life of Edinburgh was second to none.

In 1760 he published Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from ‘the Gaelic or Erse Language’, and this created a sensation.

The words culture and Gael were incompatible in the minds of Lowlanders; they had spent centuries rubbishing Gaeldom and burning its manuscripts and yet these ‘fragments’ gave an intriguing glimpse of an unknown and remarkably rich culture.

The great men of the age – David Hume who thought Macpherson a ‘modest, sensible young man’; Principal Robertson; Hugh Blair, Professor of Rhetoric and Belle Lettres at the University of Edinburgh; ‘Jupiter’ Carlyle, Moderator of the General Assembly in 1760 – organised a subscription to send Macpherson to the far corners of the Highlands and Islands to recover more of these ancient verses.

He did extremely well, returning with Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in six books…by Ossian, the son of Fingal; translated from the Gaelic which was published in 1762. This was followed by Temora in eight books... by Ossian.’.

Almost overnight, these remarkable works swept Europe, almost instantly being translated into virtually every language on the continent, contributing to the growth of the Romantic Movement which, in the words of the dictionary ‘describes the beauty of nature and emphasises the importance of human emotions.’ The poems were admired by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and inspired fellow writers Johanne Goethe, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.

The Emperor Napoleon was a huge admirer and carried the Italian translation with him wherever he went. Moreover, he commissioned some of France’s greatest artists to decorate his palaces with Ossian paintings. The city of Selma, Alabama was named after the home of Fingal. The Highlander, the noble savage, became one of the great romantic stereotypes of Europe.

And as a result, the author was universally lauded in terms that he himself said ‘might flatter the vanity of one fond of fame.’ Few were fonder of fame than Macpherson, and it went to his head so that Hume now said, ‘I have scarce ever known a man more perverse and unamiable.’ But the ink was scarcely dry on the printed page before critics were beginning to question the authenticity of the poems and such doubts grew into one of the greatest literary controversies of the century. Some, including Dr Johnson, thought them forgeries. Others were passionate supporters of the works.

Macpherson, in the meantime, arrogantly dismissed his detractors, but was unable to produce any original manuscripts. “If the poetry is good, and the characters natural and striking, to these it is a matter of indifference whether the heroes were born in the little village of Angles, in Jutland, or natives of the barren heaths of Caledonia,” he said.

Based on the style of a few fragments of original Gaelic verse, Macpherson, who was not particularly strong in the language, produced the Ossian cycle in English, entirely from his own head.

This was no mean achievement in its own right, but his work was not the product of the Dark Age Highland bard that it claimed to be.

What made matters worse was that his attitude made him seem a strangely modern figure. By not admitting the deception and responding to doubters with ambiguity, he added fuel to the controversy and this added to his notoriety and to sales. And, as is shown by the Da Vinci Code, people choose to believe what pleases them and ignore evidence to the contrary.

The Ossian works are still in print, and are still being appreciated. In 1806 Sir John Sinclair published The Originals, the Gaelic poems that Macpherson had translated. In fact it was the other way around. Macpherson had made Gaelic translations of his own English work, and these have been rendered back in to English and published on three separate occasions – by Patrick Macgregor in 1807, Archibald Clerk in 1870, and Peter McNaughton in 1887.

In 1764 Macpherson was made secretary to General Johnstone at Pensacola, West Florida. He soon quarreled with his employer and returned home two years later, but retained his salary as a pension. He produced a history of the British Isles and a translation of the Iliad, but they received little but scorn from the critics and eventually he abandoned his literary career.

Nevertheless, James Macpherson died extremely rich. As well as greatly profiting from his books, he made another fortune when he was appointed the London agent of the fabulously wealthy Nawab of Arcot, on whose behalf he became a member of parliament for nearly 20 years.

He bought himself an estate near Kingussie in Macpherson clan country where he built himself a mansion house which he called Belville. One contemporary writer described it as being “in the style of a villa near a town and, indeed the whole place reminded us of the hill of Corstorphine near Edinburgh.” He died in 1796, leaving his fortune and his estate to his daughter.

The opening lines of the poems of Ossian are as follows: Why, thou wanderer unseen! Thou bender of the thistle of Lora; why, thou breeze of the valley, hast thou left mine ear? I hear no distant roar of streams! No sound of the harp from the rock! Come, thou huntress of Lutha, Malvina, call back his soul to the bard. I look forward to Lochlin of lakes, to the dark billowy bay of U-thorno, where Fingal descends from ocean, from the roar of winds. Few are the heroes of Morven in a land unknown!’