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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, anglicised to Finn McCool, a character from Irish mythology. Although the poems were well-received, many critics voiced concerns about their authenticity, a debate that continued into the 20th century.

The poemsEdit

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In 1760 Macpherson published the English-language text Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language, and later that year obtained further manuscripts.[1]

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".[2]

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 (Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson were great fans) and were proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical writers such as Homer.[3] 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 (1774).[4]

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 Hungary 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.[5]

In Italy 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 first partial Polish translation of Ossian was made by Ignacy Krasicki in 1793. The complete translation appeared in 1830 by Seweryn Goszczyński.

The most influential Russian version of Ossian was the 1792 translation by Ermil Kostrov, who based his work on Pierre Le Tourneur's 1777 translation from the original.

The play Ossian, ou Les bardes by Le Sueur was a sell-out at the Paris Opera in 1804, and transformed his career. This led to its influence on Napoleon and Girodet's 1805 painting Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes (see above).

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. In 1829 Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to visit the Hebrides and composed the Hebrides Overture, better known as "Fingal's Cave".

In the twentieth century Ossian became an exemplar of an imagined golden age of primitive pre-industrial culture to groups ranging from the Thule Society to the environmental movement.

Authenticity debateEdit

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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 Irish 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.

The English author, critic, and biographer, Samuel Johnson, was convinced that Macpherson was "a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries".[6] Johnson also dismissed the poems' quality. 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." Johnson is cited as calling the story of Ossian "as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with".[7] The American literature professor and translator Bernard Knox alternatively refers to this book as a forged or fake "collective bardic epic".[7]

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,Template:When a compilation which contains the tale Oided mac n-Uisnig.

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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.[8]

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,[9] 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. The work also had a timely resonance for those swept away by the emerging Romantic movement and the theory of the "noble savage", and it echoed the popularity of Burke's seminal A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).

In 1952, Scottish poet 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.[10]

The Invention of Scotland (2008) by Hugh Trevor-Roper conclusively follows the evolution of MacPherson's version(s) and the work's early support by some Scottish intellectuals.[11][12]


  • 1996: The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill, with an Introduction by Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press).
  • 2004: Ossian and Ossianism, Dafydd Moore, (London: Routledge). A 4-volume edition of Ossianic works and a collection of varied responses (London: Routledge, 2004). This includes facsimiles of the Ossian works, contemporary and later responses, contextual letters and reviews, and later adaptations.

See alsoEdit


  • Berresford Ellis, Peter (1987), A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, Constable, ISBN 0-09-467540-6 
  • Black, George F. (1926), Macpherson's Ossian and the Ossianic Controversy, New York 
  • Gaskill, Howard. (ed.) The reception of Ossian in Europe London: Continuum, 2004 ISBN 0-8264-6135-2
  • MacGregor, Patrick (1841), The Genuine Remains of Ossian, Literally Translated, Highland Society of London 
  • Magnusson, Magnus (2006), Fakers, Forgers & Phoneys, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1-84596-190-0 
  • Moore, Dafydd. Enlightenment and Romance in James Macpherson's the Poems of Ossian: Myth, Genre and Cultural Change (Studies in Early Modern English Literature) (2003)


  1. "Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland", Literary Encyclopedia, 2004,, retrieved 27 December 2006 
  2. Behind the Name: View Name: Fingal, 
  3. Howard Gaskill, The reception of Ossian in Europe (2004)
  4. Berresford Ellis 1987, p. 159
  5. Oszkár, Elek (1933), "Ossian-kultusz Magyarországon", Egyetemes Philologiai Közlöny (LVII): 66–76 
  6. Magnusson 2006, p. 340
  7. 7.0 7.1 Introduction of Robert Fagles' translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey
  8. MacKinnon, Donald (1904–5), "The Glenmasan Manuscript", The Celtic Review 1 (6): 3–17 
  9. Lord Auchinleck's Fingal, Florida Bibliophile Society,, retrieved 9 April 2010 
  10. Thomson, Derick (1952), The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's 'Ossian' 
  11. Yale University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0300136869
  12. "Telegraph" review, 6 June 2008; seen on 29 May 2011

External linksEdit