"a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud” - Ossian and James MacPherson

17 February 1796, James MacPherson, the Scottish author of the faked but immensely influential epic of “Ossian”, died at the age of 59 in Belville, Inverness-shire. 

“Ossian has superseded Homer in my heart. To what a world does the illustrious bard carry me! To wander over pathless wilds, surrounded by impetuous whirlwinds, where, by the feeble light of the moon, we see the spirits of our ancestors; to hear from the mountain-tops, mid the roar of torrents, their plaintive sounds issuing from deep caverns, and the sorrowful lamentations of a maiden who sighs and expires on the mossy tomb of the warrior by whom she was adored. I meet this bard with silver hair; he wanders in the valley; he seeks the footsteps of his fathers, and, alas! he finds only their tombs. Then, contemplating the pale moon, as she sinks beneath the waves of the rolling sea, the memory of bygone days strikes the mind of the hero, days when approaching danger invigorated the brave, and the moon shone upon his bark laden with spoils, and returning in triumph. When I read in his countenance deep sorrow, when I see his dying glory sink exhausted into the grave, as he inhales new and heart-thrilling delight from his approaching union with his beloved, and he casts a look on the cold earth and the tall grass which is so soon to cover him, and then exclaims, "The traveller will come,—he will come who has seen my beauty, and he will ask, 'Where is the bard, where is the illustrious son of Fingal?' He will walk over my tomb, and will seek me in vain!" Then, O my friend, I could instantly, like a true and noble knight, draw my sword, and deliver my prince from the long and painful languor of a living death, and dismiss my own soul to follow the demigod whom my hand had set free!“ (Goethe: “The Sorrows of Young Werther”)

François Gérard (1770 - 1837): "Ossian" (1801)

Fionn Mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool to us Sassenach, once the leader of the legendary Fianna, a band of warriors of old Ireland, was a mighty hero. He wielded the sword Mac an Luinn, had healing hands and grew to be the smartest man of the islands when he tasted from the Salmon of Wisdom, a feat that made him into a poet and a seer. He did heroic deeds and grew into one of the first in a long line of archetypes of a people that are labelled for all their wars being merry and all their songs sad. Fionn Mac Cumhaill never actually died but became one of the Kings in the Mountain, a sleeping hero like King Arthur and Emperor Barbarossa, who will return one day when he is most needed by his folks. And he sleeps a troubled sleep under his hill in County Kildare. Somnambulating into more recent folktales, he became a giant up north in Antrim who had a bit of a quarrel with another colossus on the other side of the Straits of Moyle, the Scottish giant Benandonner. Irate Finn thus built the picturesque causeway from Antrim to the Island of Staffa on the Scottish side to challenge the big Mac until he realised up close that Benandonner was larger than life and twice as ugly. This time, he managed to defeat the Jock, by trickery of Mrs MacCool, truth be told, but the next assault from Highland-wards saw Finn quite defenceless. Now it was his turn to finally grow larger-than-life-sized. And become a Romantic hero on top of it. His name was changed into Fingal and, ironically enough, even a cave on Staffa was named after him, quite the Romantic place as well, and it was all one Scotsman’s fault and fraud and the man’s name was James MacPherson.

J.M.W. Turner: "Staffa, Fingal's Cave" (1832)

of Celtomania date back to the dawn of the modern age in the 16th century and over the next 200 years what was left of Celtic or presumably Celtic culture, like menhirs and other standing stones, place names and the testimony of Greek and Roman authors was re-evaluated and placed into the context of chiefly English and French national identities – while the actual heirs of the Iron Age Celts, Bretons, Welsh and the Irish were labelled as backward barbarians existing beyond the pale of guiding cultural rule had their territories occupied and their own identities and languages supressed on a regular basis. Along came Rousseau with the idea of noble savages, originally coined by and large for ethnic groups on other continents until, with the early beginning of the Romantic Movement, some discovered noble savages right on their doorstep and in their own pedigree, e.g. the Scots. Such as the student of divinity James MacPherson of Ruthven, Inverness-shire. 15 years after the Battle of Culloden, the end of the Jacobite rebellion, “Butcher” Cumberland and the crackdown on everything that was Gaelic in Scotland, the moderately unsuccessful young poet came up with a spectacular manuscript. It was his own translation of tales from the wild Highlands, the story of a 3rd century bard, one Ossian, and the epic of the heroic deeds of his father Fingal, his son Oscar and his fiancée Malvina, Agandecca, flame of Fingal’s own youth and daughter of his sworn enemy, the Scowegian King Starno, blood, thunder and Romantic wildernesses, in Morven, Fingal’s realm in the Scottish Highlands, governed from his castle of Selma, Temair in Ireland and Lochlin, a catch-all for Scandinavia. Some parts of what became known as the epic of “Ossian” evoke the old tales of Finn MacCool, most certainly do not and their authenticity was almost immediately contested after the publication of MacPherson’s “Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language“ in 1760. By Irish scholars, of course, who felt robbed of one of their foremost heroes and by other critical spirits of the Age of Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Dr Johnson who wrote that Macpherson was "a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud” and that the poems were forgeries. They were, but they hit the European mindscape like a bomb and MacPherson became one of the foremost spiritual fathers of the Romantic Age.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: "The Dream of Ossian" (1813)

Goethe himself translated passages of “Ossian” and wove them into the Werther’s sorrowful tale and it is a reading of Ossian that drives him in the key scene with his Charlotte, “They felt that their own fate was pictured in the misfortunes of Ossian's heroes“, and into suicide. Thomas Jefferson certainly had his strengths in other fields than literary criticism but he believed that Ossian “was the greatest poet that has ever existed” and Napoleon thought along the same lines. During the first decade of the 19th century, MacPherson’s fraud had at least been partially translated into most of the major European languages and churned the romantically moved souls of the Charlottes and Werthers from John O’Groats to Tobolsk. Schubert and Mendelssohn set the poems to music, motives from the Kunstmärchen, the literary fairy tale, of Ossian were painted by almost all of the Romantic painters and Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, first described by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772, became a pilgrimage site. At least until the 1840s when criticism of MacPherson’s fraud finally gained universal acceptance, the Romantic Movement began to die away and the earlier Celtomania was superseded by other national movements and especially English Celt Scepticism. Today, “Ossian” is an oddity of European intellectual history, in short: by and large forgotten and only the name Oscar remains popular ever since.

And more about MacPherson and Ossian on: