« PreviousContinue »
none of them insinuating the most remote suspicion, that Mr. Macpherson had either forged or adulterated any one of the poems, which he published and ascribed to Ossian. The following highly respectable persons are the writers of the letters alluded to: viz. 1. Sir John Macpherson, Bart. ; 2. Sir James Macdonald ; 3. Dr. John Macpherson, minister of Sleat; 4. Lachlan Macpherson, of Strathmashie; 5. Dr. John Macpherson, of Sleat; 6. Angus Macneill, minister of Hovemore; 7. Neil Macleod, minister of Ross; 8. Mr. Alexander Macaulay; 9. Mr. Donald Macleod, minister of Glenelg; 10. Mr. Donald Macqueen, minister of Thilmuir; 11. Lord Auchinleck.
There is likewise an interesting letter inserted in the Appendix to said Report, page 56, from Dr. Blair to Henry Mackenzie, Esq. the editor, dated the 20th Dec. 1797, in which he gives a particular account of the circumstances relating to the first discovery and publication of the
poems of Ossian.
Although the question, that has been so long a subject of controversy, may be fairly presumed to be set at rest, it must, however, be gratifying to the reader, to have pointed out to him the principal authorities and testimonies recently adduced in support of the authenticity of Ossian, that he may, if necessary, refer to them, and thence draw his own conclusions.
Note C, referred to p.304. The specimens which Mr. Macpherson gave of his talents for poetry prior to his translation of Ossian, are by no means favourable to the arguments of those persons, who, from that circumstance, drew infercnces that his mental powers were equal to fabricate such poems as are ascribed to the Celtic bard.
In 1758, about two years prior to his publication of the fragments of ancient poetry translated from the Gaelic, he published his first poetical effusions in a poem called Death, and soon after published a heroic poem, in six cantos, under the popular name of the Highlander. An anonymous writer, in the Edinburgh Magazine, notices this last poem as a “ tissue of fustian and absurdity;" and Mr. Campbell, in his History of Poetry in Scotland, published at Edinburgh in 1798, compares extracts from it with others taken from his translation of Fingal and Temora, and adduces irrefragable proofs, that the author of ihat poem was not competent to compose such poems as those ascribed to Ossian. VOL. III.
Mr. Campbell has besides established beyond a doubt, “ that poems ascribed to Ossian did erist, and were universally known in the Highlands, prior to Mr. Macpherson's first attempts to translate them ; that they are neither wholly, nor, chiefly of his own invention : neither are they literary forgeries ; but that he, with the assistance of others, collected and arranged them in a systematic form, as translated and presented by him to the public." In 1773, Mr. Macpherson published a translation of the Iliad of Homer, in two volumes quarto; a work, as noticed in the Supplement to the third edition of the Edinburgh Encyclopædia Britannica, “ fraught with vanity and self-consequence, and which met with the most mortifying reception from the public. It was condemned by the critics, ridiculed by the wits, and neglected by the world."
Note D, referred to p. 304.
In illustration of the observations made by the learned author in the text, namely, “ that Mr. Macpherson died quite impenitent, and without any confession respecting the imputation of imposture; and that Mr. Smith, although a minister, does not seem disposed to confess his sin, it may not be improper to notice, that Mr. Macpherson bequeathed a legacy of one thousand pounds to defray the expenses of preparing for the press, and publishing the original poems. That in his lifetime, as far back as the year 1784, he had it in serious contemplation to print the originals, as appears from his letter to the Highland Society of London, inserted in Sir John Sinclair's Dissertation, prefixed to this work, p. Ixxxi: of which a fac simile is given in the Appendix, No. III. And that, in the same year, a sum of about one thousand pounds was actually remitted from the East Indies to Mr. Macpherson ; being the amount of a subscription made by some Scotch gentlemen in that quarter, for the purpose of printing the original poems in Gaelic, as appears also in the said Dissertation prefixed, and Appendix, No. III.
A reference to four letters from the Rev. Mr. Smith to Henry Mackenzie, Esq. lately published in the Appendix to the Report of the Highland Society of Scotland, joined to the other proofs adduced, leaves little or no scope for further controversy respecting the genuineness of Ossian's poems. In Mr. Smith's last letter, dated the 21st June, 1802, he emphatically, and with his usual candour, observes towards the conclusion, 6 'That Fingal fought, and that Ossian sung, cannot be doubted. That the poems of Ossian extended their fame for ages over Britain and
Ireland, is also clear from Barbour, Cambden, Colgan, and many other old writers of the three kingdoms. That at least the stamina, the bones, sinews, and strength of a great part of the poems, now ascribed to him, are ancient, may, I think, be maintained on many good grounds. But that some things modern may have been superinduced, will, if not allowed, be at least believed on grounds of much probability; and to separate the one from the other, is more than the translator himself, were he alive, could now do, if he had not begun to do so from the beginning.”
Note E, referred to p. 308. The learned Sir William Jones, in his fourth discourse, published in the Asiatic Researches, has given additional strength to the arguments of the Abbé Cesarotti. At the close of his inquiry respecting the history and language of the Arabs, he justly observes, that “ when the King of Denmark's ministers instructed the Danish travellers to collect historical books in Arabic, but not to busy themselves with procuring Arabian poems, they certainly were ignorant that the only monuments of old Arabian history are collections of poetical pieces, and the commentaries on them; that all memorable transactions in Arabia were recorded in verse ; and that more certain facts may be known by reading the Hamásah, the Diwan of Hudhail, and the valuable work of Obaidullah, than by turning over an hundred volumes in prose, unless indeed those poems are cited by the bistorians as their authorities.
“ That we have none of the Arabian compositions in prose before the Koràn, may be ascribed, perhaps, to the little skill, which they seem to have had in writing, to their predilection in favour of poetical measure, and to the facility with which verses are committed to memory; but all their stories prove that they were eloquent in a high degree, and possessed wonderful powers of speaking without preparation, in flowing and forcible periods. Writing was so little practised among them that their old poems, which are now acceptable to us, may almost be considered as originally unwritten : and I am inclined to think, that Samuel Johnson's reasoning on the extreme imperfection of unwritten languages was too general ; since a language that is only spoken may nevertheless be highly polished by a people, who, like the ancient Arabs, make the improvement of their idiom a national concern, appoint solemn assemblies
* Vol. II. p. 14, 15.
for the purpose of displaying their poetical talents, and hold it a duty to erercise their children in getting by heart their most approved compositions."
Dr. Johnson's reasoning, on the extreme imperfection of unwritten languages, was not only too general, as noticed by Sir William Jones in the above quotation, but his arguments were not borne out by facts, so far as they were founded on the hasty assertions, “ that the Gaelic or Erse language (of which he confessed having no knowledge) is but a rude speech of a barbarous people, that it never was a written language, and that the sounds of the Highlanders were never expressed by letters till some books of piety were translated, and a metrical version of the Psalms was made by the Synod of Argyle.”
That the Gaelic language is adapted to convey the most heroic actions and refined sentiments, that it is rich in pure and simple primitives, and valuable to the antiquary in his researches into the affinity and philosophy of languages, no person having a competent knowledge of the Gaelic can deny. That it was a written language, from a very remote period, down to the beginning of the 17th century, has been proved by fac-simile specimens of writings exhibited in the Appendix to the Report of the Highland Society of Scotland, and by a collection of curious Gaelic MSS. in the possession of that Society. In comparing some of these fac similes with specimens of writings exhibited by Mr. Mabillon, in his Re Diplomaticâ, and by the late Mr. Astle in his Origin and Progress of Writing, they are ascertained to be writings of the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. A poem, in the said collection, ascribed to Ossian, of which a fac simile of the writing is given in the said Report, is ascertained to be a writing of the ninth, or tenth century. All the Gaelic MSS. alluded to, in the possession of the Highland Society of Scotland, with the single exception of the Dean of Lismore's volume, are written in the very ancient form of character, which was common of old to Britain and Ireland.
Proofs are also given, that so late as the middle of the 17th century the Gaelic language had not ceased to be used in legal deeds or writings in some parts of Scotland; and the Highland Society's Report (Appendix, p. 312) mentions there being in their collection of Gaelic MSS. a deed of fosterage between Sir Norman Macleod and John Mackenzie dated in the year 1645.*
* See Notices of Gaelic MSS. in possession of the Highland Society, at the end.
Had such incontrovertible evidence been adduced, at the time Dr. Johnson affirmed that the Gaelic never was a written language, and thąt there could not be recovered in that language five hundred lines, of which there is any evidence to prove them a hundred years old, he would not have so expressed himself. What would have been the Doctor's opinion had there been laid before him 11,000 MS. verses of Gaelic poems, composing a small part of the collection of the Highland Society of Scotland, ascertained, on the authority of the late Mr. Astle, to be writings of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries; besides, a variety of other authentic MSS. proved to have been written at different periods very remote, and long before the art of printing was known in Europe ? There is no doubt that his capacious and enlightened mind would have been open to conviction; and he would have acquired substantial glory in retracting the errors of his former opinions, founded upon prejudice and fallacious principles.
Note F, referred to p. 311. The poems in the collection of the Caledonian bards, translated by John Clark, are, 1. Morduth, an ancient heroic poem in three parts. 2. The Chief of Scarlaw. 3. The Chief of Feyglen. 4. The Cave of Creyla. 5. Colmala and Orwi. 6. The old Bard's Wish. 7. Duchoil's Elegy. 8. Sulvina's Elegy. 9. Oran-molla. 10. The Words of Woe. 11. The Approach of Summer. 12. The ancient Chief.
fragment of Morduth is published in the original Gaelic by Mr. Gillies in his Collection of ancient Gaelic Poems, and the original of the old Bard's Wish is given in Macdonald's Collection of Gaelic Poems. See further notices of these two last poems in the subsequent note.
Note G, referred to p. 311.
The ancient heroic poem, called Morduth, of which Mr. Clark, has, in his Collection of the Caledonian Bards, given a prose version in English, has been lately translated by the ingenious Mrs. Grant of Lagan into verse, and published in her Collection of Poems. This poem consists of three books or divisions, and is ascribed to Douthal, who was bard to Morduth, King of the Caledonians. A beautiful fragment of the original was published at Perth, in 1786, in Gillies's Collection of ancient Gaelic Poems,