« PreviousContinue »
collection of Gaelic original MSS. afterwards presented by the Highland Society of London to the Highland Society of Edinburgh, in January, 1803,"containing no less than 11,000 verses, composed at different periods. In the Report of the Committee of the Highland Society, these poems are noticed to have been composed at different periods, from the time of our most ancient Scottish bards down to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Among the more ancient, are poems of Conal, son of Edirskeol; Ossian, son of Fingal; Fergus Fili (Fergus the Bard); and Caoilt, son of Ronan, the friends and cotemporaries of Ossian. The titles of two of these poems, purporting them to be the composition of Ossian, and another ascribed to his brother, Fergus the Bard, are inserted in the Report, with English translations. +
The oldest MS. of this collection was ascertained by the late Mr. Astle to be a writing of the ninth or tenth century, and is called Emanuel, a title which the old Gaelic writers gave to many of their miscellaneous writings. It contains ancient history, written on the authority of Greek and Roman authors, and interspersed with notices of the arts, armour, dress, superstition, and usage of the Caledonians of the author's own time. It also contains an interesting account of Cæsar's expedition to Britain. The learned author of this Gaelic MS. is not named, but it is inferred from his work, that it was composed between the fifth and eighth centuries.
In this collection there is a parchment book, which contains MSS. by different hands, appearing to have been written in the tenth or eleventh century; and the late Mr. Donald Smith has, in the Appendix to the above mentioned Report, given curious fac similes of the original writings ; also English translations of some passages, consisting of religious and historical subjects.
There is also in the collection an ancient Life of St. Columba, evidently appearing to be a writing of the twelfth or thirteenth century, of which a fac simile of the original Gaelic writing is also given in the said Appendix.
The author's name, of the Life of St. Columba, the founder of Icolmkill monastery, is not mentioned; but there is reason to infer that it is compiled from the life said to have been written by Adamnanus, abbot of Icolmkill, who flourished in the seventh century. He wrote also the lives of some other monks of the sixth century. There is in the Advocate's Library at Edinburgh, a Life of Columba, in MS. extracted from the Pope's library, and translated, it is said, from the Latin into Gaelic, by father Calohoran. There is also a large volume of Columba's Life, apparently compiled from Adamnanus, by Manus (son of Hugh) O'Donnel of Tyrconnel. Adamnanus cites a former Life of Columba, written by Commenius Albus.
* See Catalogue of MSS. at the end.
+ See Repori, p. 92; and Dr. Donald Smith's account of this collection, in the Appendix to the Report, p. 310.
Mr. Martin, in his Tour through the Western Isles of Scotland, p. 264, mentions having discovered two manuscripts, written in the Irish character, containing the Life of St. Columba. The one in the custody of John Mackneal, and the other in the possession of Macdonald of Benbecula.
Mr. Sacheverel, governor of the Isle of Man, who visited Iona in 1688, also mentions a MS. book, of ancient inscriptions, at Icolmkill, that was presented by Mr. Frazier, son to the Dean of the Isles, to the Earl of Argyle, in King Charles the Second's time; which, as Bishop Nicolson observes in his Historical Library, (if still in being), might probably throw some light upon the history of this Saint.—But it is to be lamented that this MS. volume, containing three hundred Gaelic inscriptions, was afterwards lost, in the troubles of the Argyle family.
In the Bodleain Library, Oxford, there is an old vellum MS. of 140 pages, in the form of a music book, containing the works of Columba in verse, with some account of his own life, his exhortations to Princes, and his Prophecies.
It is much to be regretted that these, with many other Gaelic or Irish manuscrips still existing in the United Kindoms, have not been printed, with verbal translations into Latin or English: and, were a laudable spirit of enquiry and research to be encouraged, there is no doubt that many valuable Gaelic or Irish MSS. might, notwithstanding the various accidents and ravages of time, still be recovered.
The above train of evidence relative to the existence of Gaelic MSS. at different remote periods, completely overturns Dr. Johnson's general reasoning on unwritten languages, and the non existence of Gaelic MSS. of more than a hundred years old; consequently the principal pillar, which supported bis fabric of scepticism, being destroyed, all the other arguments, advanced against the authenticity of Ossian's poems, fall to the ground.
Note O, referred to p. 319. Mr. Shaw, in his reply to this accusation, qualifies his former assertion, and observes, “ With respect to Mr. M. Leod, I now say again, what I have said before, that I offered him half a crown a line for any part of Ossian that he would repeat. Such offers at a jovial table are not very serious. My intention was to provoke him to repeat something, but the provocation had no effect. What he has heard Mr. Macpherson read, he has not distinctly told us; and the passages which he has received from Mr. Macpherson he does not tell us the length of, nor consequently, whether they are not such as might be occasionally fabricated.”
It is to be regretted that a controversy of this nature should, in the outset, have been carried on with so much acrimony, and with so many bitter invectives on both sides; so as to render it necessary for either party to contradict the other, or to make unqualified assertions, without having proofs to support them.
Note P, referred to p. 319. ALTHOUGH the writer of this note has not seen Mr. Clarke's Answer to Mr. Shaw's Inquiry into the Authenticity of Ossian, yet he believes the grounds on which Mr. Clarke founded his arguments to shew Mr. Shaw, in contradiction with himself, are principally drawn from his first publication, entitled an Analysis of the Gaclic Language. At the close of Mr. Shaw's Introduction to that work, he justly remarks, “ an acquaintance with the Gaelic, being the mother tongue of all the languages in the west, scems necessary to every antiquary who would study the affinity of languages, or trace the migrations of the ancient races of mankind. Of late it has attracted the attention of the learned in different parts of Europe ; and shall its beauties be neglected by those who have opportunities, from their infancy, of understanding it! Antiquity being the taste of the age, some acquaintance with the Gaelic begins justly to be deemed a part of the Belles Lettres. The language that boasts of the finished character of Fingal, must richly reward the curiosity of whoever studies it. Of this Sir James Foulis is a rare instance, who, in advanced years, has learned to read and write it; and now drinks of the Pierian spring untainted, by reading fragments of poetry in Fingal's own language.”
Mr. Shaw might have likewise added the name of an English gentleman, the late General Sir Adolphus Oughton, commander in chief in Scotland, who studied and acquired a competent knowledge of the Gaelit.
Mr. Shaw has also said, in his Analysis of the Gaelic Language, under the head of Prosody, that, “ The Gael, when their language was formed, seem to be in that state of society when the arts of peace and war were not entirely strangers ; when it was an approved maxim to “ bind the strong in arms, but spare the feeble hand, be a stream of many tides against the foes of the people, but like the gale that moves the grass to those who ask the aid.”—PARCERE SUBJECTIS DEBELLARE SUPERBOS. Such was the genius of the language in the days of Trenmore and Fingal.
In another part, treating of the measure of Gaelic poetry, he remarks, that, “ All compositions have hitherto been orally repeated, and which by different persons will ever be differently performed ; whereas, had these pieces, been written, every one would have repeated them alike. · Even Ossian's poems could not be scanned; for every reciting bard pronounced some words differently, and sometimes substituted one word for another. Nevertheless the poetry always pleases the ear, and is well adapted to the music for which it was originally intended; and the language and composition seldom fail to please the fancy and gain approbation.” Mr. Shaw, afterwards, with great ingenuity, treats of the Gaelic measures, under the heads of dactyles, spondees, jambs, troches, &c. and exhibits specimens of the irregular and various measures of Ossian's poetry.
It is but fair in this place to notice that Mr. Shaw, in his reply to Mr. Clark, contained in an appendix to the second edition of his Inquiry into the Authenticity of Ossian, (and which the learned Abbé Cesarotti appears not to have seen) rests the strength of his arguments on the mysterious conduct of Mr. Macpherson, by withholding from the public the Gaelic originals. “ If Fingal (says Shaw) exists in Gaelic, let it be shewn; and if ever the originals can be shewn, opposition may be silenced.” With respect to that part of Clark's Answer Shaw against Shaw, wherein he is shewn to be at variance with himself, on the grounds, principally of what has been quoted in this note from his Analysis, Shaw replied with candour, and more than usual moderation, that, “if they even contained all the contradictions pretended to be found, it would
prove only, what I very willingly confess, that with respect to the abundance of Erse literature, I have changed my mind. I once certainly believed too much. I perhaps now believe too little; but when my present belief shall be overpowered by conviction, I have already promised to change my mind again.”
We have no doubt that the period of Mr. Shaw's conviction is now arrived, when, in addition to the evidence arising from the variety of materials lately collected and reported upon by a committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, in their Inquiries into the Authenticity of Ossian's Poems, there is now published, what has been so long expected, the originals from which Mr. Macpherson translated. The internal evidence arising from a particular examination of the nature and construction of the language, and from the comparison, and as it were analysis of these originals, and Mr. Macpherson's translation of them, will doubtless remove the stumbling-block on which Dr. Johnson's and Mr. Shaw's incredulity was founded. In fact, there is every reason to believe that Mr. Shaw was not at heart so obstinate a sceptic as he professed in bis Inquiry into the Authenticity of Ossian : and although it brought upon him the acrimonious invectives of his opponents, yet it not only gratified Doctor Johnson, in being, as he conceived, so well supported, and that too by a Highlander; but it secured to Mr. Shaw ever after the Doctor's friendship and patronage. The burden of their argument was a cry of “shew us the manuscripts,”—“ Produce the originals, or a transcript of a transcript of the original.”.“ I look not," says Mr. Shaw, in his reply to Mr. Clark, “ for Ossian's own hand writing, but I look for a transcript of a transcript from some copy, however distant.”
A strict examination of the originals now published, will at all events afford Mr. Shaw, or any Gaelic scholar, the means of discovering either the internal evidence of their authenticity, or internal proofs of their fabrication.
Note Q, referred to p. 319. Jonn BARBOUR wrote the Life and heroic Actions of King Robert Bruce, in ancient Scottish verse, froin which Sir John Sinclair has given a quotation, in page xxv. of his Dissertation prefixed to this work. This ancient poem has always been in great estimation, and possesses considerable merit, having run through several editions. It is founded on materials and facts which the author received from some of those