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difference of copies. Others, to whom he will perhaps shew them, and who are less accquainted with the manner in which our ancient poetry was preserved, may not be equally candid. But after you have convinced men of the nicest taste in Europe, it would be a mistake in any one to endeavour to convince those, who have not the power of believing, or the good taste to discern the genuineness and antiquity of any work from the turn of its composition.”
Sir James Macdonald, in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated Isle of Sky, 10th October, 1763, * says, “ these islands never were possessed of any curious manuscripts, as far as I can learn, except a few which Clanronald had, and which are all in Macpherson's possession. The few bards that are left among us, repeat only detached pieces of these poems. I have often heard and understood them; particularly from one man called John Maccodrum, who lives upon my estate of North Vuist. I have heard him repeat for hours together poems, which seemed to me to be the same with Macpherson's translation.”
Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, who, in the year 1760, accompanied Mr. Macpherson during some part of his journey, while in search of the poems of Ossian through the Highlands, declares in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated the 23d October, 1763, “ I assisted him in collecting them, and took down from oral tradition, and transcribed from old manuscripts by far the greatest part of those pieces he has
* Appendix to Report of the Highland Society, p. 3. + See Letter in Appendix to Report of the Highland Society, p. 8.
published. Since the publication, I have carefully compared the translation with the copies of the originals in my hands, and find it amazingly literal, even in such a degree as to preserve in some measure the cadence of the Gaelic versification. I need not aver, Sir, that these poems are taken in this country, to be of the utmost antiquity. This is notorious to almost all those who speak the Gaelic language in Scotland. In the Highlands the scene of every action is pointed out to this day, and the historical poems of Ossian have been for ages the winter evening amusements of the clans. Some of the hereditary bards, retained by the chiefs, committed very early to writing, some of the works of Ossian. One manuscript in particular was written as far back us the year 1410, which I saw in Mr. Macpherson's possession.”
The late Doctor John Macpherson, minister of Sleat, in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated 27th November, 1763, * bears testimony to the following facts, that he had perused a Gaelic MS. containing all the poems translated by Mr. Macpherson, or a considerable part of them; and he solemnly affirms, that he had seen a Gaelic manuscript in the hands of an old bard, who was in the habits of travelling in the Highlands and Isles, about the year 1733, out of which he read in his hearing, and before thousands alive at the date of his letter, the exploits of Cuthullin, Fingal, Oscar, Ossian, Gaul, Dermid, and the other heroes celebrated in Mr. Macpherson's book. That this bard was descended of a race of ancestors, who had served the
* See Appendix to Report of Highland Society, p. 9. VOL. III.
family of Clanronald for about three hundred years, in quality of bards and genealogists, and whose predecessors had been employed in the same office by the Lords of the Isles long before the family of Clanronald existed. That the name of the tribe which produced these hereditary poets and senachies, was Macmurrich. That the poems contained in the manuscripts belonging to the Macmurrichs, were identically the same with those published by Mr. Macpherson, or nearly so, seemed to be ahundantly probable. That he had caused to be rehearsed from memory in his hearing, by persons competent to the task, several fragments or detached pieces of Ossian's poems, and afterwards compared those pieces with Macpherson's translation. The pieces he has particularly enumerated, and has also given the names of the rehearsers.
Doctor Macpherson, in giving his opinion impartially, how far the translations given by the publisher of Ossian's works agree with the original, in as far as he had occasion to see or hear the latter, makes the following judicious remarks, “ Those who are ready to believe, that Mr. Macpherson has given his translation of Ossian's works from an ancient manuscript, cannot pretend to determine that his version is too free, too incorrect, or faulty in any respect, until they are able to compare it with the original contained in that manuscript. But those who suppose, or may think, that Mr. Macpherson was at the pains to consult different rehearsers, and to compare their various editions, must suppose, and think at the same time, that he had an undoubted right, like
every editor who collates 'several different manuscripts, to depart from the words of this or that edition, when he saw good reason for so doing, to prefer the diction, sentiments, versification, and order of one to those of another; nay, to throw a conjectural emendation now and then into his version, when he found the original text corrupted by all the rehearsers. This being admitted,” says Doctor Macpherson, “I shall make no difficulty of thinking that the editor of Ossian's works has translated those parts of the original which were repeated in my hearing, I will not say with a servile exactness, but upon the whole inimitably well. I add further, that he has turned some of the detached pieces so frequently repeated in this part of the country, from the Gaelic into English, as literally as he ought to have done. Meantime I can hardly hinder myself from believing, that the original Gaelic stanzas of some poems, rendered into English by him, are, in not a few instances, rather better than those corresponding with them in the translation, however masterly that undoubtedly is.”
Doctor Macpherson, in accounting for the manner in which Ossian's compositions were preserved from age to age, and transmitted to our day without any material corruptions, makes the following classical and judicious observations.
“Ossian was the Homer of the ancient Highlanders, and at the same time one of their most illustrious heroes. A people who held bards in the highest esteem, and paid withal the profoundest respect to the memory of those who had distinguished
themselves among their ancestors by military virtue, would have taken all possible care to preserve the works of an author in whom these two favourite characters, that of the matchless bard, and that of the patriot hero were so happily united. The poems of that author would have been emulously studied by the bards of succeeding generations, and committed at the same time to the memory of every one else who had any taste for these admirable compositions. They would have been rehearsed upon solemn occasions by these bards, or by these men of taste, in assemblies wherein the noble exploits of the most renowned chiefs, and the spirited war-songs of the most eminent poets, made the principal subjects of conversation. Tradition informs us, that this was one of the principal pastimes of our forefathers at their public entertainments; and I can myself aver, that in memory of hundreds now alive, almost every one of our mightiest chieftains had either a bardling, or an old man remarkably well versed in the poetical learning of ancient times, near his bed every long night of the year, in order to amuse and lull him asleep with the tales of other days, and these mostly couched in verse. Among the poetical tales repeated on these occasions, the achievements of Fingal, Gaul, Oscar, &c. or, in other words, the works of Ossian, held the first place: nor is that old custom, after all the changes that taste has suffered here, entirely discontinued at this time. When these two customs prevailed universally, or nearly so, when thousands piqued themselves upon their acquaintance with the works of Ossian; when men extremely poor, super