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James Macpherson

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Title: James Macpherson  
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Subject: Fingal's Cave, Fionn mac Cumhaill, National epic, Scottish literature in the eighteenth century, Poetry of Scotland
Collection: 1736 Births, 1796 Deaths, 18Th-Century Poets, 18Th-Century Scottish Writers, Alumni of the University of Aberdeen, Alumni of the University of Edinburgh, Clan MacPherson, Epic Poetry Collectors, Literary Hoaxes, Members of the Parliament of Great Britain for Constituencies in Cornwall, Members of the Parliament of Great Britain for English Constituencies, People from Aberdeen, People from Badenoch and Strathspey, People from Inverness, People of the Scottish Enlightenment, Romantic Poets, Scottish Poets, Scottish Politicians
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James Macpherson

James Macpherson
Born 27 October 1736
Ruthven, Inverness-shire, Scotland
Died 17 February 1796 (aged 59)
Belville, Inverness-shire, Scotland
Occupation Poet, translator
Alma mater Marischal College, University of Aberdeen; University of Edinburgh
Literary movement Romanticism

James Macpherson (Gaelic: Seumas MacMhuirich or Seumas Mac a' Phearsain; 27 October 1736 – 17 February 1796) was a Scottish writer, poet, literary collector and politician, known as the "translator" of the Ossian cycle of poems.


  • Early life 1
  • Collecting Scottish Gaelic poetry 2
  • Ossian 3
  • Later works 4
  • Time in Parliament 5
  • Death 6
  • Legacy 7
  • References 8
  • Sources 9
  • Further reading 10
  • See also 11
  • External links 12

Early life

Macpherson was born at Ruthven in the parish of Kingussie in Badenoch, Inverness-shire. In the 1752-3 session, he was sent to King's College, Aberdeen, moving two years later to Marischal College (the two institutions later became the University of Aberdeen); it is also believed that he attended classes at the University of Edinburgh as a divinity student in 1755–6. During his years as a student, he ostensibly wrote over 4,000 lines of verse, some of which was later published, notably The Highlander (1758), a six-canto epic poem,[1] which he attempted to suppress sometime after its publication.

Collecting Scottish Gaelic poetry

On leaving college, he returned to Ruthven to teach in the school there. At Moffat he met John Home, the author of Douglas, for whom he recited some Gaelic verses from memory. He also showed him manuscripts of Gaelic poetry, supposed to have been picked up in the Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles. Encouraged by Home and others, he produced a number of pieces translated from the Scottish Gaelic, which he reportedly spoke, which he was induced to publish at Edinburgh in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland.

Dr. Hugh Blair, who was a firm believer in the authenticity of the poems, raised a subscription to allow Macpherson to pursue his Gaelic researches. In the autumn he set out to visit western Inverness-shire, the islands of Skye, North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula. He obtained manuscripts which he translated with the assistance of a Captain Morrison and the Rev. Gallie. Later he made an expedition to the Isle of Mull, where he obtained other manuscripts.


In 1761 he announced the discovery of an epic on the subject of Fingal (related to the Irish mythological character Fionn mac Cumhaill/Finn McCool) written by Ossian (based on Fionn's son Oisín), and in December he published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language, written in the musical measured prose of which he had made use in his earlier volume. Temora followed in 1763, and a collected edition, The Works of Ossian, in 1765. The name Fingal or Fionnghall means "white stranger", [2] and it is suggested that the name was rendered as Fingal through a derivation of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn.[3]

The authenticity of these so-called translations from the works of a 3rd-century bard was immediately challenged by Irish historians, especially Charles O'Conor, who noted technical errors in chronology and in the forming of Gaelic names, and commented on the implausibility of many of Macpherson's claims, none of which Macpherson was able to refute. More forceful denunciations were later made by Dr. Samuel Johnson, who asserted (in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775) that Macpherson had found fragments of poems and stories, and then woven them into a romance of his own composition. Further challenges and defences were made well into the nineteenth century, but the issue was moot by then. Macpherson never produced the originals that he claimed existed.

Later works

In 1764 he was made secretary to the colonial governor Pensacola, Florida. He returned to Great Britain two years later, and, despite a quarrel with Johnstone, was allowed to retain his salary as a pension.

He went on to write several historical works, the most important of which was Original Papers, containing the Secret History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover, to which are prefixed Extracts from the Life of James II, as written by himself (1775). He enjoyed a salary for defending the policy of Lord North's government, and held the lucrative post of London agent to the Nawab of Arcot. He entered parliament in 1780, as Member of Parliament for Camelford and continued to sit for the remainder of his life.

Time in Parliament

For a time Macpherson desired a seat in Parliament and he finally received it in the 1780 general election. On 11 September 1780, he became junior member for Camelford. Later he became the senior member in the results of the April 1784 election. He stayed in this position until his death. Although there is not a lot recorded about his time in parliament, his name is in a list of confidential parliamentary pensions which suggest that his undocumented work was more of an under-the-table government scheme. This suggestion is more or less backed by letters corresponding with other suggested government scammers of the time such as Paul Benfield. In 1783 he also held a position as an agent working with Sir Nathaniel Wraxall,[4] and was noted since this time for being very wealthy, probably from his secret parliamentary pensions he was receiving.


In his later years he bought an estate, to which he gave the name Belville or Balavil, in his native Inverness-shire, where he died at the age of 59. Macpherson's remains were carried from Scotland and interred in the Abbey Church of Westminster.

The Highland MP and antiquarian, Charles Fraser-Mackintosh, comments on late eighteenth century evictions in the area of Kingussie, in his second series of "Antiquarian Notes" (Inverness 1897, pp 369 et seq, public domain) as follows: "Mr James Macpherson of Ossianic fame, who acquired Phoiness, Etterish, and Invernahaven, began this wretched business and did it so thoroughly that not much remained for his successors.......Every place James Macpherson acquired was cleared, and he also had a craze for changing and obliterating the old names......{including}......Raitts into Belville. Upon this point it may be noticed that Mac Ossian, in making an entail and calling four of his numerous bastards in the first instance to the succession, declares an irritancy if any of the heirs uses any other designation than that of Macpherson of Belville". Fraser-Mackintosh also asserts that Macpherson bought the right to be buried in Westminster Abbey.


After Macpherson's death, Malcolm Laing, in an appendix to his History of Scotland (1800), concluded that the so-called Ossianic poems were altogether modern in origin, and that Macpherson's authorities were practically non-existent.[5]

Despite the above some critics claim that Macpherson nonetheless produced a work of art which by its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature. It was speedily translated into many European languages, and Herder and Goethe (in his earlier period) were among its profound admirers. Goethe incorporated his translation of a part of the work into his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Melchiore Cesarotti's Italian translation was reputedly a favourite of Napoleon.[6]

Macpherson's legacy indirectly includes the naming of Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa. The original gaelic name is "An Uamh Bhin" ("the melodious cave"), but it was renamed by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 at the height of Macpherson's popularity.[7][8]

Macpherson is frequently mentioned along with Love and Madness by Herbert Croft.


  1. ^ Baines, Paul; Ferraro, Julian; Rogers, Pat (2010). "Macpherson, James". The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Eighteenth-Century Writers and Writing 1660 - 1789. Wiley. pp. 227–228.  
  2. ^ Mike Campbell (2008). "Name: Fingal". Retrieved 16 November 2008. 
  3. ^ Mary Ann Dobratz (2000). "The Works of "Fiona MacLeod" Notes to First Edition". SundownShores. 
  4. ^ Bailey, Saunders. "The Life and Letters of James Macpherson". WebArchive. Retrieved 2015-05-06. 
  5. ^ A "somewhat merciless exposure";  "Laing, Malcolm".  
  6. ^ Zamoyski, Adam (2001). Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 45.  
  7. ^ Elizabeth A. Bray (1999). Discovery of the Hebrides. Birlinn Publishers. p. 268.  
  8. ^ Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. p. 544.  



Further reading

  • Gaskill, Howard; Macpherson, James (1996). The poems of Ossian and Related Works. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 573.  
  • Gaskill, Howard (2002). The Reception of Ossian in Europe. Continuum International Publishing Group – Athlone. p. 400.  
  • Stafford, Fiona J. (1988). The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and The poems of Ossian. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 200.  
  • Gaskill, Howard (1991). Ossian Revisited. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 256.  
  • Saunders, Thomas Bailey (1895). The Life And Letters of James Macpherson: Containing a particular account of his famous quarrel with Dr. Johnson, and a sketch of the origin and the influence of the Ossianic poems". London: Swan Sonnernschein & Co. p. 327.  

See also

  • Iolo Morganwg

External links

  • Digitised version of Fingal, an ancient epic poem. : In six books: together with several other poems, composed by Ossian the son of Fingal. / Translated from the Galic language, by James Macpherson.., 1762 edition at National Library of Scotland
  • OssianLiterary Encyclopedia:
  • Significant Scots
  • Popular Tales of the West Highlands by J. F. Campbell Volume IV (1890)
  • The Poetical Works of Ossian at the Ex-Classics Web Site
  • Works by James Macpherson at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about James Macpherson at Internet Archive
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