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Metadata for text 144001
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Title The Poems of Ossian, in the Original Gaelic, with a Literal Translation into Latin, by the late Robert MacFarlan, A. M. together with a Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Poems, by Sir John Sinclair, Bart. and a translation from the Italian of the Abbè Cesarotti’s Dissertation on the Controversy respecting the Authenticity of Ossian, with notes and a supplemental essay, by John M‘Arthur, LL. D.
Author [MacPherson, James]
Editor ‘MacPherson, James’
Date Of Edition 1807
Date Of Language 18th c.
Publisher W. Bulmer and Co. for the Highland Society of London
Place Published London
Volume Vol. 1 of 3
Location National, academic, and local (Mitchell Reference and Inverness Reference) libraries
Link Digital version created by National Library of Scotland
Download File PDF / plain text 
Geographical Origins Badenoch
Register Literature, Verse
Alternative Author Name ‘Ossian’
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 26.5cm x 17.5cm
Short Title The Poems of Ossian Vol 1
Reference Details EUL, Celtic Library: LI G OSS
Number Of Pages ccxxxii, 268 (Vol. I), 390 (Vol. II), 576 (Vol. III)
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context James MacPherson was born in Invertromie, in Badenoch, in 1736. He was a graduate of Aberdeen University and studied at Edinburgh University, though he did not graduate from Edinburgh. He taught, for a time, in the Charity School at Ruthven in Badenoch, and was a tutor in Edinburgh when his poem The Highlander appeared in print in 1758.

In the following years, MacPherson became acquainted with a number of the Scottish literati, including John Home and Dr. Hugh Blair, who was Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres at Edinburgh University. Their encouragement led to the publication, in 1760, of Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland. On the strength of this publication, MacPherson was persuaded by various people of note, including Dr. Blair, to tour the Highlands for the purpose of collecting more specimens of ancient Gaelic poetry. Following the success of his earlier publication, Fingal was published in December 1761, and Temora followed in 1763. Celebrity and criticism followed, most particularly from Dr. Johnson, who demanded to see the original Gaelic versions of the poems, believing that they did not exist and that MacPherson’s texts came not from the third century AD, but from MacPherson’s own imagination. Professor Derick Thomson’s assessment was that ‘MacPherson was neither as honest as he claimed nor as inventive as his opponents implied. In Fingal, his most elaborate work, we can identify at least twelve passages, some of them fairly lengthy, in which he used genuine Gaelic ballad sources, sometimes specific versions’ (1994: 190).

In 1764, MacPherson moved to Florida, having obtained the position of secretary to General Johnstone at Pensacola. He returned to Britain after two years, where his salary was commuted into a pension, and he took up writing. MacPherson published a number of historical works, and entered parliament in 1780. He later bought an estate in Inverness-shire, which he called Belville, and it was there that he died in 1796.

The controversy surrounding the authenticity of MacPherson’s ‘Ossian’ has continued to the present day, though Gaelic scholars have long understood that MacPherson took such genuine Gaelic ballad texts as he could find, within the oral tradition and possibly in manuscript form, and transformed them into epic poems for a wider literary audience. MacPherson’s Gaelic ‘originals’ were never revealed during the period of the Ossianic controversy, but he was reputedly working on them in his later years; the texts in the present volume were purported to be those originals, though what we have here are essentially translations into Gaelic of the English texts published in the 1960s.
Contents The poems appear in the following order: Cath Loduin (Vol. I, pp. 2-65), Caomh-mhala (Vol. I, pp. 70-91), Carraig-thura (Vol. I, pp. 96-141), Carthonn (Vol. I, pp. 146-71), Oigh-nam-mòr-shul (Vol. I, pp. 176-89), Gaol-nan-daoine (Vol. I, p. 194-205), Croma (Vol. I, pp. 210-27), Calthonn is Caolmhal (Vol. I, pp. 232-55), Fionnghal (Vol. II, pp. 4-263), Tighmora (Vol. II, pp. 268-367, Vol. III, pp. 4-235), and Conlaoch is Cuthona (Vol. III, pp. 240-55).

The contents of the three volumes are as follows:

Vol. I contains John Sinclair’s Dissertation on the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems, with an Appendix (pp. iii-ccxxxii), followed by the eight poems listed above (pp. 1-255). Each poem is preceded by a short ‘Argumentum’ in Latin. Notes to the poems are given in English at the end of the volume (pp. 259-78).

Vol. II contains the poem Fionnghal, in six parts (pp. 4-263), and the first two parts of Tighmora (pp. 268-367). Each poem is preceded by a short ‘Argumentum’ in Latin. Notes to the poems are given in English at the end of the volume (pp. 371-90).

Vol. III contains the remaining six parts of Tighmora (pp. 4-235), followed by Conlaoch is Cuthona (pp. 240-55). The poems are accompanied by the following items: notes on the poems (pp. 259-89); A Translation from the Italian of the Abbé Cesarotti’s Historical and Critical Dissertation on the Controversy respecting the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems, by John M‘Arthur, LL. D. (pp. 293-331); Notes by the Translator of Cesarotti’s Dissertation (pp. 332-359); Supplemental Observations on the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems, by M‘Arthur (pp. 363-485); The Original Episode of Faineasolli’s [sic, for ‘Faineasollis’], with a literal English Translation (pp. 486-93); The Original of Ossian’s Address to the Sun in Carthon, with a Literal Latin and English Translation (pp. 494-97) and Topography of some of the Principal Scenes of Fingal and his Warriors (pp. 498-540); to which is appended A Specimen of Ossianic Music (p. 541). Vol. III is concluded by a section containing notices of Gaelic publications which deal with Celtic studies, and of books and manuscripts dating until the end of the eighteenth century (pp. 543-76).
Sources The Gaelic texts in these volumes are based on the work of James MacPherson. The Advertisement at the beginning of Vol. I explains that ‘in the poems now published, some words and passages, which are to be found in Mr. Macpherson’s translation, are wanting. These might have been supplied from other transcripts, or oral tradition; but the Committee appointed to superintend the printing of this Work, were scrupulous about making any addition to the manuscripts left by Mr. Macpherson.’
Language With regard to the age and authenticity of the 1807 Gaelic text, Derick Thomson (1952, Appendix II) diagnoses non-idiomatic Gaelic and odd sentence structure in such lines as C’ar son air dheireadh, Ogair shàir in Fionnghal, Duan IV (Thomson, p. 88; the present volumes, II, p. 148), corresponding to ‘And why should Ogar be the last’ in the English version of Fingal, Book IV. (The Gaelic is not quite as odd as Thomson makes out, the literal sense being ‘Why (should you be) behindhand, Ogar, brave hero?’; but it is admittedly a little unnatural.) Thomson goes on to compare MacPherson’s 1807 Gaelic text with a genuine ballad version of the same episode from the MacNicol Collection, and at the same time compares both Gaelic texts to MacPherson’s English text in Fingal (1762). MacPherson’s Gaelic text has points of contact with the genuine Gaelic ballad, but where they differ its language is more strained, less idiomatic and less poetical. Thomson concludes that ‘the 1807 Gaelic version of this story is not a piece of genuine Gaelic composition in the sense that the ballads are. Indeed it shows the strong influence of Macpherson’s English of 1762, and it must be concluded that it was translated from the English. The fact, however, that the lines and quatrains of the 1807 version follow closely the sequence of the ballad version, together with a few verbal similarities, would tend to prove that this Gaelic was composed with some reference to the original ballad. That it was composed by somebody who was extremely careless of Gaelic syntax is certain’ (p. 89).

In keeping with the themes and tone of Ossianic poetry, this text contains constant references to heroic behaviour, fighting, death and love. Unlike genuine Gaelic heroic ballads, which are invariably composed in self-contained quatrains, the Ossianic poetry mimics the continuous sequences of verses found in Homeric epic and its derivatives. The opening lines of Fionnghal are as follows: ‘Shuidh Cuchullin aig balla Thùra, \ Fo dhùbhra craoibh dhuille na fuaim; \ Dh’ aom a shleagh ri carraig nan còs, \ A sgiath mhòr r’ a thaobh air an fheur. \ Bha smaointean an fhir air Cairbhre, \ Laoch a thuit leis an garbh-chòmhrag, \ ’Nuair thàinig fear coimhead a’ chuain, \ Luath mhac Fhithil nan ceud ard. \ “Eirich a Chuchullin, eirich, \ Chi mi loingeas threun o thuath! \ Grad ghluais, a chinn-uidhe na féile: \ ’S mòr Suaran, is lìonmhor a shluagh!”’ (Vol. II, p. 4).

This text contains many descriptive passages, e.g.: ‘Mar thonnaibh dol air ’n ais fo ghaoith, \ Thaom Eirinn o thaobh an righ; \ Dubh domhail an raonaibh na h-oiche \ Sgaoil crònan gun soillse o shluagh. \ Fo chraoibh o bheinn gach bard air àm \ ’Na shuidhe thall fo ’chlàrsaich féin’ (Vol. III, p. 148). These passages include descriptions of the heroes and other leading characters, e.g.: ‘Sa’ charbad chithear an triath \ Sàr mhac treun nan geur lann \ Cuchullin nan gorm-bhallach sgiath, \ Mac Sheuma, mu ’n éireadh dàn. \ A ghruaidh mar an t-iuthar caoin, \ A shùil nach b’ fhaoin a’ sgaoileadh ard \ Fo mhala chrom, dhorcha, chaol; \ A chiabh bhuidhe ’na caoir m’a cheann, \ Taomadh mu ghnùis àluinn an fhir, \ ’S e tarruing a shleagh o chùl’ (Vol. II, p. 32); compare: ‘Shuidh Crothar measg armaibh nan triath; \ Ghéill a shùil; bu ghlas a chiabh. \ An gaisgeach liath air maide thall, \ A leadan m’ a cheann ag aomadh mall; \ Mhùch e fonn air àm a dh’fhalbh’ (Vol. I, p. 216).

Descriptions of battles and combat are also numerous, e.g.: ‘B’ iad sin d’fhocail, a Chonaill chaoin, \ ’Nuair thachair na laoich sa’ chath, \ ’N sin bha torrunn treun nan arm; \ Gach buille bu gharbh agus beum; \ Mar cheud ord ag éirigh ard, \ Air cruaidh theallaich ’s deirge caoir. \ B’ fhuathasach còmhrag an dà righ; \ Bu ghruamach san strì an tuar; \ An sgiath dhonn a sgoltadh fo bheum, \ Lanna geur a’ leum o chruaidh. \ Thilg gach ball àirm air an réidh, \ Ghabh na laoich ’sa chéile luath’ (Vol. II, pp. 188-90).

This text also dwells on the darker side of fighting, i.e. mutilation and death, e.g.: ‘Bha ’m bàs ag iadhadh dall mu ’n smuaintibh. \ Thàinig sinne; bhuail sinn còmhrag; \ Chaisg triath’ na h-Eirinn ar gruaim. \ ’Nuair thàinig an righ ’na mhòr fhuaim, \ C’e an cridhe bhiodh do … fo chruaidh? \ Theich iadsa o chruachaibh Mhoiléna, \ An dubh bhàs a’ beumadh ’nan ruaig. \ Chunnaic sinn òg Oscar air sgéith, \ ’S a dhearg fhuil ag iadhadh m’a thaobh. \ Bha sàmhchair mu eudan gach triath’ \ A’ tionndadh gu’ chulaobh fo dheoir’ (Vol. II, pp. 290-92).

Another theme of these ballads is love. At the beginning of Duan IV of Fionnghal, for example, we find ‘Co thigeadh le fonn do n’ bheinn, \ Mar bhogha Léna nam braon mall? \ ’S i òigh a ghuth-ghràidh a th’ann, \ Nighean Thoscair a’s gile làmh. \ Is tric a chual’ thu fonn uam féin; \ ’S tric a thug thu deoir na h-àille. \ An d’thig thu gu còmhrag nan treun, \ Gu gnìomh Oscair a ghorm-mhàille? \ C’ uin shiùbhlas an duibhre o Chòna \ Nan sruth mòr a’s àirde fuaim? \ Chaidh mo lài seachad ’sa chòmhrag; \ Tha m’ aois fo dhòruinn ’s fo ghruaim. \ A nighean nan làmh mar an sneachd \ Cha robh mi cho brònach ’s cho dall, \ Cha robh mi cho dorcha gun bheachd, \ ’Nuair thug Eimhir-àluinn a gràdh, \ Eimhir-àluinn nan ciabh donn, \ Nighean Bhrano a bhroillich bhàin. \ ’Na ’déigh a bha mìle sonn; \ Do mhìle sonn dhiult is’ a làmh: \ Chuireadh laoich nan lann air chùl; \ B’ àille ’na sùilse bha Oisian’ (Vol. II, pp. 144-46).

Also of interest are the names of the heroes and other people who are mentioned in the texts, such as Sonnmor (Vol. III, p. 174), Sùl-àluinn (Vol. III, p. 176), Lear-thonn (Vol. III, p. 178), Fillean (Vol. III, p. 206), and Roinne (Vol. II, p. 130). There are also a number of place-names, such as Innis-fàil (Vol. III, p. 182), Lochlin (Vol. II, p. 130), and Mòrbheinn (Vol. II, p. 130). There are also a number of references to the otherworld, e.g. to ghosts and spirits seen in dreams or visions.
Orthography The orthography is generally that of the early nineteenth century.
Edition This was the first edition of the complete works of Ossian in Gaelic. A number of subsequent editions appeared, including Dana Ossian Mhic Fhinn, published in 1818, with re-issues in 1902 and 1987; and The Poems of Ossian in the Original Gaelic, with a Literal Translation into English, published in two volumes by Archibald Clerk in 1870.

The 1870 edition contains an explanation of the proper names used in the poems, as well as notes to the poems, and additional notes on the Gaelic text. For example, in Duan V of Tighmora in the 1870 edition, there is a note next to the term an luighean gun fheum which reads: ‘The sinewy limb now stiff. Luighean, which I cannot find in any Gaelic dictionary, is still in common use to denote the fetlock of a deer or cow, (if the term may be applied to them) – from lugha, a “joint" or “hinge;” thence “suppleness.” It means the most supple or sinewy part of the leg. “Stiff;” literally, “useless.”’ (Vol. II, p. 384). The orthography was modernised for the 1870 edition.
Other Sources
Further Reading Gaskill, Howard, ed., Ossian Revisited (Edinburgh, c1991: Edinburgh University Press).
Thomson, Derick S., The Gaelic Sources of MacPherson’s Ossian (Edinburgh, 1952: [n. pub.]).
Thomson, Derick S., ed., The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (Glasgow, 1994: Gairm).
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