Biography James Macpherson

James Macpherson

photo of James Macpherson
  • Time Period1736 - 1796
  • Place
  • CountryScotland

Poet Biography

Macpherson is remembered for one of the most spectacular literary hoaxes of all time; the epic of Ossian. He was born on 27 October 1736 at Ruthven, Badenoch, the son of a farmer. He was educated at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, and in 1756 he became a teacher in his native village. Two years later he moved to Edinburgh to pursue a literary career, and published a long poem "The Highlander". Greater interest was aroused however by his "Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gallic or Erse Language" (1760), with an introduction by Hugh Blair (1718-1800) in which it was suggested that epic poetry relating to the legendary Fingal and his son Ossian might still remain to be discovered intact in the Highland oral tradition. The book was a great success and aroused interest in the possibility that Scotland might possess a body of classical literature analogous to the Homeric poetry of Greece; and so in August 1760 Macpherson was commissioned to go in search of the lost epics, visiting Perthshire, Argyll, Inverness-shire, Skye, Uist, Benbecula and Mull. The most charitable intepretation is that wishful thinking led Macpherson to perceive a literary heritage which was not really there, causing him to fill in the gaps of an epic he believed genuine. The most damning theory (and the one most widely held) is that already in his "Fragments" Macpherson was inventing "translations" of non-existent poems in an effort to gain fame he couldn't win otherwise. His Gaelic was certainly poor (much to the amusement of the bard Iain MacCodrum), and Macpherson relied on scholars such as Alexander Morrison of Skye for translations of the poems he collected on his tour. The results of his efforts were "Fingal" and "Temora", supposed verse translations of epic poems by Ossian dating back to the third century. Ossian's father Fingal corresponded to the Irish hero Finn of the Fenian cycle of legends. There are about fifteen genuine pieces in Macpherson's epics; but they are heavily altered by him, and connected by passages of his own composition.
"Fingal" (1761) was wildly popular and immediately drew critical comparisons with Homer, Virgil and Milton - heady stuff for any poet. The book fitted easily into a prevailing taste for primitive cultures (as exemplified by Rousseau's "natural man") and tied in with the emerging Romantic movement on which it was to have a considerable influence (particularly among German poets, most notably Goethe). Macpherson's picture of the Highlands also foreshadowed the idealised image which would be so popular in the Victorian period. But already in 1762 doubts were raised in some quarters in England and Ireland about the work's authenticity. Macpherson's refusal to divulge his sources only served to fuel a controversy which was to last for years. Hugh Blair remained an unqualified supporter; Dr Johnson was a famous adversary.

After his initial success Macpherson moved to London, but in 1763 he took up a post as secretary to the Governor of Florida, and took little part in the subsequent debate over his epic. He returned to London in 1766 and lived comfortably as an historian, lobbyist and political pamphleteer (what would now be called a spin doctor; a career for which his Ossianic fabrications would seem to have qualified him perfectly). In his last years he bought an estate in his native Badenoch and died there on 17 February 1796. He was buried in Westminster Abbey at his own expense. AC