Friday 15 March 2013

Nineteenth-century studies: Ossian and Gaelic sholarship


Donald E. Meek


One of the least studied aspects of Macpherson's Ossian is the way in which Gaelic scholars, and Gaelic literati more widely, reacted to it across the centuries since the key texts were published.  The key texts can be identified in two batches, so to speak.  The first batch appeared between 1760 and 1763, and they consisted pre-eminently of Macpherson's works - the Fragments in 1760, Fingal in 1761, and Temora in 1763.  Thereafter Macpherson published a revised version of his texts in 1773.  The second batch came in the early 1800s.  This batch provided a commentary on, and in some cases a critique of, the earlier publications.  The principal texts here were Malcolm Laing's History of Scotland of 1800, his two-volume edition of The Poems of Ossian of 1805, the Highland Society's Report, edited by Henry MacKenzie, also of 1805, and the Highland Society of London's Gaelic text of Ossian, with an introduction by Sir John Sinclair, published in 1807.   The second batch of publications was enormously influential, as it shaped the nature of scholarly and literary responses for the rest of the nineteenth century, and it has reverberated into our own day.  The appearance of the Gaelic version of the poems of Ossian in particular imparted a new momentum to the Ossian bandwagon, since it provided a much more acceptable mode of interaction with the texts for Gaelic writers of various kinds.   It was extremely important that the Gaelic Ossian appeared after the Highland Society made its report, since it was not subjected to any major enquiry as to its origins and nature.  This helped to give it an aura of sanctity, at least in Gaelic eyes.  There were doubts and reservations among some, but it remained largely undebated until the second half of the nineteenth century.   It still awaits a detailed examination.


We can only speculate as to why twentieth-century scholars such as Derick Thomson have had so little to say about this important phase of Ossianic assessment and activity.   Certainly Thomson gives the impression that Ossian and the surrounding controversy were largely an eighteenth-century issue. He seems to imply - largely through silence - that Ossian made very little impact on the Gaels themselves.  His account of 'Macpherson and Ossian' in Daiches' New Companion to Scottish Culture (1993) concludes with the words: 'His influence on writers as diverse as Goethe and Yeats is a matter of, at least, historical interest, and a few of his purple passages still retain some attraction in their sentiments and cadences.'  I am sure that there are many more recent scholars of Ossian who would beg to differ from that minimalist position.   Most would recognise that Ossian made an immense impact on European literary traditions.


Gaelic literary activity was no exception. I myself have recently written a very large chapter for a forthcoming volume on the reception of Ossian, currently being edited by Dr Howard Gaskill.   In that chapter I have shown how Macpherson's Ossian not only influenced major eighteenth-century figures like the religious poet Dugald Buchanan, but also contributed very significantly to the development of Gaelic prose, particularly that of the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, who pioneered the writing of Gaelic journals in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Ossian likewise provided themes and images for the romantic school of Gaelic poets, ranging from William Livingston of Islay to Neil MacLeod of Skye.  The Gaelic literature which Thomson has categorised as 'bogus', such as 'Miann a' Bhàird Aosda' ('The Desire of the Ancient Poet'), was certainly not regarded as 'bogus' by either of the two MacLeods, who both drew from it, and wrote about it, as if it were fully part of Gaelic tradition.   I have become acutely aware of how Macpherson's Ossian contributed to the discourse in which the clearances and emigration were presented in Gaelic and sometimes in English.  Morven, so the argument ran, was the home of noble Gaels, who ought not to be cleared from their ancient lands.   This grim manifestation of social engineering was regarded by poets and politicians alike as a violation of Ossianic sublimity.


Ossian's influence continued into the twentieth century, and it could be argued, a little mischievously but fairly in my view, that there is a connection between Macpherson's Ossian and the Gaelic verse of Derick Thomson himself.  Thomson has become the master, if not the founding figure, of vers libre in twentieth-century Gaelic, and it is curious that, in his piece on Macpherson in Daiches' Companion, Thomson does say that 'His experiments in prosody have led some critics into regarding him as an early founding father of vers libre.'  In this way, Thomson and Macpherson share common ground, and Thomson is conceivably Macpherson's debtor.  Indeed, their contributions to literature, in metrics at least, appear to parallel one another rather closely, the one in the eighteenth century and the other in the twentieth.


The nub of the matter, it seems to me, is how far one is prepared to acknowledge such debts.  Once Macpherson has become a literary outcast, it is not easy to admit that anyone is beholden to a 'forger' or to a school which produced 'bogus' Gaelic literature.  This would be to admit tacitly that there is no such thing as a 'pure' Gaelic literature, with its own copious wellspring of native inspiration.   So to change the metaphor, it is better to shunt the forger into a sidings, and to ensure that there are buffers at both ends of the track to keep him firmly in check.  It would be disturbing for an essentialist, particularist view of Gaelic tradition if too much were made of the role of Macpherson and such-like figures who imported a large number of ideas into Gaelic from outside, presented them as a collage, as Malcolm Laing argued in his edition of Macpherson in 1805, and used them to contaminate the pure core of literary creativity.  Yet in the eighteenth century the all-time great poets of Gaelic tradition - Dugald Buchanan and Alexander MacDonald among them - were prone to borrowing from one another and from external models.  MacDonald borrowed from Allan Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany of the 1720s and 1730s, for example.  Like Macpherson, Buchanan had a detailed knowledge of the Graveyard School of poets, and evidently doted on Young's Night Thoughts.  He translated directly from Isaac Watts into Gaelic, and passed his translations of Watts off in print as his own compositions in 1767.   It is acceptable, it seems, to cover over these borrowings in terms of providing a wider theory of Gaelic literature which preserves indigenous purity, especially when the final product is in Gaelic.   Macpherson's crime, it seems, was to be creative in the opposite direction, and to present his material in English, and to ascribe it to 'Ossian'.  If we honestly ascribe our poems to ourselves, rather than to another, who cares where they come from?  Who is ever to know, especially within a minority culture, that we have absorbed ideas from far and near - unless we grossly overplay our hand and innocently reveal our exemplars?


In short, I would argue that there was an important connection in Gaelic, as in other literatures, between romanticism, some of it generated by Ossian, and revival.  Literary revival, and even political radicalism which led to the crofters' land agitation of the 1880s, grew in part from the romanticism created by the exchange between Macpherson and the Gaelic collectors, poets, prose-writers and politicians of the nineteenth century.   We may not like to admit it, but the evidence is very, very clear, and I have presented it in detail in my paper in Dr Gaskill's forthcoming volume.


We also have to face up to another reality, namely that Gaelic scholarship was developed and honed very largely on the back of the controversy stimulated by Ossian.  Twentieth-century scholars such as Thomson have been glad to point to the amount of collecting activity that was stimulated by the appearance of Ossian.  These same scholars are, however, curiously unwilling to acknowledge, in any detailed way, how much analytical thinking was done on the subject in the course of the nineteenth century.  The flow of ideas was such that different scholarly streams had emerged by the end of the century, and indeed a position very close to that elaborated by Derick Thomson in 1951 had been reached in the mid-1880s by the foundationally important and brilliant Celtic scholar, Alexander MacBain.  Thomson, in his seminal book The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's Ossian, provided a precise analysis of the sources used by Macpherson, but the broad conclusion which his case supports had been deduced almost seventy years earlier by MacBain. Thomson, however, offered little or no analysis of the nineteenth-century reaction, beyond commenting that


'the controversy was, in fact, misdirected for more than a century.  The point at issue was taken to be whether there existed Gaelic poems, preferably in ancient MSS., composed by a bard called Ossian in the third century A.D.  Further, these poems, or two of them, the counterparts of Fingal and Temora, had to be of an epic nature.'


In his study of James Macpherson (1989), Paul deGategno provides a very useful bibliography which cites MacBain's paper on 'Macpherson's Ossian', published in the Celtic Magazine in 1887, and makes the following comment: 'Still considered by scholars to be the best presentation of the controversy.'   It is not noted in Thomson's Gaelic Sources.  To be fair to Thomson, his very important book was based on his Cambridge dissertation, and it is clear that he had reached his conclusions largely independently of the nineteenth-century scholars, a point which reinforces the strength of his position.  He himself admits that 'much of [this essay'] had been written before I read Stern's article'.  Ludwig Stern's paper was published in translation from the German original of 1895 in Vol. 22 (1900) of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness.   Even so, Thomson's subsequent work on Macpherson is mainly a reiteration of his earlier (1951) position, and disappontingly little progress in scholarly understanding is visible in the second half of the twentieth century.  The Gaelic debate came to a stagnant end by 1960, as Macpherson's 'forgeries' and the 'bogus' products of his imitators were exposed by Thomson.  It seemed as if there could be nothing more to say.  The body had been discovered, dug up, subjected to several humiliating public post-mortems, and presented to the anatomy museum for the training of future generations of scholars.  The skeleton in the Gaelic coffin had been withdrawn from public view.  Gaelic scholarship had better things to do with its time than to give guided tours of the museum.  By the 1980s, however, Gaelic academics were beginning to look afresh at the disiecta membra, in the context of a renewed interest in Ossian prompted partly by the gross errors and excesses of Hugh Trevor-Roper (the Dr Johnson of the twentieth century?) published infamously in 1983.  It was also stimulated by a broader European concern with Ossian's impact, represented by the work of Dr Howard Gaskill in Edinburgh and by his Ossian Revisited of 1991.  Debates about identity and tradition stimulated further activity.


However, I need to prove my point about Ossian and the development of Gaelic scholarship.  The selectivity of twentieth-century scholars leaves a great gap between 1887 and 1950, and an even greater one between 1887 and 1800, and these have to be filled if we are to see how Gaelic scholarship came into its own alongside, and in dialogue with, the question of Ossian.  To do this we must go back to MacBain, and to his article of 1887.  MacBain's piece was written as a by-product of an immense engagement with Ossian which resulted in the publication of a very large article by him entitled 'The Heroic and Ossianic Literature' in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, Vol. 12 (1885). The piece in the Celtic Magazine was by way of specific interest in Ossian per se.  At the outset of the 1887 article MacBain noted:


'So much has been done within the last twenty years in the study of the language, literature and antiquities of the Gael both of Ireland and Scotland, that it is now possible not only to estimate with accuracy Macpherson's position in regard to the ballads and tales that contain our heroic literature, but also to decide with confidence in respect to the authenticity of his ''Ossian'' considered on historical and other scientific grounds.'


MacBain thus implies that a new approach to Gaelic scholarship, which opened new horizons, had emerged in Ireland and Scotland from the mid-1860s.  In this, as in much else, he was correct.  In Scotland John Francis Campbell of Islay had published his Popular Tales of the West Highlands in four volumes between 1860 and 1862.  This represented a major new step for Gaelic scholarship, since the work presented the texts of tales gathered by collectors in the field.  Campbell was influenced by the Grimm brothers, and also by an emerging concern for precision in the representation of collected texts.  Creative interaction with the text in the course of editing was against Campbell's methodology, and in this he was reacting against what he perceived to be the failures of Ossian. In the fourth volume of Popular Tales, Campbell devoted an extensive section to the question of Ossian, and by 1872 he had published his monumental Leabhar na Fèinne ('The Book of the Fian') in which he presented an extremely useful selection of Gaelic ballad texts, often with notes decrying Macpherson.  MacBain, who had graduated from Aberdeen as recently as 1880, was within this new stream of scholarship which made the Gaelic texts, and loyalty to these texts, an important part of the enquiry. MacBain was influenced strongly by the developments in philological understanding (thus the reference to 'scientific grounds') which had been pioneered in Germany, as well as by the historical work of such scholars as Eugene O' Curry in Ireland.  Equipped with the latest power-tools in philology and history, he found - as Campbell had also done in the 1860s - that the conundrum of Ossian provided an excellent piece of old furniture on which to test the new gear.  Thomson's work of 1951 represents a similar kind of test by a young scholar trying out his academic Black and Deckers. It is significant that an interest in Ossian signals the beginnings of new phases in Gaelic scholarship - in 1860-2, in 1880-7 (the decade that saw the creation of the Edinburgh Chair of Celtic in 1882), and again in 1951, when Derick Thomson sets out on his scholarly career.   The pattern is also fairly consistent in showing comparatively little later interest in Ossian, once the initial deconstruction has taken place.  We therefore lack to the present day a rounded picture of James Macpherson and his work, its sources and its influence, written from a Gaelic perspective.  


It is extremely important to note, however, that MacBain was able to handle more than texts, and that, although he reached the conclusion that 'scarcely a third of his whole Ossianic work has any authentic counterpart, such as it is, in the ballads', he was very warmly appreciative of Macpherson as a composer in his own right in the context of the eighteenth century:


'In these papers,' he wrote, 'we have vindicated the character of our genuine heroic and ballad literature, and, though this has been done at the expense of Macpherson's character, his genius stands forth with all the greater brilliance; we are enabled to appreciate and admire his work with genuine confidence apart from the spurious halo of supposed antiquity; and we are further enabled to pay more respect, hitherto too scanty, to those ballads and tales that are the genuine heirloom of our race.'


That is perhaps the fairest verdict yet reached on Macpherson, and it is hard to dissent from it today.  Macpherson is due a proper hearing as a creative writer who based his work on Gaelic ballads and tales; but he is not due a place as a trustworthy transmitter of that material.  We have to live with both sides of his ambivalent contribution to Gaelic culture, but we have to know how to criticise him and why we do so, at the same time as we acknowledge his achievements.   MacBain, it seems to me, had the great wisdom to keep both dimensions in balance, while being absolutely clear about Macpherson's misuse of Gaelic tradition.  Sometimes we can see him moving uneasily to redress the balance, and struggling against his own chiefly philological instincts, which made him less than tolerant of the fumbling, ill-informed efforts of others.


In the course of his 1887 paper, MacBain took issue with earlier scholars.  One of those was the Rev. Dr Archibald Clerk of Kilmallie, who published an edition of Ossian in 1870 which infuriated John Francis Campbell.  Clerk died in 1887, and, as it happened MacBain carried a brief appreciation of Clerk in the same volume as contained his major piece on 'Macpherson's Ossian'.  What MacBain wrote was significant, as it defined an older scholarly profile:


'Dr. Clerk is the last of the great Gaelic scholars of the old school - truly ultimus Romanorum.  In him the older scholarship found its ripest and latest exposition.  His monumental work - the Ossian of 1870 - is the high water mark of that scholarship, presenting its literary and critical powers at their best.  He was an active contributor to Gaelic literature throughout his life; he has in this respect neither equal nor second.'


Here perhaps is MacBain's academic Ossian figure - the last and greatest of the race, the representative of an era now fading away.  He goes on to note how Clerk edited the works of his father-in-law, Dr Norman MacLeod, edited the Gaelic supplement of Life and Work, and collaborated with the Rev. Dr Thomas McLauchlan in producing the 1880 edition of the Gaelic Bible.  This was an important ministerial profile which was to last for many a long day.  Gradually it developed a much greater critical acumen.  The zenith of the scholarly Gaelic clergy is exemplified splendidly in the contribution of the Rev. Dr Thomas Moffat Murchison (1907-84), who may well go down in history as the last of the all-round, Gaelic parish ministers who wrote copious Gaelic prose, edited the Gaelic Supplement of Life and Work, and undertook major editorial projects. 


Like Clerk, Thomas McLauchlan, a contemporary Free Church minister, was a great devotee of Ossian, produced a popular edition of the text, and extolled its moral virtues.  Indeed, the nineteenth-century world of Ossian is dominated by ministers who admired Ossian, and sang its praises.  We find many of the same mind as Clerk in the 1870s, preaching the excellencies and authenticity of Ossian, among them the Rev. Robert Blair, a native Gaelic speaker from Islay, and an important editor of Gaelic texts.  Similar figures can be found in the non-Gaelic camp, extending from the Rev. Patrick Graham of Aberfoyle, who produced a large tome in 1807 in response to Malcolm Laing, to the Rev. Peter Hately Waddell, whose outpourings on Ossian and the Clyde in 1875 so angered John Francis Campbell that he nicknamed him 'Hateful Twaddle'.  The death of Clerk in 1887 probably marked the end of an era, as MacBain implies.  It is certainly very noticeable that by the 1870s and certainly by the 1880s Gaelic scholarship is becoming laicised, as is evident from the careers of MacBain (especially) and also Donald MacKinnon, the first Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh, appointed in 1882.  It is also being professionalised, and developing some degree of  ‘critical distance’ from the older pedagogy and its more groundless assumptions. MacBain and MacKinnon were not ministers who added Ossian to their brief as a second or third string; they were academics who were thoroughly focused on relevant scholarship in a professional capacity.  In school and university respectively, MacBain and MacKinnon helped to produce the new Gaelic-trained generations of scholarly ministers, who made a much more significant and lasting contribution to Gaelic literature than their predecessors.  


One of the most interesting aspects of Ossian scholarship in the earlier nineteenth century is the extent to which it became the preserve of Presbyterian ministers.  The Rev. Donald MacNicol was one of the first Gaelic ministers to spring to the defence of Ossian, and he did not lack successors.  This is particularly ironic, since Macpherson was anxious to dissociate his epics from Christianity, and to set Ossian in a pre-Christian past.  Clerical involvement is probably explained by a number of factors.  We may note, first and foremost, the foundationally important role of the Rev. Hugh Blair of Edinburgh in supporting - and inventing! - Ossian, and also in elaborating the aesthetic concept of the Sublime, which Ossian was believed to embody.  The Sublime was but a short step away from the Divine, and Ossian was also closely allied to Homeric models which the clergy would have known through their study of Greek at university. Ministers were thus liable, by the nature of their profession, to be seduced effortlessly into a defence of Ossian based on spiritual principles, as if they were defending the Bible itself.  Evangelical ministers in the Highlands and Islands or in Gaelic charges in the cities, including some of the stalwarts of the Disruption of 1843, such as the Rev. John MacDonald of Ferintosh and the Rev. Thomas McLauchlan, were as keen to support Ossian as were Moderates, if not more so.  McLauchlan argued that 'the purest mind may come in contact with them [Ossian's poems] without repugnance or the danger of pollution.'   Evangelicalism had a concern for moral purity, but  it also had a heightened sense of the Divine.  It encouraged spiritual revival, just as Ossian had a tendency to stimulate literary revivals. Both kinds of revival were dependent on an authoritative book, and a parallel between the Bible itself and the books of Ossian's verse is not as far-fetched as it seems.  Biblical images were used to defend Ossian.  Furthermore, as Joep Leerssen has well pointed out, Ossian, the supposed poet, was a liminal figure. He was thus likely to appeal to ministers, who were themselves wisdom figures, acting as intermediaries between heaven and earth, the natural and the supernatural.


The older ministerial scholarship tended to take the text of Ossian as a given, and not to quarrel with it, adducing the existence of earlier Gaelic ballads, wherever possible, as sufficient to disempower the sceptics.  As Clerk's edition shows, it was fashionable to defend it, even in the case of the peculiar idioms of the 1807 Gaelic Ossian.  Much of the ministerial effort was devoted to arguing that Ossian's sublime sentiment was indeed consistent with what was known of the Gaels of old.  The ministers dealt with the spirit, rather than the letter, of Ossian.  The new scholarship, represented by MacBain, looked much more closely at the letter, namely the texts. By adopting a comparative methodology, developed (presumably) from the example of comparative philology, it could probe more deeply Macpherson's use - or misuse - of 'authentic' texts.   Its verdict on Macpherson was often severe, and justly so, but it also tended to treat the creative side of Macpherson's work negatively. This can be seen in the comments of Alexander MacBain, but most evidently in John Francis Campbell's stinging indictment of Clerk and Waddell.  The century therefore concluded on a a very different note from that on which it began.  In his paper of 1895/1900, the German scholar Ludwig Stern is extremely scathing about those scholars who supported Ossian.  Stern even succeeds in arraigning MacBain among the malefactors.  Stern may well have been reacting against the enthusiasm for Ossian which influenced Germany so strongly in the late eighteenth century and left its mark on European literature long after that date.  As a result of severely astringent analyses of this kind, a major slice of Gaelic cultural history - one might say, its philosophical, ideological and ethnological dimensions, and its response to the Enlightenment - has been seriously understudied, if not dismissed in a rather peremptory manner. 


MacBain, on the other hand, had a broader, more humane perspective, and could balance his scepticism in such a way as to accommodate the creative element.  He saw what he regarded as the death of the heroes of the old scholarship.  He was prepared to take issue with their methodology, while recognising their strengths in creative literature and biblical scholarship.  Yet, although eras can end, ideas can endure.  The old stream of scholarship co-existed alongside the new long after 1860, and even after 1880. Despite MacBain's strictures, the influence of the 'ultimi Romanorum' lingered on, and it survived into the earlier twentieth century (as can be seen in Keith Norman MacDonald's series, 'Why I believe in the Ossianic poems',  in the Celtic Monthly in the early 1900s). There were many stresses and strains in the relationship between the old and the new approaches; J.F. Campbell was aware of them in the early 1860s. 


Sometimes, however, the two streams actually intermingled. This modus vivendi, which kept a foot in both camps and tried to reconcile contradictions, can be seen most clearly in the writings of Professor Donald MacKinnon, the first Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh.  MacKinnon began to explore, in the light of Ossian, how the Gaels of old had lived, calling on proverbial lore in particular as the foundation of his case.  He afforded a very high place to Ossian - the broader poetic persona, rather than the creator of literary texts - as a representative of the way that Gaels thought, while he was very much aware of the case against the literary work called Ossian.  From this tension, and its antinomies, came the first attempt to grapple ethnologically - and from within - with issues of Gaelic identity.  This creative tension also fostered the first attempt to look critically at Gaelic texts from a Gaelic perspective.  Overall, MacKinnon produced a fascinating and important interpretation – if not a re-creation – of the Gaelic volk which is very similar in some respects to that produced by the German writer, Johann Gottfried Herder, in the later eighteenth century under the influence of Ossian.  MacKinnon’s essays breathe the pride and joy of cultural self-discovery, and the need for accompanying self-definition, in the context of the Celtic revivalism of the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Gaelic world and its people seemed almost to be reborn in the struggle for land rights and Celtic Chairs.


To sum up, we can say that responses to Ossian, both positive and negative, were the concern of different schools of Gaelic scholars throughout the ninetheenth century.  Gaelic honour was to be defended, and to this challenge the clerical fraternity rose to do their duty.  There was also a textual issue at the heart of the matter that had to be studied and analysed, and the newer post-1860 stream of scholarship, represented by Campbell and MacBain, grappled with that, to the detriment of belief in Ossian.  There was, in addition, a via media, which sought to identify what was truly Gaelic in the many masks of Ossian, and that, it seems to me, was the (often ambivalent) field in which Professor MacKinnon operated.  All of these efforts were productive of new departures - new writing in Gaelic itself, in the case of Norman MacLeod and Archibald Clerk, new paradigms of scholarly enquiry in the case of Alexander MacBain, and a new approach to Gaelic ethnic identity, in the case of Donald MacKinnon. These various approaches to Ossian lingered into the twentieth century, and Celtic and Gaelic studies benefited from them, but ultimately the more sceptical view prevailed, in the twentieth century as in the nineteenth, and Ossian was classified as a fraud.  Now, like MacBain in 1887, we are faced with the challenge of redressing the balance, and seeing Ossian - the derived work and the created work - once again in its wider context.  We will be much the poorer if we cannot see the picture in the round, and thus enabled to recognise Ossian’s value as a catalyst, for both good and ill, within Gaelic cultural history.


  1. Thank you for this article. It was useful for me in writing my essay on Ossian.

  2. Many thanks to you for letting me know! I am delighted that you found the article useful. The blog tries to make such material accessible for students and scholars. Every success in your future studies.

  3. Thanks Donald. I am much attached to the Romantic tradition and knew and liked that "Ossian" was a source. I must now read it in English. I heard of you today with your poem, "Which Flag?"