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Macpherson, Jameslocked

  • Derick S. Thomson

James Macpherson (1736–1796)

by George Romney, 1779–80

Macpherson, James (1736–1796), writer, was born in the small settlement of Ruthven, near Kingussie, in Badenoch, on 27 October 1736. His father, Andrew, was a small farmer at Invertromie, and his mother, Ellen, was also a Macpherson, both parents distantly related to the chief of the clan Macpherson.

Early years and education

The area in which James was born and brought up was still strongly Gaelic. He attended the local parochial school, and possibly a grammar school in Inverness, before enrolling at King's College, Aberdeen, in the 1752–3 session. He seems to have moved to Marischal College in Aberdeen by 1755, probably because lower fees were charged there, and he is thought to have attended classes at the University of Edinburgh as a divinity student in 1755–6. He ran the charity school in Ruthven briefly about 1756 (a fairly standard interlude for divinity students at that time), but seems to have abandoned his divinity career, and switched to acting as a family tutor. He was employed in this way by Graham of Balgowan by 1758, working also as a corrector of the press for Balfour the publisher in Edinburgh.

Macpherson's home area had close involvements with the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745. He would have been familiar with the sight of the Ruthven barracks, built in 1718 as part of the mechanism to control the Jacobite highlanders. The Jacobite army set fire to the barracks in February 1746, and it was at Ruthven that the army was disbanded in 1746, after the defeat at Culloden. Some of Macpherson's relatives were actively involved in the 1745 rising. There can be little doubt that such events, and the continuing prejudices against highlanders and their culture, impinged on the young Macpherson as he lived through his teens in the early 1750s. The evidence suggests that he was not strongly literate in Gaelic, but used to living in a Gaelic community, and hearing stories and poems recited, and that these experiences influenced his early writing in various ways.

Macpherson's university experience brought other literary influences into play. At Aberdeen he developed his study of the classics, and one of his teachers at Marischal College was Thomas Blackwell, who had published his Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer in 1735. Josef Bysveen, in his Epic Tradition and Innovation in James Macpherson's Fingal (1982) argues that Macpherson was strongly influenced in his Ossianic ‘epics’ by Blackwell's theory of epic. He may also have been influenced by William Lauder's forlorn attempt in 1750 to fabricate originals for Milton's Paradise Lost.

Macpherson's interest in composing verse seems to surface during his Aberdeen years, in the form of humorous and satirical pieces about student life there. There are references to this activity in the article on Macpherson in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, edited by Sir David Brewster in 1830. (Brewster was married to a daughter of Macpherson.) A more serious involvement with verse-making was to appear in the mid-1750s. Bailey Saunders (1894) refers to some early poems in manuscript including 'Death' (an imitation of Robert Blair's 'Grave') and 'The Hunter', influenced by James Thomson's Seasons. 'The Hunter' was evidently a predecessor of Macpherson's The Highlander which was published in Edinburgh in 1758. About this time Macpherson was also contributing poems to the Scots Magazine. One of the earliest, 'On the Death of Marshal Keith', appeared in 1758, with other contributions in 1759. In 1755 he had published an ‘imitation’ of an ode by Horace in the Scots Magazine (see Stafford, 43 ff.).

Early literary contacts and Fragments

The build-up to Macpherson's early literary career is attested by these fleeting references to his Aberdeen days, and the influence of the Badenoch environment, but the most crucial influences surface in his Edinburgh contacts. These can be explored in a little more detail, as there is a considerable bank of evidence available. An influential group of writers, philosophers, and lawmen was building up in Edinburgh at mid-century, and Macpherson's appointment as tutor by Graham of Balgowan seems to have given him an initial entry to this circle. The contacts he developed there were deeply influential, especially from 1759 to 1763, as he built up the bank of writings that were to attract international interest.

Macpherson made the acquaintance of Adam Ferguson, probably on a visit to Ferguson's father's manse in Logierait, accompanying his pupil, the young Graham. Much later, in a letter written in March 1798 (see the Report to the Highland Society, appx, 62 ff.), Ferguson recalled hearing, about 1740, a local tailor reciting a heroic ballad in his father's house, and he quotes two lines in badly spelt Gaelic. He then goes on to recall how he had told his college friend John Home about these ballads. It was Ferguson who provided Macpherson with an introduction to John Home, and they had several meetings in the autumn of 1759, at Moffat in the borders. Home urged Macpherson to show him translations of some of the ballads, and Macpherson is said reluctantly to have complied, producing a poem on the death of Oscar (ibid., appx, 69) and other pieces. This encounter led to further contacts in Edinburgh, particularly with Hugh Blair, and the publication in 1760 of Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland. This publication stirred up considerable interest, both in Edinburgh and in England, and led to a group of Edinburgh lawyers and literati establishing funds to enable Macpherson to explore this literary area more deeply. He made two trips, the first in August and September 1760 and the second between late October 1760 and early January 1761, visiting Perthshire, Argyll, Inverness-shire, and the islands of Skye, North and South Uist, Benbecula, and Mull. He collected manuscripts and oral versions of songs and ballads on these trips.

Macpherson's contacts seem skilfully to have been drawn from both highland and lowland sources. Some of these were friends and relatives in his home area, such as his cousin the Gaelic poet Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie. His contact with Adam Ferguson may have led to his correspondence with the Revd James McLagan whose home district was next to Logierait. McLagan was in the process of making a formidable collection of Gaelic poetry, including many ballads, and he supplied Macpherson with a few versions of Ossianic ballads in 1760–61. McLagan was one of a group of St Andrews University graduates who became deeply involved in such collecting, and Macpherson probably got advice from some of these in his tours in Perthshire and Argyll. He had been influenced earlier by another St Andrews graduate, Jerome Stone. Stone, from Fife, began teaching in the grammar school at Dunkeld in 1750, and in January 1756 he published an English version of a Gaelic heroic ballad in the Scots Magazine. There can be little doubt that this influenced Macpherson, both as to his interest in collecting ballads and in his style of ‘translation’. And a major influence in Macpherson's Ossianic productions was Hugh Blair. Macpherson lived in lodgings in a house below Blair's in Blackfriar's Wynd in Edinburgh, and the two collaborated closely in the production of the books from 1760 to 1763. The exact degree to which Blair either accepted or contributed to the shape and pattern of these is hard to determine, but his influence was very strong.

Ossianic poems

It is difficult to resist the idea that by the time Macpherson met Home in 1759 he had already been wondering whether to adapt the Gaelic ballads and present the result to a non-Gaelic public. The speed with which his ‘translations’ for Home emerged suggests foresight and preparation. His unsuccessful publication The Highlander was a foretaste of Fingal. He must have considered developing further Jerome Stone's initiative of 1756. And in the 'Preface' to the Fragments he hints at the existence of a Gaelic epic: 'In particular there is reason to hope that one work of considerable length, and which deserves to be styled an heroic poem, might be recovered and translated, if encouragement were given to such an undertaking.' He then goes on to give a brief summary of this 'work of considerable length'. And in a footnote to fragment 14 he says 'This is the opening of the epic poem mentioned in the preface.'

The Fragments had an enthusiastic reception, and at first there seemed to be a fairly general acceptance of the poems' authenticity. The 'Preface' had stated that 'The translation is extremely literal. Even the arrangement of the words in the original has been imitated.' Some scepticism gradually began to surface, but it was not sufficiently strong to deter progress in the next phase. Macpherson's two extended tours of the highlands produced a significant body of verse, both in manuscript form and in oral transmission. And he drew on the Gaelic expertise of friends and new acquaintances: ministers, landlords, poets, and the custodians of oral tradition.

At the end of the second tour Macpherson spent some time at the home of a friend, the Revd Andrew Gallie, in Brae-Badenoch. Gallie recalls details of this visit in letters he wrote in 1799 and 1801 (Report to the Highland Society, 30 ff.). Also in the company was the poet Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, and it emerges, unintentionally on Gallie's part, that Lachlan was making a Gaelic translation of a passage which appears in Fingal, book 4. Such translations, or variants of them, were later to be presented as the originals from which James Macpherson's works were translated.

The detailed construction of Fingal later continued in Edinburgh. As Blair recalled in 1797 (Report to the Highland Society, 59) he and Macpherson met frequently at dinner when Macpherson 'used … to read or repeat to me parts of what he had that day translated'. There can be little doubt that Blair contributed to the discussions, with some of his input appearing in the notes, and possibly in the text also.

From a detailed examination of Macpherson's Ossianic publications it is clear that he used a range of Gaelic ballads in a variety of ways. Some sixteen or seventeen ballads can be identified, with several used in the Fragments and in the translations which were included along with the epic Fingal. Temora in 1763 has the smallest input from authentic ballads, while Fingal has the largest. The ballads are used in a range of different ways: sometimes to provide a basic plot, or an adapted plot, sometimes having a sequence of lines or stanzas loosely translated, with interjections, and often taking names or specific incidents from ballads and using these, or more normally variants of these.

A brief example may be used to illustrate a so-called close translation. This occurs in the opening paragraphs of Fingal, book 1. The opening stanza of the Gaelic ballad 'Duan a' Ghairbh' translates 'Arise Hound of Tara [that is, Cuchullin], I see countless ships filling the stormy seas, the ships of the foreigners.' This stanza is used, almost in its entirety, in the opening paragraphs of Fingal. The translations, or close adaptations, are italicized here:

Cuchullin sat by Tura's wall; by the tree of the rustling leaf. … His spear leaned against the mossy rock. His shield lay by him on the grass (…) the scout of the ocean came, Moran the son of Fithil. Rise, said the youth, Cuchullin, rise; I see the ships of Swaran. Cuchullin, many are the foe: many the heroes of the dark-rolling sea.

The most detailed account of the sources Macpherson used, and the variety of ways in which he used them, is to be found in Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's ‘Ossian’ (1952).

While using themes, plots, and names from Gaelic ballads, Macpherson also used themes and references from classical and other sources, and added a great quantity of nature description and Romantic episodes. In this he was probably influenced by Thomas Blackwell's theory of epic, and also by what he saw as a need for establishing a heroic past for the highlands and their culture. In doing this he may well have drawn on some acquaintance with Gaelic poetry's deep involvement with nature and landscape, but he carried this involvement to extremes, continually invoking the glories of nature and the terror of its storms, and meshing these with the heroism and suffering of his heroes and their enemies.

Success and controversy

Fingal's publication attracted much public attention, with a mixture of acclaim and scepticism. The public interest was great enough to persuade Macpherson to produce another epic, Temora, in 1763. This used a Gaelic ballad on the death of Oscar quite extensively in book 1, but after that made hardly any use of Gaelic originals. The overall plot is vague, and the style of writing is less vivid than in Fingal. In the introduction and notes to Temora he attempts to construct a fictional history of the Caledonians and Scots, arguing that Scotland was the original Scotia, and that the Irish Ossianic ballads were borrowed from Scotland. His serious distortion of the evidence aroused Irish resentment. The rather negative reception Temora received brought to a close Macpherson's highly active involvement in such writing.

Gradually, in the British Isles, the original acclaim became slanted towards controversy. Thomas Gray's initial enthusiasm was tempered by doubt, while Dr Johnson's reaction was completely sceptical, and also ill-informed, as when he claimed that there were no Gaelic manuscripts aged over 100 years. Johnson's attack aroused the vituperative response of the Revd Donald MacNicol, a prolific collector of Gaelic verse. The controversy continued in press and magazines for many years, and was to become the focus on Macpherson's early writings for long after his death. Too many of the commentators who had Gaelic expertise were unwilling to condemn Macpherson, though they must have realized the falsity of many of his claims.

The controversy had some positive effects in the Gaelic world, promoting a surge of collecting in the remaining years of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth. McLagan and MacNicol were prominent in this field, as were Ewen MacDiarmid, John Smith, and many others, most of them clergymen. A less creditable result of the Ossianic enthusiasm was the fabrication of Gaelic ballads in the later decades of the eighteenth century.

European reputation

In Europe, by contrast, the reaction seems to have been much more positive. The question of authenticity, and the Scottish/English and Scottish/Irish rivalries, did not greatly concern European readers. They seemed more interested in the published works, whatever their origins were. The wildness of the landscape, the strangeness of the characters, and the Romantic interludes, made a strong appeal. The notion of reviving memories of dark ages and prehistoric peoples had its own Romantic appeal, and was to lead to the revival and creation of national epics elsewhere, as with the Finnish Kalevala.

The reaction in Germany was the most enthusiastic in the early years after Macpherson's publications, contributing significantly to the Sturm und Drang movement. Herder was one of the chief early enthusiasts, and it was at his suggestion that Goethe made some translations of the Scottish poems, and was strongly influenced in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Macpherson's strong influence on the European Romantic movement was to continue for decades, fuelled by many translations into European languages, such as Cesarotti's into Italian in 1763, and a French translation in 1774. Napoleon later became an Ossianic enthusiast, and the fascination with the poems spread to other artistic spheres, as in Brahms's and Mendelssohn's music and Alexander Runciman's etchings. Fresh translations continued to appear in the later twentieth century, including a Japanese one in 1971 which rapidly moved to a second edition, and a Russian one in 1983 with a reputed run of 35,000. Oscar and Malvina were often given as names to French children, and Oscar surfaces also in the Swedish royal family of earlier times.

In Britain a two-volume edition of the Works of Ossian was published in 1765. This included many minor textual changes and rewriting of notes, and also Blair's 'Critical dissertation'. This was the edition which had a major influence in Europe. A further two-volume edition of the Poems of Ossian appeared in 1773, again with a good deal of revision. Among later editions were Malcolm Laing's The Poems of Ossian in 1805, and what is probably the most meticulous edition, based on the early publications: Otto L. Jiriczek's James Macphersons ‘Ossian’: Faksimile—Neudruck der Erstausgabe von 1762/63 mit Begleitband, die Varianten, published in Heidelberg in 1940. The Fragments appeared in an edition by the Augustan Reprint Society in 1966, with an 'Introduction' by John J. Dunn, and in an edition by Clarsach Publications (Dundee) in 1979. The most recent edition of the entire works is The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, published by Edinburgh University Press in 1996. This is edited by Howard Gaskill, and owes much to Jiriczek's edition, but is based textually on the 1765 volumes.

Final years

After 1763 Macpherson's involvement with his early works became rather peripheral, apart from the alterations to the 1765 and 1773 editions. Early in 1764 he was appointed secretary to George Johnstone, governor of the Western Provinces. He spent about two years in America and toured the West Indies, returning in 1766 but retaining his salary, which was converted to a pension for life on condition that he devoted himself to political writing in the form of journalism and pamphlets—becoming a kind of spin doctor in modern terminology. He was indebted at various times to the patronage of Lord Bute. In 1771 he published An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland, a work which had a strong Celtic emphasis. In 1773 he published a translation of the Iliad, in 1775 the Papers Containing the Secret History of Great Britain (a work of some historical importance), and also in 1775 The History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover.

About 1777 Macpherson became involved with John Macpherson, son of the minister of Sleat in Skye whom he had visited in the early 1760s. John had worked for the nabob of Arcot in India, and he became governor-general in India. He made James Macpherson his agent in London. Then in 1780 James became MP for one of the Cornish boroughs, and held this seat for the rest of his life. He had a secret government pension of £500, and was involved in newspaper presentation of government policy.

By this time Macpherson had acquired fairly substantial wealth, and he used part of it to buy land to the north of Kingussie, and to build an imposing mansion there. He gave it the stylish name of Belleville, and it still adorns the landscape there. Macpherson had retained warm feelings for the place of his birth, and his fellow Gaels there, and was noted for his friendship and hospitality during his annual holidays at Belleville.

Macpherson never married, but his liking for the ‘daughters of John Bull’, and his own attractiveness, produced several liaisons and three sons and two daughters. He is said to have treated his offspring generously. His eldest son, James, was to succeed to the estate at Belleville, and later it passed to his daughter Juliet, who married David Brewster in 1810, their descendants taking the additional surname of Macpherson.

James Macpherson died at Belleville on 17 February 1796, just short of his sixtieth birthday, and after a lengthy journey to London was buried in the Poets' Corner at the abbey of Westminster.

Investigation of Macpherson's Ossianic work seems to have intensified after his death. He had left £1000 to promote the publication of the originals, so-called. This was in effect the sum collected by a group of highlanders in India, and sent to the Highland Society of London. This was forwarded to Macpherson in 1784, and he replied saying that he would employ his first leisure time on arranging and printing the originals of the Poems of Ossian. Various friends became involved in this project, and an elaborate edition was published in 1807, with a Gaelic text manufactured to correspond with the English ‘originals’, and a superfluous Latin translation and many notes and essays.

In 1805 a much more credible work was published, the Report to the Highland Society of Scotland. This consists of a large trawl of letters and reminiscences, many of them produced in response to the society's requests to individuals. These included people who had worked with Macpherson, people from whom he had collected poems, and a good range of independent collectors and knowledgeable Gaels. The report contains much valuable information which has been used by later writers on the controversy.

Over 200 years after Macpherson's death it can at least be said that a more detailed understanding exists of the complexities accompanying his publications of 1760–63 and their wide-ranging influences on literature and culture.


  • T. Blackwell, Enquiry into the life and writings of Homer (1735)
  • J. Bysveen, Epic tradition and innovation in James Macpherson's Fingal (1982)
  • H. Gaskill, Ossian revisited (1991)
  • H. Gaskill, The poems of Ossian and related works (1996)
  • A. Gillies, Herder und Ossian (1933)
  • O. L. Jiriczek, James Macpherson's ‘Ossian’ (1940)
  • M. G. H. Pittock, ‘James Macpherson and Jacobite code’, Report to the Highland Society (1805)
  • B. Saunders, The life and letters of James Macpherson (1894)
  • J. S. Smart, James Macpherson, an episode in literature (1905)
  • F. J. Stafford, The sublime savage: a study of James Macpherson and the poems of Ossian (1988)
  • From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic translations, ed. F. Stafford and H. Gaskill (1998)
  • D. S. Thomson, The Gaelic sources of Macpherson's ‘Ossian’ (1952)
  • D. S. Thomson, ‘Bogus Gaelic literature c.1750–c.1820’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, 5 (1958)
  • D. S. Thomson, ‘“Ossian” Macpherson and the Gaelic world of the eighteenth century’, Aberdeen University Review, 40 (1963–4), 7–20
  • D. S. Thomson, foreword, in J. Macpherson, Fragments of ancient poetry (1979)
  • D. S. Thomson, ‘Macpherson's Ossian: ballads to epics’, The Heroic Process, ed. B. Almqvist and others (1987)
  • D. S. Thomson, An introduction to Gaelic poetry, 2nd edn (1990)
  • D. S. Thomson, ‘James Macpherson: the Gaelic dimension’, From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic translations, ed. F. Stafford and H. Gaskill (1998)


  • NL Scot., letters
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp.
  • NRA, priv. coll., estate and papers
  • BL, letters to Warren Hastings, Add. MSS 29142–29164
  • BL, corresp. with earl of Liverpool, Add. MSS 38202–38222, 38306–38309
  • NA Scot., letters to Allan Macpherson
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to W. Duncan, keeper of archives of nabob of Carnatic
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters relating to East India Co., etc.


  • J. Reynolds, oils, exh. RA 1772, Petworth House, Sussex
  • J. K. Sherwin, line engraving, pubd 1775 (after J. Reynolds), BM, NPG
  • G. Romney, oils, 1779–80, NPG [see illus.]
  • oils (after J. Reynolds), Scot. NPG
  • photogravure (after G. Romney), BM