«* National Library of Scotland ■■jin B000157358*. V POEMS OF OSSIAN, IN THE ORIGINAL GAELIC, WITH A LITERAL TRANSLATION INTO LATIN, BY THE LATE ...»
Here then we have decisive proofs of the actual existence of Gaelic and Irish manuscripts written at different periods since the ninth century, j* Those writers, who have denied the existence of Gaelic MSS. in Scotland, ought also to have denied the evidence of the ancient Irish MSS. deposited more than a hundred years ago in Trinity College, Dublin. For it is in vain to argue, laying Icolmkill out of our consideration, that while writing and learning was cultivated in Ireland in the vernacular tongue of that country, that the Scottish Highlanders in * Some of the MS. poems ascribed to Ossian, and in the possession of the Highland Society, are noticed in Sir John Sinclair’s Dissertation, p. 36. and in Note E. to Cesarotti’s Dissertation.
f Mr. Astle has, in Plate 22, given us ocular demonstration, that the Gaelic and Irish characters are the same; and it is well known, that the Gaelic, or Erse language, and the Iberno-Gaelic, are now nearly the same, and that they are both confessedly dialects of the Celtic.
AUTHENTICITY OF OSSIAN’S POEMS. 447 the north and west districts, who spoke the same language, and had constant intercourse with the Irish, could remain ignorant of letters. The supposition is too absurd to require a serious refutation.
2. In addition to the general observations, made under the head of Oral Tradition, Ancient Song and Music, and what is said in the preceding section, we shall now briefly take a cursory view of tbe evidence recently laid before the public to prove, that the poems ascribed to Ossian existed in various fragments or manuscripts, and have been recited for ages, and sung to music, in the Highlands of Scotland.
In a letter from Sir John Macpherson, Bart.* to Doctor Blair, dated the 4th February, 1760, he mentions having selected from his collection of Gaelic poems, and transmitted to the Doctor, in order to satisfy Mr. Percy’s curiosity, three specimens of the original poems ascribed to Ossian; namely 1. Ossian's Courtship ofEverallin; 2. his Address to the Evening Star, the original of which, Sir John says, suffered in the hands of Mr. Macpherson, though he has shewn himself inferior to no translator; 3.
Ullin’s War-Song. Sir John declares upon his honour, that he never received any of these originals from Mr. Macpherson, nor took the least assistance from his translation. And he concludes with observino-, “ if you forward these specimens to Mr. Percy, he certainly will make the requisite allowance for the * A Member of the Committee appointed to superintend this publication.
448 SUPPLEMENTAL OBSERVATIONS ON THEdifference of copies. Others, to whom he will perhaps shew them, and who are less accquainted with the manner in which our ancient poetry was preserved, may not be equally candid. But after you have convinced men of the nicest taste in Europe, it would be a mistake in any one to endeavour to convince those, who have not the power of believing, or the good taste to discern the genuineness and antiquity of any work from the turn of its composition.” Sir James Macdonald, in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated Isle of Sky, 10th October, 1763,# says, “ these islands never were possessed of any curious manuscripts, as far as I can learn, except a few which Clanronald had, and which are all in Macpherson’s possession. The few bards that are left among us, repeat only detached pieces of these poems I have often heard and understood them ; particularly from one man called John Maccodr-um, who lives upon my estate of North Uuist. I have heard him repeat for hours together poems, which seemed to me to be the same with Macpherson’s translation.” Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, who, in the year 1?60, accompanied Mr. Macpherson during some part of his journey, while in search of the poems of Ossian through the Highlands, declares in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated the 23d October, 1763,f “ I assisted him in collecting them, and took down from oral tradition, and transcribed from old manuscripts by far the greatest part of those pieces he has * Appendix to Report of the Highland Society, p. 3.
-f See Letter in Appendix to Report of the Highland Society, p. S.
AUTHENTICITY OF OSSIAN’s POEMS. 449 published. Since the publication, I have carefully compared the translation with the copies of the originals in my hands, and find it amazingly literal, even in such a degree as to preserve in some measure the cadence of the Gaelic versification. I need not aver, Sir, that these poems are taken in this country, to be of the utmost antiquity. This is notorious to almost all those who speak the Gaelic language in Scotland. In the Highlands the scene of every action is pointed out to this day, and the historical poems of Ossian have been for ages the winter evening amusements of the clans. Some of the hereditary bards, retained by the chiefs, committed very early to writing, some of the works of Ossian. One manuscript in particular was written as far back as the year 1410, which I saw in Mr. Macpherson's possession."
The late Doctor John Macpherson, minister of Sleat, in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated 27th November, 1763,* bears testimony to the following facts, that he had perused a Gaelic MS. containing all the poems translated by Mr. Macpherson, or a considerable part of them; and he solemnly affirms, that he had seen a Gaelic manuscript in the hands of an old bard, who was in the habits of travelling in the Highlands and Isles, about the year 1733, out of which he read in his hearing, and before thousands alive at the date of his letter, the exploits of Cuthullin, Fingal, Oscar, Ossian, Gaul, Dermid, and the other heroes celebrated in Mr. Macpherson’s book. That this bard was descended of a race of ancestors, who had served the * See Appendix to Report of Highland Society, p. 9.
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450 SUPPLEMENTAL OBSERVATIONS ON THEfamily of Clanronald for about three hundred years, in quality of bards and genealogists, and whose predecessors had been employed in the same office by the Lords of the Isles long before the family of Clanronald existed. That the name of the tribe which produced these hereditary poets and senachies, was Macmurrich. That the poems contained in the manuscripts belonging to the Macmurrichs, were identically the same with those published by Mr. Macpherson, or nearly so, seemed to be abundantly probable. That he had caused to be rehearsed from memory in his hearing, by persons competent to the task, several fragments or detached pieces of Ossian’s poems, and afterwards compared those pieces with Macpherson’s translation. The pieces he has particularly enumerated, and has also given the names of the rehearsers.
Doctor Macpherson, in giving his opinion impartially, how far the translations given by the publisher of Ossian’s works agree with the original, in as far as he had occasion to see or hear the latter, makes the following judicious remarks, “ Those who are ready to believe, that Mr. Macpherson has given his translation of Ossian’s works from an ancient manuscript, cannot pretend to determine that his version is too free, too incorrect, or faulty in any respect, until they are able to compare it with the original contained in that manuscript. But those who suppose, or may think, that Mr. Macpherson was at the pains to consult different rehearsers, and to compare their various editions, must suppose, and think at the same time, that he had an undoubted right, like AUTHENTICITY OF OSSIAN’s POEMS. 451 every editor who collates several different manuscripts, to depart from the words of this or that edition, when he saw good reason for so doing, to prefer the diction, sentiments, versification, and order of one to those of another; nay, to throw a conjectural emendation now and then into his version, when he found the original text corrupted by all the rehearsers. This being admitted,” says Doctor Macpherson, “I shall make no difficulty of thinking that the editor of Ossian’s works has translated those parts of the original which were repeated in my hearing, I will not say with a servile exactness, hut upon the whole inimitably well. I add further, that he has turned some of the detached pieces so frequently repeated in this part of the country, from the Gaelic into English, as literally as he ought to have done. Meantime I can hardly hinder myself from believing, that the original Gaelic stanzas of some poems, rendered into English by him, are, in not a few instances, rather better than those corresponding with them in the translation, however masterly that undoubtedly is.” Doctor Macpherson, in accounting for the manner in which Ossian’s compositions were preserved from age to age, and transmitted to our day without any material corruptions, makes the following classical and judicious observations.
“ Ossian was the Homer of the ancient Highlanders, and at the same time one of their most illustrious heroes. A people who held bards in the highest esteem, and paid withal the profoundest respect to the memory of those who had distinguished I
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themselves among their ancestors by military virtue, would have taken all possible care to preserve the works of an author in whom these two favourite characters, that of the matchless bard, and that of the patriot hero were so happily united. The poems of that author would have been emulously studied by the bards of succeeding generations, and committed at the same time' to the memory of every one else who had any taste for these admirable compositions.
They would have been rehearsed upon solemn occasions by these bards, or by these men of taste, in assemblies wherein the noble exploits of the most renowned chiefs, and the spirited war-songs of the most eminent poets, made the principal subjects of conversation. Tradition informs us, that this was one of the principal pastimes of our forefathers at their public entertainments ; and I can myself aver, that in memory of hundreds now alive, almost every one of our mightiest chieftains had either a bardling, or an old man remarkably well versed in the poetical learning of ancient times, near his bed every long night of the year, in order to amuse and lull him asleep with the tales of other days, and these mostly couched in verse. Among the poetical tales repeated on these occasions, the achievements of Fingal, Gaul, Oscar, &c. or, in other words, the works of Ossian, held the first place : nor is that old custom, after all the changes that taste has suffered here, entirely discontinued at this time. When these two customs prevailed universally, or nearly so, when thousands piqued themselves upon their acquaintance with the works of Ossian; when men extremely poor, superAUTHENTICITY OF OSSIAN’s POEMS. 453 animated, or any how rendered incapable of earning their bread in any other way, were sure of finding kind patrons among the better sort of people, or of being favourably received every where, if intimately acquainted with these works, it was hardly possible that they could either have perished totally, or have been greatly adulterated, I mean adulterated to such a degree, as would have very much defaced their original beauty, or have entirely destroyed their real excellence.
“ Again, should we suppose with Mr. Macpherson, that Ossian lived down to the beginning of the fourth century, it seems plain enough that the compositions of that poet might have been transmitted orally from one generation to another, until letters began to flourish in some degree in the Highlands and Isles.
It is certain, beyond any possibility of contradiction, that we have several Gaelic songs preserved among us here, which are more than three hundred years old ; and any one who can pretend to be tolerably well versed in the history of Scotland, must know that our ancestors, in the western parts of this kingdom, had the use of letters from the latter end of the sixth age at least. To attempt a proof of that assertion here, however easy it would be to give a convincing one, would unavoidably engage me in a discussion too long to be comprehended within the compass of a letter. But most certain it is, that we had men of some learning among us, from after the period just mentioned, at Icolmkill, and in other western isles, when almost every other part of Europe was overspread with ignorance and barbarity. If so,
454 SUPPLEMENTAL OBSERVATIONS ON THEit must be allowed that we had men capable enough of writing manuscripts. In these manuscripts, the works of Ossian might have been easily preserved;
and copies drawn after these originals might, with the same ease, have transmitted his genuine compositions uncorrupted, or nearly so, from one age to another, until we come down to the present generation.” Mr. Angus Macneill, Minister of Hovemore in South Uist, in his letter to Doctor Blair of the 23d December, 1763,* confirms the declarations of some of his parishioners who had seen and read a considerable part of ancient manuscripts, which treated of the wars of Fingal and Comhal, his father, and he declares that Mr. Macdonald, of Demisdale, rehearsed from memory before him some passages of Fingal, that agreed exactly with Mr. Macpherson’s translation, namely, the terms of peace proposed by Morla in Swaran’s name to Cuthullin. Fing. Book II. and several other striking descriptions and passages in Book IV. and V. Mrv Macneill corroborates that part of the testimony of Doctor Macpherson, relative to the bard Macmurrich, who, with his predecessors, for nineteen generations hack, had been the bards and historians of the family of Clanronald.