Scotlands History

Ossian

Ossian (Gaelic ‘Oisin’) was a legendary Celtic warrior and bard, son of Fingal (Fionn), said to have lived in the 3rd century. Poems said to be Ossian’s were published in 1760 in ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland’ - ‘translated’ by James Macpherson (1736–96), from Kingussie.

Ossian shall prevail or fall. But shall the fame of the vanquished rise? They pass like a shade away. But the fame of Ossian shall rise!

The Poems of Ossian; translated by James Macpherson, Esq. 1773

Macpherson’s other books included ‘Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem’ (1763) and the two-volume ‘Works of Ossian’ (1765).

These all became hugely successful bestsellers, admired for their rhythm and romantic spirit throughout Britain and Europe, and an important influence on Goethe and the Romantic Movement.

The Emperor Napoleon carried a copy of Ossian on his campaigns. Napoleon said, ‘I like Ossian for the same reason that I like to hear the whisper of the wind and the waves of the sea’.

Macpherson’s books were translated into just about every European language. But their validity was challenged by Dr Johnson and others: they wanted to see the originals.

The fact was that Macpherson probably created much of the work around old Gaelic ballad sources. His work is thus a precursor of other collectors of old poems, including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

  • Painting, Ossian on the Bank of the Lora, by François Pascal Simon Gérard
  • Painting, Ossians Traum by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

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