Illustration from the ‘Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the poems of Ossian’, 1805 (NLS shelfmark: Oss. 226)

An 18th-century controversy

The Ossian poems, published in the early 1760s, became the subject of much controversy and heated debate during the ensuing decades of the 18th century. The poems were presented as direct translations into English of Gaelic poetry written by Ossian, a third-century Celtic bard. Despite much initial enthusiasm for the poems in Scotland, doubts were soon raised about their authenticity. Their compiler and 'translator', James Macpherson, was accused of invention and forgery.

The nature and use of evidence

The debate between Macpherson's supporters and critics raged back and forth for the rest of the century and beyond. The primary sources included in this section highlight the types of evidence which were used to both prove and disprove the authenticity of the poems. Whilst some writers cited internal, or textual, evidence, others called for factual or material evidence in the form of original source material and testimonies.

Find out more online

Full-text digital versions of the sources in this topic, and of other printed material relating to Ossian, are available as part of the Digital Archive on the National Library of Scotland website.

  • Source 1

    Preface to ‘Fragments of ancient poetry’, 1760
  • Source 2

    Preface to ‘Fingal’, 1761
  • Source 3

    Letter from David Hume, 1763
  • Source 4

    Samuel Johnson’s opinion of the poems, 1775
  • Source 5

    An enquiry into the authenticity of the poems, 1781
  • Source 6

    ‘Poems of Ossian’ edited by Malcolm Laing, 1805
  • Source 7

    Highland Society of Scotland report, 1805