James Macpherson (1736-1796)
James Macpherson was a writer from Kingussie in the Scottish Highlands, where the Gaelic language and culture was very much alive. Evidence suggests that although Macpherson was a native Gaelic speaker, like many Gaels of his time, he was not well versed in writing Gaelic.
Following discussions about Gaelic poetry with Adam Ferguson, John Home and Hugh Blair, Macpherson published his ‘Fragments of ancient poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland’ in 1760. He claimed that these fragments represented his English translations of poems by an ancient Gaelic bard called Ossian.
Following the success of ‘Fragments’, Macpherson was paid to make research visits to the Highlands to search for more poems. Macpherson then went on to publish two longer Ossianic poems, ‘Fingal’ (1762) and ‘Temora’ (1763).
By the time ‘Fingal’ came out, there was a growing controversy over the origin of the Ossianic works. Critics suggested that they were forgeries penned by Macpherson himself rather than ancient works. Others like Hugh Blair claimed the authenticity of the poems and praised them as important texts demonstrating Scotland’s ancient literary heritage.
Following Macpherson’s death in 1796, the Highland Society of Scotland created a committee, chaired by Henry Mackenzie, to officially investigate the authenticity of the poems. It concluded that the poems were not a forgery, but that Macpherson had amended and altered the original oral and written sources.