Source 4 : Extract from ‘A journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’ by Samuel Johnson, 1775
Printed book (NLS shelfmark: Oss.202)
The debate about the authenticity of the Ossian poems was most heated in the 1770s and 1780s. One of the fiercest, and most famous, attacks came from the English writer, essayist and critic Samuel Johnson. His opinion of the poems was published as part of ‘A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’, an account of an 83-day tour of the Highlands and Islands in the company of his friend James Boswell.
Johnson strongly believed that the Ossian poems were ‘an imposture’, and that ‘they never existed in any other form’ than the published versions.
I suppose my opinion of the poems of Ossian is already discovered. I believe they never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. The editor, or author, never could shew the original; nor can it be shewn by any other; to revenge
reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt. It would be easy to shew it if he had it; but whence could it be had? It is too long to be remembered, and the language formerly had nothing written. He has doubtless inserted names that circulate in popular stories, and may have translated some wandering ballads, if any can be found; and the names, and some of the images being recollected, make an inaccurate auditor imagine, by the help of Caledonian bigotry, that he has formerly heard the whole.
I asked a very learned Minister in Sky, who had used all arts to make me believe the genuineness of the book, whether at last he believed it himself? but he would not answer. He wished me to be deceived, for the honour of his country; but would not directly and formally deceive me. Yet has this man’s testimony
been publickly produced, as of one that held Fingal to be the work of Ossian.
It is said, that some men of integrity profess to have heard parts of it, but they all heard them when they were boys; and it was never said that any of them could recite six lines. They remember names, and perhaps some proverbial sentiments; and, having no distinct ideas, coin a resemblance without an original. The persuasion of the Scots, however, is far from universal; and in a question so capable of proof, why should doubt be suffered to continue? The editor has been heard to say, that part of the poem was received by him, in the Saxon character. He has then found, by some peculiar fortune, an unwritten language, written in a character which the natives probably never beheld.
I have yet supposed, no imposture but in the publisher, yet I am far from certainty, that some translations have not been lately
made, that may now be obtruded as parts of the original work. Credulity on one part is a strong temptation to deceit on the other, especially to deceit of which no personal injury is the consequence, and which flatters the author with his own ingenuity. The Scots have something to plead for their easy reception of an improbable fiction: they are seduced by their fondness for their supposed ancestors. A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist, who does not love Scotland better than truth; he will always love it better than inquiry: and if falsehood flatters his vanity, will not be very diligent to detect it. Neither ought the English to be so much influenced by Scotch authority; for of the past and present state of the whole Earse nation, the Lowlanders are at least as ignorant as ourselves. To be ignorant is painful; but it is dangerous to quiet our uneasiness by the delusive opiate of hasty persuasion.
But this is the age in which those who could not read, have been supposed to write; in which the giants of antiquated romance have been exhibited as realities. If we know little of the ancient Highlanders, let us not fill the vacuity with Ossian. If we have not searched the Magellanick regions, let us however forbear to people them with Patagons.
- Why does Samuel Johnson suggest that the Scots want to believe in the authenticity of the poems? Refer to the source to support your answer.
- What type of evidence does Johnson demand as proof of the poems’ authenticity?
- Where does Johnson suggest that Macpherson got the inspiration for the Ossian poems?