Source 7 : ‘Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the poems of Ossian’, compiled by Henry Mackenzie, 1805
Printed book (NLS shelfmark: Oss.226)
The Highland Society of Scotland was established in Edinburgh in 1784. The aim of the society was to enquire into ‘the present state of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and the condition of their inhabitants’ and into ‘the means of improvement of the Highlands’.
It was also concerned with preserving the culture and traditions of the Highlands, and actively collected Gaelic manuscripts and printed literature.
Enquiry set up
Following James Macpherson’s death in 1796, the Highland Society set up a committee to enquire into the authenticity of the Ossian poems. The enquiry was led by Henry Mackenzie, one of the directors of the society and the editor of its ‘Transactions’.
Poems not forged
After collecting testimonies and evidence, the enquiry published its final report in 1805. It concluded that the poems were not a forgery, but that Macpherson had amended and considerably altered the original oral and written sources.
This extract from the report includes the questions which were used as a base for collecting evidence.
THE HIGHLAND SOCIETY OF SCOTLAND
TO THE HIGHLAND SOCIETY OF SCOTLAND.
THE REPORT ON THE POEMS OF OSSIAN
IN execution of the business assigned it, your Committee conceived it to be foreign to its duty to enter into any elaborate argument or discussion on the authenticity of those poems, or to examine, with critical or historical labour, the opinions of different writers who have made this matter a subject of controversy. It conceived the purpose of its nomination to be, to employ the influence of the Society, and the extensive communication which it possesses with every part of the Highlands, in collecting what materials or information it was still practicable to collect, regarding the authenticity and nature of the poems ascribed to Ossian, and particularly of that celebrated collection published by Mr James Macpherson.
For the purpose above mentioned, the Committee, soon after its appointment, circulated the following set of Queries, through such parts of the Highlands and Islands, and among such persons resident there, as seemed most likely to afford the information required.
I. HAVE you ever heard repeated or sung, any of the poems ascribed to Ossian, translated and published by Mr Macpherson? By whom have you heard them so repeated, and what time or times? Did you ever commit any of them to writing, or can you remember them so well as now to set them down? In either of these cases, be so good to send the Gaelic original to the Committee.
II. The same answer is requested concerning any other ancient poems of the same kind, and relating to the same traditionary persons or stories with those in Mr Macpherson’s collection.
III. Are any of the persons, from whom you heard any such poems, now alive? Or are there, in your part of the country, any persons who remember and can repeat or recite such poems? If there are, be so good to examine them as to the manner of their getting or learning such compositions; and set down, as accurately as possible, such as they can now repeat or recite; and transmit such their account, and such compositions as they repeat, to the Committee.
IV. If there are, in your neighbourhood, any persons from whom Mr Macpherson received any poems, inquire particularly what the poems were which he so received, the manner in which he received them, and how he wrote them down; shew those persons, if you have an opportunity, his translation of such poems, and desire them to say if the translation is exact or literal; or, if it differs, in what it differs from the poems, as they repeated them to Mr Macpherson, and can now recollect them.
V. Be so good to procure every information you conveniently can, with regard to the traditionary belief, in the country in which you live, concerning the history of Fingal and his followers, and that of Ossian and his poems; particularly concerning those stories and poems published by Mr Macpherson, and the heroes mentioned in them. Transmit any such account, and any proverbial or traditionary expression in the original Gaelic, relating to the subject, to the Committee.
VI. In all the above inquiries, or any that may occur to [blank space] in elucidation of this subject, he is requested by the Committee to make the inquiry, and to take down the answers, with as much impartiality and precision as possible, in the same manner as if it were a legal question, and the proof to be investigated with a legal strictness.
WHEN Dr Blair, in 1763, wrote his dissertation on the poems of Ossian, he proposed to accompany it with certain documents in support of the authenticity of these poems. It appears that he had applyed to his celebrated friend, Mr David Hume, for his opinion as to what should be the nature of the evidence he should endeavour to obtain on that subject. In answer to this request, Mr Hume wrote the following letters, which, notwithstanding their value to the reader, the Committee should have felt some scruples against inserting here, if they had not already appeared in another publication.
- How did the committee of the Highland Society of Scotland collect evidence for the report on the Ossian poems?
- Compare this with source 3. How would Mackenzie’s investigations help to answer David Hume’s demand for proof?
- Consider the date of this report with regard to the publication of the Ossian poems. How reliable do you think the evidence is? Give reasons for your answer.