James Macpherson (1736–1796)
1. James Macpherson was a Scottish writer, poet and antiquary, who became
notorious for his “translations” of the third-century
Gaelic bard Ossian. Macpherson claimed to have collected the verses,
primarily from oral sources, on tours of the Scottish Highlands. The Ossian
poems were published in the early 1760s. The question of their
authenticity soon sparked a heated debate. Nonetheless, even some of
Macpherson’s fiercest detractors could not but acknowledge the poetic
craftsmanship of the poems, and they were praised for their invocation
of sentiment and the sublime.
2. In a fairly recent article, James Porter has assessed the wealth of critical
investigative work into the sources and traditions that the Ossian
poems relied on. He comes to the conclusion that Macpherson cannot be
called an outright forger: what he did was to “adapt genuine
material, arranging it into a pattern that fitted current ideas of
epic poetry, ideas that were also moving taste away from neoclassical
models toward a sensibility of feeling”. 
3. Indeed, the Edinburgh professor Hugh Blair, a prolific supporter of
Macpherson, wrote in A Critical Dissertation
on the Poems of Ossian (1763) that Ossian’s
warrior code was characterized by “tenderness, and even
delicacy of sentiment, greatly predominant over fierceness and
barbarity”. This he contrasted with the violence of Ragnar
Lodbrog’s Death Song, from which he translated a large extract.
In fact, he purports that turning to Ossian after reading the Norse poem was
“like passing from a savage desart, into a fertile and
cultivated country”.  Nonetheless, one of Ossian’s
fiercest detractors, Malcolm Laing, attacked Macpherson for imitating Norse
poetics, even to the extent that Ossian’s phrase “hawks
of heaven” was lifted from Blair’s translation of the Death
4. In translating the purported Gaelic verses into English, Macpherson chose a
high-flown rhythmic prose. Intentionally, it was a similar style
Thomas Percy chose for the translation of his Five Pieces
of Runic Poetry. In the introduction to this small anthology,
he acknowledges the success of Macpherson’s translation as a
driving force for his own publication: “It would be as vain to deny,
as it is perhaps impolitic to mention, that this attempt is owing to
the success of the ERSE [i.e. Scots- Gaelic] fragments”. 
Fragment of a Northern Tale (1773)
1. Macpherson first printed this “fragment” of an originally Norse
poem in the preface to the collected poems of Ossian, which came out
in 1773. At this time, he was forced into a defensive position. The
Norse piece appears as part of a defence for using English prose to
translate what was allegedly Gaelic verse. The poem seems to be
concerned with events Macpherson describes in the revised edition of
his An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and
Ireland (1773), where he recounts how “Harald
Harfager, king of Norway, pursuing his enemies, who had taken refuge in the
Scottish Isles, reduced the Hebrides and the Orkneys”.  His
source for this was the Icelandic historian Thormud Torfæus,
who tells us that Orkney and Shetland saw intensive settlements of Norwegian
settlers during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. These
became a base for Vikings to plunder the coasts of Scotland and
Norway. In response the Norwegian King Harald Fair Hair annexed the
islands in 875.
2. As it is entirely characteristic of Macpherson, he obscures the source and
provenance of the poem he presents to the public. This makes it
suspect. Nevertheless, other travellers to the northern regions of
Britain also claimed to record specimens of Norse poetry that had been
preserved there. In the year 1774, the Scottish theologian George Low
visited Shetland in order to collect material for a description of the
country and was able to take down thirty-five stanzas of the Norn Ballad of
Hildina from an elder farmer of Foula, Shetland Islands.  In Lockhart’s Life of Scott, a traveller to North Ronaldsay,
the northernmost of the Orkney Islands, is said to have carried with him a
Gray’s “The Fatal Sisters”, then recently
published, which the old inhabitants recognized as a poem they knew as
The Enchantresses. 
From the preface to The Poems of Ossian (1773)
1. The following Poems, it must be confessed, are more calculated to please
persons of exquisite feelings of heart, than those who receive all
their impressions by the ear. The novelty of cadence, in what is
called a prose version, tho’ not destitute of harmony, will not to
common readers supply the absence of the frequent returns of rhime.
This was the opinion of the Writer himself, though he yielded to the
judgment of others, in a mode, which presented freedom and dignity of
expression, instead of fetters, which cramp the thought, whilst the
harmony of language is preserved. His intention was to publish in
verse. The making of poetry, like any other handicraft, may be learned by
industry; and he had served his apprenticeship, tho’ in secret,
to the muses.
2. It is, however, doubtful, whether the harmony which these Poems might derive
from rhime, even in much better hands than those of the Translator,
could atone for the simplicity and energy, which they would lose. The
determination of this point shall be left to the readers of this Preface.
The following is the beginning of a Poem, translated from the Norse to
the Gaëlic language; and, from the latter, transferred into
English. The verse took little more time to the writer than the prose; and
he himself is doubtful (if he has succeeded in either), which of them
is the most literal version.
FRAGMENT of a NORTHERN TALE
1. Where Harold, with golden hair spread o’er Lochlin  his high commands; where,
with justice, he ruled the tribes, who sunk, subdued, beneath his
sword; abrupt rises Gormal  in snow! The tempests roll
dark on his sides, but calm, above his vast forehead appears.
White-issuing from the skirt of his storms, the troubled torrents
pour down his sides. Joining, as they roar along, they bear the Torno,
in foam, to the main.
2. Grey on the bank, and far from men, half-covered, by ancient pines, from
the wind, a lonely pile exalts its head, long-shaken by the storms
of the north. To this fled Sigurd, fierce in fight, from Harold the
leader of armies, when fate had brightened his spear, with renown;
when he conquered in that rude field, where Lulan’s
warriors fell in blood, or rose in terror on the waves of the main.
Darkly sat the grey-haired chief; yet sorrow dwelt not in his
soul. But when the warrior thought on the past, his proud heart
heaved again his side: forth flew his sword from its place; he wounded
Harold in all the winds,
3. One daughter, and one only, but bright in form and mild of soul, the last
beam of the setting line, remained to Sigurd of all his race. His
son, in Lulan’s battle slain, beheld not his father’s
flight from the foes. Nor finished seemed the ancient line! The
splendid beauty of bright-eyed Fithon, covered still the fallen
king with renown. Her arm was white like Gormal’s snow; her bosom
whiter than the foam of the main, when roll waves beneath the
wrath of the winds. Like two stars were her radiant eyes, like two
stars that rise on the deep, when dark tumult embroils the night.
Pleasant are the beams aloft, as stately they ascend the
4. Nor Odin forgot, in aught, the maid. Her form scarce equalled her lofty
mind. Awe moved around her stately lips. Heroes loved – but
shrunk away in their fears. Yet midst the pride of all her charms, her
heart was soft and her soul was kind. She saw the mournful with
tearful eyes. Transient darkness arose in her breast. Her joy was
in the chase. Each morning, when doubtful light wandered dimly on
Lulan’s waves, she roved the resounding woods, to
Gormal’s head of snow. Nor moved the maid alone, &c.
The same versified.
Where fair-hair’d Harold, o’er Scandinia
And held with justice, what his valour gain’d,
Sevo, in snow, his rugged forehead rears,
And, o’er the warfare of his storms, appears
Abrupt and vast. – White-wandering down his side
A thousand torrents, gleaming as they glide,
Unite below; and pouring through the plain
Hurry the troubled Torono to the main.
Grey, on the bank, remote from human kind,
By aged pines, half sheltered from the wind,
A homely mansion rose, of antique form,
For ages batter’d by the polar storm.
To this fierce Sigurd fled, from Norway’s lord,
When fortune settled, on the warrior’s sword,
In that rude field, where Suecia’s chiefs were slain.
Or forced to wander o’er the Bothnic main.
Dark was his life, yet undisturb’d with woes,
But when the memory of defeat arose
His proud heart struck his side; he graspt the spear,
And wounded Harold in the vacant air.
One daughter only, but of form divine,
The last fair beam of the departing line,
Remain’d of Sigurd’s race. His warlike so
Fell in the shock, which overturn’d the throne,
Nor desolate the house! Fionia’s charms
Sustain’d the glory, which they lost in arms.
White was her arm, as Sevo’s lofty snow,
Her bosom fairer than the waves below,
When heaving to the winds. Her radiant eyes
Like two bright stars, exulting as they rise,
O’er the dark tumult of a stormy night,
And gladd’ning heav’n, with their majestic light.
In nought is Odin to the maid unkind.
Her form scarce equals her exalted mind;
Awe leads her sacred steps where’er they move,
And mankind worship, where they dare not love.
But, mix’d with softness, was the virgin’s pride,
Her heart had feeling, which her eyes deny’d.
Her bright tears started at another’s woes,
While transsient darkness on her soul arose.
The chase she lov’d; when morn, with doubtful beam
Came dinly wandering o’er the Bothnic stream,
On Sevo’s sounding sides, she bent the bow,
And rous’d his forests to his head of snow.
Nor mov’d the maid alone; &c.
Source: The Poems of Ossian. Translated by James
Macpherson, rev. ed., vol. 1 (London: W. Strahan; and T. Becket,
 James Porter,
“Bring Me the Head of James Macpherson”: The Execution of Ossian and the Wellsprings of
Folkloristic Discourse”, Journal of
American Folklore 114 (2001): 396–435, at
Hugh Blair, A Critical
Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal
(London: T. Becket and P.A. De Hondt, 1763),
Malcolm Laing, On the Supposed Authenticity of
Ossian’s Poems, appended to The
History of Scotland, vol. 2 (London: T. Cadell et
al., 1771), 409–10. BACK
 Percy, Five Pieces of Runic Poetry,
Macpherson, An Introduction to the History of Great
Britain and Ireland: Or, an Inquiry into the Origin,
Religion, Future State … of the Britons, Scots, Irish and
Anglo-Saxons, 3rd ed. (London: T.
Becket and P. A. de Hondt, 1773), 80–81. BACK
 George Low,
A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and
Schetland (Kirkwall: William Peace & Son
1879), 108–14. BACK
 John Gibson Lockhart,
Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott,
vol. 3 (Edinburgh: R. Cadell, 1837), 190. BACK
 * The Gaëlic name of
Scandinavia, or Scandinia. BACK
The mountains of Sevo. BACK