Ossian the Giant, Highlands
The issue of intellectual property is not restricted to the modern era. Indeed, reputations were won and lost on the issue of plagiarism and literary integrity.
But in the curious case of James MacPherson, it was not plagiarism but an alleged forgery which saw his literary reputation disintegrate. For the time, his status was akin to superstardom. His fall was borne out of accusations that his translation from gaelic of legendary 3rd Century Celtic poet Ossian, son of Irish King, Fingal, was a fraud. But, in the time that has passed since the publication of ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland’ MacPherson has some grounds to appeal the slight made against his integrity.
In 1760, when MacPherson first published works translated from a manuscript he found while travelling the Highlands, Scotland was a country waking up to its own identity. The rich tapestry of Celtic culture, the mythological ethos of the warrior poet, was incredibly attractive to the people of the time. It was a window into a more romantic past; MacPherson’s fame rocketed on the back of it.
MacPherson’s translations had a tumultuous impact on the Scottish literary scene. All of which attracted detractors who, with reason, found flaw in his transcriptions, branding his unlikely discovery as a fraud, a hoax. But does this make MacPherson’s impact any the lesser? A boy from Ruthven, Invernesshire, devout Highlander and patriot, if MacPherson’s translations were indeed a hoax and he had penned them himself, then surely his work, now one of fiction, perhaps deserves a different appreciation, not outright denunciation.
MacPherson had a powerful nemesis in the literary titan of the time, Dr Samuel Johnson. As the copies of MacPherson’s books created a sensation, Johnson set out to debunk his work and expose him as a fake. Johnson toured the Highlands for 83 days, documenting his experiences in his typically adroit style with his ‘A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’. Johnson never uncovered Ossian but popular culture immortalised him at Fingal’s Cave in Staffa and Ossian’s Cave in Glencoe.
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