Ossian (Scottish Gaelic: Oisean) is the narrator and purported author of a cycle of epic poems published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson from 1760. Macpherson claimed to have collected word-of-mouth material in the Scots Gaelic said to be from ancient sources, and that the work was his translation of that material. Ossian is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool, a character from Irish mythology. Contemporary critics were divided in their view of the work's authenticity, but the consensus since is that Macpherson framed the poems himself, based on old folk tales he had collected, and that "Ossian" is, in the words of Thomas Curley, "the most successful literary falsehood in modern history."
The work was internationally popular, translated into all the literary languages of Europe and was influential both in the development of the Romantic movement and the Gaelic revival. "The contest over the authenticity of Macpherson's pseudo-Gaelic productions," Curley asserts, "became a seismograph of the fragile unity within restive diversity of imperial Great Britain in the age of Johnson." Macpherson's fame was crowned by his burial among the literary giants in Westminster Abbey, and W.P. Ker, in the Cambridge History of English Literature, observes that "all Macpherson's craft as a philological imposter would have been nothing without his literary skill."
The poems 
In 1760 Macpherson published the English-language text Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language.
Later that year. Macpherson claimed, he obtained further manuscripts and in 1761 he claimed to have found an epic on the subject of the hero Fingal, written by Ossian. The name Fingal or Fionnghall means "white stranger".
According to Macpherson's prefatory material, his publisher, claiming that there was no market for these works except in English, required that they be translated. Macpherson published these translations during the next few years, culminating in a collected edition, The Works of Ossian, in 1765. The most famous of these Ossianic poems was Fingal, written in 1762.
The poems achieved international success. Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson were great admirers of the work. They were proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical writers such as Homer. Many writers were influenced by the works, including the young Walter Scott, and painters and composers chose Ossianic subjects.
In the German-speaking states Michael Denis made the first full translation in 1768, inspiring the proto-nationalist poets Klopstock and Goethe, whose own German translation of a portion of Macpherson's work figures prominently in a climactic scene of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).
The poem was as much admired in Hungary as in France and Germany; Hungarian János Arany wrote "Homer and Ossian" in response, and several other Hungarian writers – Baróti Szabó, Csokonai, Sándor Kisfaludy, Kazinczy, Kölcsey, Ferenc Toldy, and Ágost Greguss, were also influenced by it.
The opera Ossian, ou Les bardes by Le Sueur was a sell-out at the Paris Opera in 1804, and transformed his career. This led to its influence on Napoleon and Girodet's 1805 painting Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes (see above).
The poems also exerted an influence on the burgeoning of Romantic music, and Franz Schubert, in particular composed Lieder setting many of Ossian's poems. In 1829 Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to visit the Hebrides and composed the Hebrides Overture, better known as "Fingal's Cave". His friend Niels Gade devoted his first published work, the concert overture Efterklange af Ossian ("Echoes of Ossian") written in 1840, to the same subject.
Authenticity debate 
There were immediate disputes of Macpherson's claims on both literary and political grounds. Macpherson promoted a Scottish origin for the material, and was hotly opposed by Irish historians who felt that their heritage was being appropriated. However, both Scotland and Ireland shared a common Gaelic culture during the period in which the poems are set, and some Fenian literature common in both countries was composed in Scotland.
Samuel Johnson, English author, critic, and biographer, was convinced that Macpherson was "a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries". Johnson also dismissed the poems' quality. Upon being asked, "But Doctor Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?" he famously replied, "Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children." Johnson is cited as calling the story of Ossian "as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with". In support of his claim, Johnson also called Gaelic the rude speech of a barbarous people, and said there were no manuscripts in it more than 100 years old. In reply, it was proved that the Advocates' library at Edinburgh contained Gaelic manuscripts 500 years old, and one of even greater antiquity.
Scottish author Hugh Blair's 1763 A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian upheld the work's authenticity against Johnson's scathing criticism and from 1765 was included in every edition of Ossian to lend the work credibility. The work also had a timely resonance for those swept away by the emerging Romantic movement and the theory of the "noble savage", and it echoed the popularity of Burke's seminal A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).[original research?]
In 1766 the Irish antiquarian and Gaelic scholar Charles O'Conor dismissed Ossian's authenticity in a new chapter Remarks on Mr. Mac Pherson's translation of Fingal and Temora that he added to the second edition of his seminal history. In 1775 he expanded his criticism in a new book, Dissertation on the origin and antiquities of the antient Scots.
Faced with the controversy, the Committee of the Highland Society enquired after the authenticity of Macpherson's supposed original. It was because of these circumstances that the so-called Glenmasan manuscript (Adv. 72.2.3) came to light,[when?] a compilation which contains the tale Oided mac n-Uisnig. This text is a version of the Irish Longes mac n-Uislenn and offers a tale which bears some comparison to Macpherson's "Darthula", although it is radically different in many respects. Donald Smith cited it in his report for the Committee.
The controversy raged on into the early years of the 19th century, with disputes as to whether the poems were based on Irish sources, on sources in English, on Gaelic fragments woven into his own composition as Johnson concluded, or largely on Scots Gaelic oral traditions and manuscripts as Macpherson claimed.
In 1952, Scottish poet Derick Thomson concluded that Macpherson had collected Scottish Gaelic ballads, employing scribes to record those that were preserved orally and collating manuscripts, but had adapted them by altering the original characters and ideas, and had introduced a great deal of his own. The modern American literature professor and translator Bernard Knox refers to the Ossian book as a forged or fake "collective bardic epic".
- 1996: The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill, with an Introduction by Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press).
- 2004: Ossian and Ossianism, Dafydd Moore, (London: Routledge). A 4-volume edition of Ossianic works and a collection of varied responses (London: Routledge, 2004). This includes facsimiles of the Ossian works, contemporary and later responses, contextual letters and reviews, and later adaptations.
- 2011: Blind Ossian's Fingal : fragments and controversy a reprint of the first edition and abridgement of the follow-up with new material by Allan and Linda Burnett (Edinburgh: Luath Press Ltd)
See also 
- Thomas M. Curley, Samuel Johnson, the Ossian Fraud, and the Celtic Revival in Great Britain and Ireland (Cambridge U.P.) 2009, Introduction. Curley outlines the activity of Samuel Johnson in debunking the "Ossianic" texts, and reviews the mass of scholarship regarding Macpherson's Ossian since.
- In The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. 10 "The Age of Johnson": "The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages" p. 228.
- "Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland", Literary Encyclopedia, 2004, retrieved 27 December 2006
- Behind the Name: View Name: Fingal
- Howard Gaskill, The reception of Ossian in Europe (2004)
- Berresford Ellis 1987, p. 159
- Arnold M. Thor, myth to marvel; Continuum Publishing, 2011, pp92-97.
- Oszkár, Elek (1933), "Ossian-kultusz Magyarországon", Egyetemes Philologiai Közlöny (LVII): 66–76
- Magnusson 2006, p. 340
- Introduction of Robert Fagles' translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Ossian". The American Cyclopædia. 1879.
- O'Conor, C. Dissertations on the ancient history of Ireland (1753)
- MacKinnon, Donald (1904–5), "The Glenmasan Manuscript", The Celtic Review 1 (6): 3–17
- Lord Auchinleck's Fingal, Florida Bibliophile Society, retrieved 9 April 2010
- Thomson, Derick (1952), The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's 'Ossian'
- Yale University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-300-13686-9
- Non-Fiction Reviews. ""Telegraph" review, 6 June 2008; seen on 29 May 2011". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-04-04.
- Berresford Ellis, Peter (1987), A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, Constable, ISBN 0-09-467540-6
- Gaskill, Howard. (ed.) The reception of Ossian in Europe London: Continuum, 2004 ISBN 0-8264-6135-2
- Magnusson, Magnus (2006), Fakers, Forgers & Phoneys, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1-84596-190-0
- Moore, Dafydd. Enlightenment and Romance in James Macpherson's the Poems of Ossian: Myth, Genre and Cultural Change (Studies in Early Modern English Literature) (2003)
Further reading 
- Black, George F. (1926), Macpherson's Ossian and the Ossianic Controversy, New York
- MacGregor, Patrick (1841), The Genuine Remains of Ossian, Literally Translated, Highland Society of London
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Ossian|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Ossian.|
- The Poetical Works of Ossian Full text at Ex-Classics
- Selected Bibliography: James Macpherson and Ossian Excellent online bibliography; compiled by designated experts in the field; covering the most important scholarly monographs and articles on Ossian and Macpherson up to March 2004.
- Literary Encyclopedia: Ossian
- Popular Tales of the West Highlands by J. F. Campbell Volume IV (1890)
- A Vision of Britain Through Time James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, discussion in entries for 22 and 23 September 1773.
- Calum Colvin: "Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry" Reproduction of the cycle of paintings "Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry" (2002) by one of Scotland's most renowned contemporary artists