Highland hero of poetry hailed 250 years on

HE IS dubbed the Highlands’ most famous literary son. James Macpherson was – like modern-day Scots JK Rowling, Iain Banks, Christopher Brookmyre and Ian Rankin – a bestseller of his day.

In the poems, Ossian was the son of Fingal, who helped to defeat the Vikings. Picture: Getty
In the poems, Ossian was the son of Fingal, who helped to defeat the Vikings. Picture: Getty

And now a conference and heritage festival in Kingussie, where Macpherson was born, will celebrate the publication 250 years ago of his literary “forgery” the ­Poems Of Ossian.

The expert on the author behind the project, academic Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott, says the collection of poems was “like the Harry Potter of the 18th century”.

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“He was so incredibly famous and notorious in his day – scandalous, but very influential,” she said. “Everyone talked about the Poems Of Ossian, whether they liked it or not. Even Napoleon Bonaparte took a copy into battle with him.”

The Poems Of Ossian were the number one books of their day, both in Scotland and more widely in the rest of Europe.

“Ossian” remained a common household name until well into the 19th century, and the poems resonated with writers, philosophers and the general reading public.

Lindfield-Ott said: “Mac­pherson was a controversial figure. His purported translation of ‘authentic’ Gaelic ­poems and songs into English in the three Ossianic publications caused a debate into the nat­ure of poetry, oral literature and publication practices that fuelled thinkers from David Hume to Samuel Johnson.”

Some called Macpherson a “forger”. But Lindfield-Ott says this is ungenerous to a man she describes as “the forgotten Enlightenment man of letters”.

“His books kick-started Highland tourism and James Macpherson’s Ossianic collections single-handedly turned the Highlands into a literary playground,” she said.

They are purported to be translations of the poems of Ossian, a third-century bard in Celtic folklore. The stories con-cern the Viking invasion of Ireland. The Irish call the Scots for help. They turn up, led by Fingal, and defeat the Danes. Ossian is Fingal’s son.

Lindfield-Ott said: “The Poems Of Ossian opened the Highlands to tourists. Tourism only really started in the 1770s, and folks planned their routes with the poetry in mind, and brought copies of it with them.

“There are lots of good quotations from famous writers such as Samuel Johnson, the Wordsworths, Robert Burns and so on that show this.

“Nowadays tourists unconsciously tread in those writers’ footsteps, and we’d like to remind them of this.”

The festival, entitled Mac­pherson’s Ossianic Legacy, takes place in Kingussie next month.

Author Alexander McCall Smith said: “I am delighted that attention is being paid to Macpherson. The significance of his contribution to Scottish life cannot be denied. This conference will help to review a remarkable career and an extraordinary body of work.”