Scotland's epic Ossian poems '˜stolen from Ireland'

Ancient poems regarded as a literary cornerstone of Scottish history are now thought to be an elborate hoax, according to researchers.

Robert Burns was said to be inspired by Ossian's poems. Picture: TSPL Archive
Robert Burns was said to be inspired by Ossian's poems. Picture: TSPL Archive

The investigation into the work of Ossian, a blind 3rd century bard, has concluded that the epic poems were an ingenious fake, stolen from Ireland.

Ossian, a legendary Celtic warrior, has been credited as the narrator and apparent author of poems translated by the Scottish writer James Macpherson.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The poems, “rediscovered” in 1760, inspired the writings of Scotland’s most famous bards, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

Many critics have long suspected that Macpherson framed the poems himself, based on Highland folk tales he had collected.

The new research seems to confirm that theory, judging that the works are based on Irish poems from around 800 years after Ossian is supposed to have died.

Joseph Yose and Ralph Kenna, statistical physicists at Coventry University, along with other colleagues at the University of Oxford and the National University of Ireland Galway made the discovery.

Professor Kenna said: “When you put it all together you do get the feeling very strongly that it might have come from the Irish texts.

“But we’re cautious.

“Our work is ongoing and this is precisely the next thing we’re investigating: whether there is a way one could derive one from the other.”

While Macpherson was adamant that the Scottish poems he translated had nothing to do with Ireland, the resemblance between Ossian and Oisin - a warrior poet in the Irish Fenian cycle - are very similar.

The scientists analysed the similarities between characters in the work and discovered that Ossian’s work matches the 12th-century Irish poems almost identically.

From this it can be determined that in all probability the infamous relics of the Scottish Iron Age are almost certainly from Ireland.

Despite the poems apparently originating from across the Irish Sea, they couldn’t have emerged at a better time in Scotland during the 18th century.

The country was being absorbed into the kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 and the Jacobite uprising had just been crushed by British forces in 1746 - with the Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing the country.

It was not only the Scots who drew their strength from the poems, they became an icon for resistance against the British Empire around the world.

The Emperor Napoleon is said to have carried a copy of Ossian. Napoleon said, ‘I like Ossian for the same reason that I like to hear the whisper of the wind and the waves of the sea’.

The US president Thomas Jefferson called him “the greatest poet who ever existed” and the town of Selma in Alabama, which has close links with the American civil war derived its name from one of the characters in the works.