Macpherson, James

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Macpherson, James (1736-1796): Scottish Poet.

James Macpherson, author of the Ossian poems, was born in 1736 and died in 1796. He studied at both the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh but took degrees from neither. He is the perpetrator of one of the great forgeries of British literary history.

He published much poetry as a university student in the mid 1750s but later wished to suppress it. In 1760 he published the first of the alleged translations of ancient Gaelic poems, Fragments of Ancient Poetry, and at the urging of Hugh Blair, later to be the author of Lectures on Rhetoric and the Belles Lettres (1783), he began to write more. Fingal followed in 1761, and then Temora in 1763. The poems were popular in Britain and abroad, but readers quickly became suspicious of their authenticity. Kames, Henry Home, Lord supported Macpherson; Hume, David liked the poems, defended them, then changed his mind and denounced them as forgeries; Johnson, Samuel expressed his skepticism in Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), and Macpherson challenged him to a duel because of it. Boswell, James, one of Macpherson’s financial supporters, was dubious as well, and in 1781 William Shaw, a Gaelic scholar, took Johnson’s view in his Inquiry into the Authenticity of Ossian. Scott concurred, but in 1805 the Highland Society of Scotland concluded that the poems were genuine, and many subsequent nineteenth century critics defended Macpherson against charges of plagiarism. The author of the Dictionary of National Biography article (1917), Thomas Banks Strong, declares conclusively in his favor, though modern scholars consider them obvious forgeries.

Macpherson appealed to lovers of heroism and primitivism. He catered to Scottish and repelled English nationalists. The poems were loved by Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von, Byron, and Bonaparte, Napoleon.

After writing the Ossian poems, Macpherson worked as secretary to Governor Johnston at Pensacola, Florida, Florida having been ceded to England in 1763, and had then left to travel in North America. He then turned to history, publishing Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1771), the Jacobite History of Great Britain, from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover (1775), and Original Papers, Containing the Secret History of Great Britain (1750). He also published a translation of the Iliad in 1773.

Further Reading:

Paul J DeGategno, James Macpherson, 1989.

Paul Beidler