restricted access 2. Ossian and the Gaelic World
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26 CHAPTER TWO Ossian and the Gaelic World Lesa Ní Mhunghaile James Macpherson returned to his native Badenoch in 1756 to take up a post as a country schoolmaster. Once there: it is believed, he began to collect Gaelic poetry, without any other view at that time but to amuse himself in that solitude. That was no difficult task in the then state of Badenoch, when a number of old men were still alive who had a great mass of Gaelic poetry treasured up in their memory, which they used to recite to their countrymen when assembled beside a cheerful fire in the long winter nights.1 The poetry Macpherson collected primarily related to a vast corpus of Gaelic heroic literature that was hundreds of years old and had been preserved in the Scottish Highlands. This chapter will examine that corpus as a context for Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760), Fingal (1761/2), and Temora (1763). It will begin by outlining the various interlinked strands of the heroic corpus, with a particular emphasis on the Fiannaigheacht ballad tradition (known in English as Fionn or Fenian ballads) that formed the basis of Macpherson’s ‘translations’. It will then discuss the relationship between the authentic Gaelic tradition and Macpherson’s translations, drawing attention not only to differences but also to characteristics common to both. The Heroic Gaelic Literature of Ireland and Scotland Macpherson was following in the footsteps of a number of collectors, who, from the early eighteenth century, had been collecting Gaelic songs and poetry in the Highlands. Alexander Pope (c. 1706–1782), Minister of Reay, Caithness, made his collection around 1739, while Archibald Fletcher, a farmer in Auchalladar, Glenorchay, learned the poetry by 27 ossian and the gaelic world heart and dictated it to local scribes in 1750. Jerome Stone (c. 1727–1756), a teacher in Dunkeld, made his collection around 1755, as did the Rev. Donald MacNicol (1735–1802), Minister of Lismore, Argyll.2 Stone was responsible for publishing the first ‘translation’ of a Gaelic Fionn ballad, ‘Bás Fhraoich’ (Fraoch’s Death), as ‘Albin and the Daughter of Mey’, in the Scots Magazine for January 1756.3 His commentary highlighted the literary value of Gaelic poetry: ‘those who have any tolerable acquaintance with the Irish language, must know, that there are a great number of poetical compositions in it […] Several of these performances are to be met with, which for sublimity of sentiment, nervousness of expression, and high-spirited metaphors, are hardly to be equalled among the chief productions of the most cultivated nations.’4 Stone’s publication drew attention to a literary tradition hitherto unknown outside the Highlands and almost certainly provided both an exemplar and the impetus for Macpherson’s activities. Macpherson had grown up in a region in which the native Gaelic tradition, handed down orally from generation to generation, was still strong, and he would have been familiar with that tradition from childhood even if he was not strongly literate in Gaelic.5 Some of that tradition had also been preserved in manuscripts created by and disseminated among the bardic order. Manuscript texts were written either in the Classical Gaelic standard language that had been employed by the learned classes in both Scotland and Ireland until the late seventeenth century or in the ‘modified and distinctively Scottish form of Classical Gaelic’ that emerged in the following century.6 Ireland and Scotland constituted a common linguistic area during the Middle Ages and shared a common literary heritage. Poets travelled between the two countries, and Scottish poets trained in Irish schools and vice versa.7 As a result the same tales and ballads often circulated in both countries. An important component of this shared literary heritage is a corpus of heroic literature, central to which are two cycles of heroic tales known as the Fenian or Fionn cycle (Fiannaigheacht, fian-lore) and the Ulster cycle (Rudhraigheacht). Both comprise literary prose tales and narrative ballads in oral and manuscript form. The Fionn cycle was the most popular and widespread of all Gaelic narrative cycles. Traditionally situated in the third century, it relates the exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill, his son Oisín and a band of warriors known as the fianna.8 References to Fionn can be found in eighth-century texts written in Ireland where he is presented as a warrior and a seer. The key prose text is ‘Agallamh na Seanórach’ (‘The Colloquy of the Ancients’), a number of 28 lesa n...