restricted access 5. Landscape and the Sense of Place in The Poems of Ossian
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65 CHAPTER FIVE Landscape and the Sense of Place in The Poems of Ossian Sebastian Mitchell In Improvement and Romance: Constructing the Myth of the Highlands (1989), Peter Womack took a dim view of the characteristic features of the Ossianic landscape. He thought that Ossian’s compositions were ‘topographically null’, emptily embellished works with meaningless and arbitrary place names, ‘all wrapped up in the mystique of tradition’.1 The distinctive rhythmical prose of Macpherson’s translation of the poetry into English was for him a ‘negation into style’, and the whole concoction had the effect of turning the vacated Highlands into a ‘negative sublime’, providing calculated justification for the clearance of the region’s indigenous population from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards.2 It is not difficult to see how one might arrive at such a generally disparaging opinion of the aesthetic effect of these works. For it certainly should be conceded that Ossianic poetry draws upon the same limited repertoire of natural and man-made features for the depiction of its landscape, with repeated reference to fire-lit halls, green-headed hills, caves, tombs, memorial stones, rolling oceans, groves, heaths, tall oaks, and distant ruins. Nevertheless, it is still possible to take an opposing position on the artistry and significance of landscape in Ossian: to argue that a distinctive aspect of the poetry is the tension it produces between the specific and the general; that it seemingly establishes a distinct sense of location only to dissolve into formless obscurity; and, as we will see in the later stages of this chapter, that it was still possible for continental European readers of Ossian to conceive of the poetry as possessing a distinct and an imaginative landscape, capable of being adopted for their own sense of belonging and national purpose. It has, of course, always been the case that the poetry has been associated with the Highlands of Scotland. The title sheet of the first set of short lyrical pieces (some of which ascribed at that point to the bard Oscian rather than Ossian), the Fragments of Poetry (1760), announces that these 66 sebastian mitchell pieces have been ‘Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and translated from the Galic or Erse language’.3 In the preface to the Fragments, Hugh Blair, then acting as mentor and sponsor to the young anonymous translator James Macpherson, declares these short tantalising works to be of an ancient provenance, and ‘were certainly composed before the establishment of clanship in the northern part of Scotland’ (p. 5). He relates the means of uncorrupted transmission of the poems by the bardic tradition: ‘such poems’, he says, ‘were handed down from race to race; some in manuscript, but more by oral tradition’ (p. 5); the reference to their oral nature here suggests a particularly close affinity of the songs of the bards and the lands they inhabited. There is a promissory quality to Blair’s further observation that these detached pieces of verse were in all likelihood ‘originally episodes of a greater work which related to the wars of Fingal’ (p. 5). When Macpherson, now disclosed as the poetry’s translator, published the fully reconstructed Celtic epic Fingal in London in December 1761 (dated 1762), along with some shorter pieces, the titular poem met with a generally favourable public and critical reception. The initial discussion of Fingal in the literary press concentrated on two issues: whether this primitive Celtic epic could really stand comparison with the grandeur, magnificence, and moral purpose of the classical poetry of Virgil and Homer; and whether the proper country of origin for this astonishing discovery of a lengthy complete Gaelic work should not be Ireland rather than Scotland.4 It was the angry contention of some contemporary Irish antiquarians that Macpherson had appropriated and corrupted cycles of indigenous Irish poems for the cynical and distinctly modern purpose of boosting Scotland’s cultural standing within the relatively new nation-state of Great Britain.5 Through the 1770s Scottish stadial historiographers, such as Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, and Henry Home, Lord Kames, drew on Ossian as evidence of both the necessary state of primitive consciousness and of the kinship networks of hunter-gatherer societies without losing sight of the fact that Ossian was intended to be a description of the state of Scotland and its surrounding territories in the third century ad.6 Even those commentators, who had become uneasy as to the exact provenance and originality of these works when Macpherson published...