James Macpherson

1736 - 1796


Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books:

Together with Several other Poems by Ossian










THE love of novelty, which, in ſome degree, is common to all mankind, is more particularly the characteriſtic of that mediocrity of parts, which diſtinguiſhes more than one half of the human ſpecies. This inconſtant diſpoſition is never more conſpicuous, than in what regards the article of amuſement. We change our ſentiments concerning it every moment, and the diſtance between our admiration, and extreme contempt is ſo very ſmall, that the one is almoſt a ſure preſage of the other. The poets, whoſe buſineſs it is to pleaſe, if they want to preſerve the fame they have once acquired, muſt very often forfeit their own judgments to this variable temper of the bulk of their readers, and accommodate their writings to this unſettled taſte. A fame ſo fluctuating deſerves not to be much valued.

POETRY, like virtue, receives its reward after death. The fame which men purſued in vain, when living, is often beſtowed upon them when they are not ſenſible of it. This neglect of living authors is not altogether to be attributed to that reluctance which men ſhew in praiſing and rewarding genius. It often happens, that the man who writes, differs greatly from the ſame man in common life. His foibles, however, are obliterated by death, and his better part, his writings, remain: his character is formed from them, and he, that was no extraordinary man in his own time, becomes the wonder of ſucceeding ages.—From this ſource proceeds our veneration for the dead. Their virtues remain, but the vices, which were once blended with their virtues, have died with themſelves.

THIS conſideration might induce a man, diffident of his abilities, to aſcribe his own compoſitions to a perſon, whoſe remote antiquity and whoſe ſituation, when alive, might well anſwer for faults which would be inexcuſable in a writer of this age. An ingenious gentleman made this obſervation, before he knew any thing but the name of the epic poem, which is printed in the following collection. When he had read it, his ſentiments were changed. He found it abounded too much with thoſe ideas, that only belong to the moſt early ſtate of ſociety, to be the work of a modern poet. Of this, I am perſuaded, the public will be as thoroughly convinced, as this gentleman was, when they ſhall ſee the poems; and that ſome will think, notwithſtanding the diſadvantages with which the works aſcribed to Oſſian appear, it would be a very uncommon inſtance of ſelf-denial in me to diſown them, were they really of my compoſition.

I WOULD not have dwelt ſo long upon this ſubject, eſpecially as I have anſwered all reaſonable objections to the genuineneſs of the poems in the Diſſertation, were it not on account of the prejudices of the preſent age, againſt the ancient inhabitants of Britain, who are thought to have been incapable of the generous ſentiments to be met with in the poems of Oſſian. — If we err in praiſing too much the times of our forefathers, it is alſo as repugnant to good ſenſe, to be altogether blind to the imperfections of our own. If our fathers had not ſo much wealth, they had certainly fewer vices than the preſent age. Their tables, it is true, were not ſo well provided, neither were their beds ſo ſoft as thoſe of modern times; and this, in the eyes of men, who place their ultimate happineſs in thoſe conveniencies of life, gives us a great advantage over them. I ſhall not enter farther into this ſubject, but only obſerve, that the general poverty of a nation has not the ſame influence, that the indigence of individuals, in an opulent country, has upon the manners of the community. The idea of meanneſs, which is now connected with a narrow fortune, had its riſe after commerce had thrown too much property into the hands of a few; for the poorer ſort, imitating the vices of the rich, were obliged to have recourſe to roguery and circumvention, in order to ſupply their extravagance, ſo that they were, not without reaſon, reckoned in more than one ſenſe, the worſt of the people.

IT is now two years ſince the firſt tranſlations from the Gaelic language were handed about among people of taſte in Scotland. They became at laſt ſo much corrupted, through the careleſsneſs of tranſcribers, that, for my own ſake, I was obliged to print the genuine copies. Some other pieces were added, to ſwell the publication into a pamphlet, which was entitled, Fragments of Ancient Poetry.—The Fragments, upon their firſt appearance, were ſo much approved of, that ſeveral people of rank, as well as taſte, prevailed with me to make a journey into the Highlands and weſtern iſles, in order to recover what remained of the works of the old bards, eſpecially thoſe of Oſſian, the ſon of Fingal, who was the beſt, as well as moſt ancient, of thoſe who are celebrated in tradition for their poetical genius.——I undertook this journey, more from a deſire of complying with the requeſt of my friends, than from any hopes I had of anſwering their expectations. I was not unſucceſsful, conſidering how much the compoſitions of ancient times have been neglected, for ſome time paſt, in the north of Scotland. Several gentlemen in the Highlands and iſles generouſly gave me all the aſſiſtance in their power; and it was by their means I was enabled to compleat the epic poem. How far it comes up to the rules of the epopæa, is the province of criticiſm to examine. It is only my buſineſs to lay it before the reader, as I have found it. As it is one of the chief beauties of compoſition, to be well underſtood, I ſhall here give the ſtory of the poem, to prevent that obſcurity which the introduction of characters utterly unknown might occaſion.

ARTHO, ſupreme king of Ireland, dying at Temora the royal palace of the Iriſh kings, was ſucceeded by Cormac, his ſon, a minor. Cuchullin, the ſon of Semo, lord of the Iſle of Miſt, one of the Hebrides, being at that time in Ulſter, and very famous for his great exploits, was, in a convention of the petty kings and heads of tribes aſſembled for that purpoſe at Temora, unanimously choſen guardian to the young king.—He had not managed the affairs of Cormac long, when news was brought, that Swaran, the ſon of Starno, king of Lochlin, or Scandinavia, intended to invade Ireland. Cuchullin immediately diſpatched Munan, the ſon of Stirmal, an Iriſh chief, to Fingal, king of thoſe Caledonians who inhabited the weſtern coaſt of Scotland, to implore his aid. Fingal, as well from a principle of generoſity, as from his connection with the royal family of Ireland, reſolved on an expedition into that country; but before his arrival, the enemy had landed in Ulſter.——Cuchullin in the mean time had gathered the flower of the Iriſh tribes to Tura, a cattle of Ulſter, and diſpatched ſcouts along the coaſt, to give the moſt early intelligence of the enemy.——Such is the ſituation of affairs, when the poem opens.

CUCHULLIN, ſitting alone beneath a tree, at the gate of Tura, the other chiefs had gone on a hunting party to Cromla, a neighboring hill, is informed of the Swaran's landing by Moran, the ſon of Fithil, one of his ſcouts. He convenes the chiefs; a council is held, and diſputes run high about giving battle to the enemy. Connal, the petty king of Togorma, and an intimate friend of Cuchullin, was for retreating till Fingal ſhould arrive; but Calmar, the ſon of Matha, lord of Lara, a country in Connaught, was for engaging the enemy immediately—Cuchullin, of himſelf willing to fight, went into the opinion of Calmar. Marching towards the enemy, he miſſed three of his braveſt heroes, Fergus, Duchomar, and Caithbat. Fergus arriving, tells Cuchullin of the death of the two other chiefs; which introduces the affecting epiſode of Morna, the daughter of Cormac—The army of Cuchullin is deſcried at a diſtance by Swaran, who ſent the ſon of Arno to obſerve the motions of the enemy, while he himſelf ranged his forces in order of battle.——The ſon of Arno returning to Swaran, deſcribes to him Cuchullin's chariot, and the terrible appearance of that hero. The armies engage, but night coming on, leaves the victory undecided. Cuchullin, according to the hoſpitality of the times, ſends to Swaran a formal invitation to a feaſt, by his bard Carril, the ſon of Kinfena.—Swaran refuſes to come. Carril relates to Cuchullin the ſtory of Grudar and Braſſolis. A party, by Connal's advice, is ſent to obſerve the enemy; which cloſes the action of the firſt day.

THE ghoſt of Crugal, one of the Iriſh heroes who was killed in battle, appearing to Connal, foretels the defeat of Cuchullin in the next battle; and earneſtly adviſes him to make peace with Swaran. Connal communicates the viſion; but Cuchullin is inflexible from a principle of honor that he would not be the firſt to ſue for peace, and reſolved to continue the war. Morning comes; Swaran propoſes diſhonorable terms to Cuchullin, which are rejected. The battle begins, and is obſtinately fought for ſome time, until, upon the flight of Grumal, the whole Iriſh army gave way. Cuchullin and Connal cover their retreat: Carril leads them to a neighbouring hill, whither they are ſoon followed by Cuchullin himſelf; who deſcries the fleet of Fingal making towards their coaſt; but, night coming on, he loſt ſight of it again. Cuchullin, dejected after his defeat, attributes his ill ſucceſs to the death of Ferda his friend, whom he had killed ſome time before. Carril, to ſhew that ill ſucceſs did not always attend thoſe who innocently killed their friends, introduces the epiſode of Connal and Galvina.

CUCHULLIN, pleaſed with Carril's ſtory, inſiſts with him for more of his ſongs. The bard relates the actions of Fingal in Lochlin, and death of Agandecca, the beautiful ſiſter of Swaran. He had ſcarce finiſhed when Calmar the ſon of Matha, who had adviſed the firſt battle, came wounded from the field, and told them of Swaran's deſign to ſurpriſe the remains of the Iriſh army. He himſelf propoſes to withſtand ſingly the whole force of the enemy, in a narrow paſs, till the Iriſh ſhould make good their retreat. Cuchullin, touched with the gallant propoſal of Calmar, reſolves to accompany him, and orders Carril to carry off the few that remained of the Iriſh. Morning comes, Calmar dies of his wounds; and, the ſhips of the Caledonians appearing, Swaran gives over the purſuit of the Iriſh, and returns to oppoſe Fingal's landing. Cuchullin aſhamed, after his defeat, to appear before Fingal, retires to the cave of Tura. Fingal engages the enemy, puts them to flight; but the coming on of night makes the victory not deciſive. The king, who had obſerved the gallant behavior of his grandſon Oſcar, gives him advice concerning his conduct in peace and war. He recommends to him to place the example of his fathers before his eyes, as the beſt model for his conduct; which introduces the epiſode concerning Fainaſóllis, the daughter of the king of Craca, whom Fingal had taken under his protection, in his youth. Fillan and Oſcar are deſpatched to obſerve the motions of the enemy by night; Gaul the ſon of Morni deſires the command of the army, in the next battle; which Fingal promiſes to give him. The song of the bard cloſes the third day.

THE action of the poem being ſuſpended by night, Oſſian takes the opportunity to relate his own actions at the lake of Lego, and his courtſhip of Evirallin, who was the mother of Oſcar, and had died ſome time before the expedition of Fingal into Ireland. Her ghoſt appears to him, and tells him that Oſcar, who had been ſent, the beginning of the night, to obſerve the enemy, was engaged with an advanced party, and almoſt overpowered. Oſſian relieves his ſon; and an alarm is given to Fingal of the approach of Swaran. The king riſes, calls his army together, and, as he had promiſed the preceding night, devolves the command on Gaul the ſon of Morni, while he himſelf, after charging his ſons to behave gallantly and defend his people, retires to a hill, from whence he could have a view of the battle. The battle joins; the poet relates Oſcar's great actions. But when Oſcar, in conjunction with his father, conquered in one wing, Gaul, who was attacked by Swaran in perſon, was on the point of retreating in the other. Fingal ſends Ullin his bard to encourage him with a war ſong, but notwithſtanding Swaran prevails; and Gaul and his army are obliged to give way. Fingal, deſcending from the hill, rallies them again: Swaran deſiſts from the purſuit, poſſeſſes himſelf of a riſing ground, reſtores the ranks, and waits the approach of Fingal. The king, having encouraged his men, gives the neceſſary orders, and renews the battle. Cuchullin, who, with his friend Connal, and Carril his bard, had retired to the cave of Tura, hearing the noiſe, came to the brow of the hill, which overlooked the field of battle, where he ſaw Fingal engaged with the enemy. He, being hindered by Connal from joining Fingal, who was himſelf upon the point of obtaining a complete victory, ſends Carril to congratulate that hero on ſucceſs.

IN the mean time Fingal and Swaran meet, the combat is deſcribed: Swaran is overcome, bound, and delivered over as a priſoner to the care of Oſſian and Gaul the ſon of Morni; Fingal, his younger ſons, and Oſcar, ſtill purſue the enemy. The epiſode of Orla a chief of Lochlin, who was mortally wounded in the battle, is introduced. Fingal, touched with the death of Orla, orders the purſuit to be diſcontinued; and calling his ſons together, he is informed that Ryno, the youngeſt of them, was killed. He laments his death, hears the ſtory of Lamdarg and Gelchoſſa, and returns towards the place where he had left Swaran. Carril, who had been ſent by Cuchullin to congratulate Fingal on his victory, comes in the mean time to Oſſian. The converſation of the two poets cloſes the action of the fourth day.

NIGHT comes on. Fingal gives a feaſt to his army, at which Swaran is preſent. The king commands Ullin his bard to give the ſong of peace; a cuſtom always obſerved at the end of a war. Ullin relates the actions of Trenmor, great grandfather to Fingal, in Scandinavia, and his marriage with Inibaca, the daughter of a king of Lochlin who was anceſtor to Swaran; which conſideration, together with his being brother to Agandecca, with whom Fingal was in love in his youth, induced the king to releaſe him, and permit him to return, with the remains of his army, into Lochlin, upon his promiſe of never returning to Ireland, in a hoſtile manner. The night is ſpent in ſettling Swaran's departure, in ſongs of bards, and in a converſation in which the ſtory of Grumal is introduced by Fingal. Morning comes. Swaran departs; Fingal goes on a hunting party, and finding Cuchullin in the cave of Tura, comforts him, and ſets ſail, the next day, for Scotland, which concludes the poem.

THE ſtory of this poem is ſo little interlarded with faible, that one cannot help thinking it the genuine hiſtory of Fingal's expedition, embelliſhed by poetry. In that caſe, the compoſitions of Oſſian are not leſs valuable for the light they throw on the ancient ſtate of Scotland and Ireland, than they are for their poetical merit. Succeeding generations founded on them all their traditions concerning that period; and they magnified or varied them, in proportion as they were ſwayed by credulity or deſign. The bards of Ireland, by aſcribing to Oſſian compoſitions which are evidently their own, have occaſioned a general belief, in that country, that Fingal was of Iriſh extraction, and not of the ancient Caledonians, as is ſaid in the genuine poems of Oſſian. The inconſiſtencies between thoſe ſpurious pieces prove the ignorance of their authors. In one of them Oſſian is made to mention himſelf as baptiſed by St. Patrick, in another he ſpeaks of the famous cruſade, which was not begun in Europe for many centuries after.

THOUGH this anachroniſm quite deſtroys the authority of the bards with reſpect to Fingal; yet their deſire to make him their countryman ſhews how famous he was in Ireland as well as in the north of Scotland.

HAD the Senachies of Ireland been as well acquainted with the antiquities of their nation as they pretended, they might derive as much honour from Fingal's being a Caledonian, as if he had been an Iriſhman; for both nations were almoſt the ſame people in the days of that hero. The Celtæ, who inhabited Britain and Ireland before the invaſion of the Romans, though they were divided into numerous tribes, yet, as the ſame language and cuſtoms, and the memory of their common origin remained among them, they conſidered themſelves as one nation. After South Britain became a province of Rome, and its inhabitants begun to adopt the language and cuſtoms of their conquerors, the Celtæ, beyond the pale of the empire, conſidered them as a diſtinct people, and conſequently treated them as enemies. On the other hand, the ſtricteſt amity ſubſiſted between the Iriſh and Scots Celtæ for many ages, and the cuſtoms and ancient language of both ſtill remaining, leave no room to doubt, that they were of old one and the ſame nation.

IT was at firſt intended to prefix to Oſſian's poems a diſcourſe concerning the ancient inhabitants of Britain; but as a gentleman, in the north of Scotland, who has thoroughly examined the antiquities of this iſland, and is perfectly acquainted with all the branches of the Celtic tongue, is juſt now preparing for the preſs a work on that ſubject, the curious are referred to it.