James Macpherson

1736 - 1796


Fragments of Ancient Poetry

Collected in the Highlands of Scotland










THE public may depend on the following fragments as genuine remains of ancient Scottiſh poetry. The date of their compoſition cannot be exactly aſcertained. Tradition, in the country where they were written, refers them to an æra of the moſt remote antiquity: and this tradition is ſupported by the ſpirit and ſtrain of the poems themſelves; which abound with thoſe ideas, and paint thoſe manners, that belong to the moſt early ſtate of ſociety. The diction too, in the original, is very obſolete; and differs widely from the ſtyle of ſuch poems as have been written in the ſame language two or three centuries ago. They were certainly compoſed before the eſtabliſh[p.4]ment of clanſhip in the northern part of Scotland, which is itſelf very ancient; for had clans been then formed and known, they muſt have made a conſiderable figure in the work of a Highland Bard; whereas there is not the leaſt mention of them in theſe poems. It is remarkable that there are found in them no alluſions to the Chriſtian religion or worſhip; indeed, few traces of religion of any kind. One circumſtance ſeems to prove them to be coeval with the very infancy of Chriſtianity in Scotland. In a fragment of the ſame poems, which the tranſlator has ſeen, a Culdee or Monk is repreſented as deſirous to take down in writing from the mouth of Oſcian, who is the principal perſonage in ſeveral of the following fragments, his warlike atchievements and thoſe of his family. But Oſcian treats the monk and his religion with diſdain, telling him, that the deeds of ſuch great men were ſubjects too [p.5] high to be recorded by him, or by any of his religion: A full proof that Chriſtianity was not as yet eſtabliſhed in the country.

Though the poems now publiſhed appear as detached pieces in this collection, there is ground to believe that moſt of them were originally epiſodes of a greater work which related to the wars of Fingal. Concerning this hero innumerable traditions remain, to this day, in the Highlands of Scotland. The ſtory of Oſcian, his ſon, is ſo generally known, that to deſcribe one in whom the race of a great family ends, it has paſſed into a proverb; “Oſcian the laſt of the heroes.”

There can be no doubt that theſe poems are to be aſcribed to the Bards; a race of men well known to have continued throughout many ages in Ireland [p.6] and the north of Scotland. Every chief or great man had in his family a Bard or poet, whoſe office it was to record in verſe, the illuſtrious actions of that family. By the ſucceſſion of theſe Bards, ſuch poems were handed down from race to race; ſome in manuſcript, but more by oral tradition. And tradition, in a country ſo free of intermixture with foreigners, and among a people ſo ſtrongly attached to the memory of their anceſtors, has preſerved many of them in a great meaſure incorrupted to this day.

They are not ſet to muſic, nor ſung. The verification in the original is ſimple; and to ſuch as underſtand the language, very ſmooth and beautiful; Rhyme is ſeldom uſed: but the cadence, and the length of the line varied, ſo as to ſuit the ſenſe. The tranſlation is extremely literal. Even the arrangement of the words in the original has been [p.7] imitated; to which muſt be imputed ſome inverſions in the ſtyle, that otherwiſe would not have been choſen.

Of the poetical merit of theſe fragments nothing ſhall here be ſaid. Let the public judge, and pronounce. It is believed, that, by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius, no leſs valuable than thoſe now given to the world, might be found in the ſame country where theſe have been collected. In particular there is reaſon to hope that one work of conſiderable length, and which deſerves to be ſtyled an heroic poem, might be recovered and tranſlated, if encouragement were given to ſuch an undertaking. The ſubject is, an invaſion of Ireland by Swarthan King of Lochlyn; which is the name of Denmark in the Erſe language. Cuchulaid, the General or Chief of the Iriſh tribes, upon intelligence of the [p.8] invaſion, aſſembles his forces. Councils are held; and battles fought. But after ſeveral unſucceſcful engagements, the Iriſh are forced to ſubmit. At length, Fingal King of Scotland, called in this poem, “The Deſert of the hills,” arrives with his ſhips to aſſiſt Cuchulaid. He expels the Danes from the country; and returns home victorious. This poem is held to be of greater antiquity than any of the reſt that are preſerved. And the author ſpeaks of himſelf as preſent in the expedition of Fingal. The three laſt poems in the collection are fragments which the tranſlator obtained of this epic poem; and though very imperfect, they were judged not unworthy of being inſerted. If the whole were recovered, it might ſerve to throw confiderable light upon the Scottiſh and Iriſh antiquities.