James Macpherson

1736 - 1796


Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books:

Together with Several other Poems by Ossian








A Dissertation

concerning the Antiquity, &c. of the Poems

of Ossian the Son of Fingal.


[Version of the 1765 edition]


INQUIRIES into the antiquities of nations afford more pleaſure than any real advantage to mankind. The ingenious may form ſyſtems of hiſtory on probabilities and a few facts; but at a great diſtance of time, their accounts muſt be vague and uncertain. The infancy of ſtates and kingdoms is as deſtitute of great events, as of the means of tranſmitting them to poſterity. The arts of poliſhed life, by which alone facts can be preſerved with certainty, are the production of a well formed community. It is then hiſtorians begin to write, and public tranſactions to be worthy remembrance. The actions of former times are left in obſcurity, or magnified by uncertain traditions. Hence it is that we find ſo much of the marvellous in the origin of every nation; poſterity being always ready to believe any thing, however fabulous, that reflects honour on their anceſtors. The Greeks and Romans were remarkable for this weakneſs. They ſwallowed the moſt abſurd fables concerning the high antiquities of their reſpective nations. Good hiſtorians, however, roſe very early amongſt them, and tranſmitted, with luſtre, their great actions to poſterity. It is to them that they owe that unrivalled fame they now enjoy, while the great actions of other nations are involved in fables, or loſt in obſcurity. The Celtic nations afford a ſtriking inſtance of this kind. They, though once the maſters of Europe from the mouth of the river Oby, in Ruſſia, to Cape Finiſterre, the weſtern point of Gallicia in Spain, are very little mentioned in hiſtory. They truſted their fame to tradition and the ſongs of their bards, which, by the viciſſitude of human affairs, are long ſince loſt. Their ancient language is the only monument that remains of them; and the traces of it being found in places ſo widely diſtant from each other, ſerves only to ſhow the extent of their ancient power, but throws very little light on their hiſtory.

OF all the Celtic nations, that which poſſeſſed old Gaul is the moſt renowned; not perhaps on account of worth ſuperior to the reſt, but for their wars with a people who had hiſtorians to tranſmit the fame of their enemies, as well as their own, to poſterity. Britain was firſt peopled by them, according to the teſtimony of the beſt authors; its ſituation in reſpect to Gaul makes the opinion probable; but what puts it beyond all diſpute, is, that the ſame cuſtoms and language prevailed among the inhabitants of both in the days of Julius Cæſar.

THE colony from Gaul poſſeſſed themſelves, at firſt, of that part of Britain which was next to their own country; and ſpreading northward by degrees, as they increaſed in numbers, peopled the whole iſland. Some adventurers paſſing over from thoſe parts of Britain that are within ſight of Ireland, were the founders of the Iriſh nation: which is a more probable ſtory than the idle fables of Mileſian and Gallician colonies. Diodorus Siculus mentions it as a thing well known in his time, that the inhabitants of Ireland were originally Britons; and his teſtimony is unqueſtionable, when we conſider that, for many ages, the language and cuſtoms of both nations were the ſame.

TACITUS was of opinion that the ancient Caledonians were of German extract. By the language and cuſtoms which always prevailed in the North of Scotland, and which are undoubtedly Celtic, one would be tempted to differ in opinion from that celebrated writer. The Germans, properly ſo called, were not the ſame with the ancient Celtæ. The manners and cuſtoms of the two nations were ſimilar; but their language different. The Germans are the genuine deſcendants of the ancient Daæ, afterwards well known by the name of Daci, and paſſed originally into Europe by the way of the northern countries, and ſettled beyond the Danube, towards the vaſt regions of Tranſilvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia; and from thence advanced by degrees into Germany. The Celtæ, it is certain, ſent many colonies into that country, all of whom retained their own laws, language, and cuſtoms; and it is of them, if any colonies came from Germany into Scotland, that the ancient Caledonians were deſcended.

BUT whether the ancient Caledonians were a colony of the Celtic Germans,, or the ſame with the Gauls that firſt poſſeſſed themſelves of Britain, is a matter of no moment at this diſtance of time. Whatever their origin was, we find them very numerous in the time of Julius Agricola, which is a preſumption that they were long before ſettled in the country. The form of their government was a mixture of ariſtocracy and monarchy, as it was in all the countries where the Druids bore the chief ſway. This order of men ſeems to have been formed on the ſame ſyſtem with the Dactyli Idæ and Curetes of the ancients. Their pretended intercourſe with heaven, their magic and divination were the ſame. The knowledge of the Druids in natural cauſes, and the properties of certain things, the fruit of the experiments of ages gained them a mighty reputation among the people. The eſteem of the populace ſoon increaſed into a veneration for the order; which a cunning and ambitious tribe of men took care to improve, to ſuch a degree, that they, in a manner, ingroſſed the management of civil, as well as religious, matters. It is generally allowed, that they did not abuſe this extraordinary power; the preſerving the character of ſanctity was ſo eſſential to their influence, that they never broke out into violence or oppreſſion. The chiefs were allowed to execute the laws, but the legiſlative power was entirely in the hands of the Druids. It was by their authority that the tribes were united, in times of the greateſt danger, under one head. This temporary king, or Vergobretus, was choſen by them, and generally laid down his office at the end of the war. Theſe prieſts enjoyed long this extraordinary privilege among the Celtic nations who lay beyond the pale of the Roman empire. It was in the beginning of the ſecond century that their power among the Caledonians began to decline. The poems that celebrate Trathal and Cormac, anceſtors to Fingal, are full of particulars concerning the fall of the Druids, which account for the total ſilence concerning their religion in the poems that are now given to the public.

THE continual wars of the Caledonians againſt the Romans hindered the nobility from initiating themſelves, as the cuſtom formerly was, into the order of the Druids. The precepts of their religion were confined to a few, and were not much attended to by a people inured to war. The Vergobretus, or chief magiſtrate, was choſen without the concurrence of the hierarchy, or continued in his office againſt their will. Continual power ſtrengthened his intereſt among the tribes, and enabled him to ſend down, as hereditary to his poſterity, the office he had only received himſelf by election.

ON occaſion of a new war againſt the King of the World, as the poems emphatically call the Roman emperor, the Druids, to vindicate the honour of the order, began to reſume their ancient privilege of chuſing the Vergobretus. Garmal, the ſon of Tarno, being deputed by them, came to the grandfather of the celebrated Fingal, who was then Vergobretus, and commanded him, in the name of the whole order, to lay down his office. Upon his refuſal, a civil war commenced, which ſoon ended in almoſt the total extinction of the religious order of the Druids. A few that remained, retired to the dark receſſes of their groves, and the caves they had formerly uſed for their meditations. It is then we find them in the circle of ſtones, and unheeded by the world. A total diſregard for the order, and utter abhorrence of the Druidical rites enſued. Under this cloud of public hate, all that had any knowledge of the religion of the Druids became extinct, and the nation fell into the laſt degree of ignorance of their rites and ceremonies.

IT is no matter of wonder then, that Fingal and his ſon Oſſian make ſo little, if any, mention of the Druids, who were the declared enemies to their ſucceſſion in the ſupreme magiſtracy. It is a ſingular caſe, it muſt be allowed, that there are no traces of religion in the poems aſcribed to Oſſian; as the poetical compoſitions of other nations are ſo cloſely connected with their mythology. It is hard to account for it to thoſe who are not made acquainted with the manner of the old Scottiſh bards. That race of men carried their notions of martial honour to an extravagant pitch. Any aid given their heroes in battle, was thought to derogate from their fame; and the bards immediately tranſferred the glory of the action to him who had given that aid.

HAD Oſſian brought down gods, as often as Homer has done, to aſſiſt his heroes, this poem had not conſiſted of elogiums on his friends, but of hymns to theſe ſuperior beings. To this day, thoſe that write in the Galic language ſeldom mention religion in their profane poetry; and when they profeſſedly write of religion, they never interlard with their compoſitions, the actions of their heroes. This cuſtom alone, even though the religion of the Druids had not been previouſly extinguiſhed, may, in ſome meaſure, excuſe the Oſſian's ſilence concerning the religion of his own times.

TO ſay, that a nation is void of all religion, is the ſame thing as to ſay, that it does not conſiſt of people endued with reaſon. The traditions of their fathers, and their own obſervations on the works of nature, together with that ſuperſtition which is inherent in the human frame, have, in all ages, raiſed in the minds of men ſome idea of a ſuperior being.&mdaſh;Hence it is, that in the darkeſt times, and amongſt the moſt barbarous nations, the very populace themſelves had ſome faint notion, at leaſt, of a divinity. It would be doing injuſtice to Oſſian, whereupon no occaſion, ſhews a narrow mind, to think, that he had not opened his conceptions to that primitive and greateſt of all truths. But let Oſſian's religion be what it will, it is certain that he has no knowledge of Chriſtianity, as there is not the leaſt alluſion to it, or any of its rites, in his poems; which abſolutely fixes him to an æra prior to the introduction of that religion. The perſecution begun by Diocleſian, in the year 303, is the moſt probable time in which the firſt dawning of Chriſtianity in the north of Britain can be fixed.&mdaſh;The humane and mild character of Conſtantius Chlorus, who commanded then in Britain, induced the perſecuted Chriſtians to take refuge under him. Some of them, through a zeal to propagate their tenets, or through fear, went beyond the pale of the Roman empire, and ſettled among the Caledonians; who were the more ready to hearken to their doctrines, if the religion of the Druids was exploded long before.

THESE miſſionaries, either through choice, or to give more weight to the doctrine they advanced, took poſſeſſion of the cells and groves of the Druids; and it was from this retired life they had the name of Culdees, which in the language of the country ſignified ſequeſtered perſons. It was with one of the Culdees that Oſſian, in his extreme old age, is ſaid to have diſputed concerning the Chriſtian religion. This diſpute is ſtill extant, and is couched in verſe, according to the cuſtom of the times. The extreme ignorance on the part of Oſſian, of the Chriſtian tenets, ſhews, that that religion had only been lately introduced, as it is not eaſy to conceive, how one of the firſt rank could be totally unacquainted with a religion that had been known for any time in the country. The diſpute bears the genuine marks of antiquity. The obſolete phraſes and expreſſions peculiar to the times, prove it to be no forgery. If Oſſian, then, lived at the introduction of Chriſtianity, as by all appearance he did, his epoch will be the latter end of the third, and beginning of the fourth century. What puts this point beyond diſpute, is the alluſion in his poems to the hiſtory of the times.

THE exploits of Fingal againſt Caracul, the ſon of the King of the World, are among the firſt brave actions of his youth. A complete poem, which relates to this ſubject, is printed in this collection.

IN the year 210 the emperor Severus, after returning from his expedition againſt the Caledonians, at York fell into the tedious illneſs of which he afterward died. The Caledonians and Maiatæ, reſuming courage from his indiſpoſition, took arms in order to recover the poſſeſſions they had loſt. The enraged emperor commanded his army to march into their country, and to deſtroy it with fire and ſword. His orders were but ill executed, for his ſon, Caracalla, was at the head of the army, and his thoughts were entirely taken up with the hopes of his father's death, and with ſchemes to ſupplant his brother Geta.&mdaſh;He ſcarcely had entered into the enemy's country, when news was brought him that Severus was dead.&mdaſh;A ſudden peace is patched up with the Caledonians, and, as it appears from Dion Caſſius, the country they had loſt to Severus was reſtored to them.

THE Caracul of Fingal is no other than Caracalla, who, as the ſon of Severus, the Emperor of Rome, whoſe dominions were extended almoſt over the known world, was not without reaſon called in the poems of Oſſian, the Son of the King of the World. The ſpace of time between 211, the year Severus died, and the beginning of the fourth century, is not ſo great, but Oſſian the ſon of Fingal, might have ſeen the Chriſtians whom the perſecution under Diocleſian had driven beyond the pale of the Roman empire.

OSSIAN, in one of the his many lamentations on the death of his beloved ſon Oſcar, mentions among his great actions, a battle which he fought againſt Caros, king of ſhips, on the banks of the winding Carun. It is more than probable, that the Caros mentioned here, is the ſame with the noted uſurper Carauſius, who aſſumed the purple in the year 287, and ſeizing on Britain, defeated the emperor Maximian Herculius, in ſeveral naval engagements, which gives propriety to his being called in Oſſian's poems, the King of Ships. The winding Carun is that ſmall river retaining ſtill the name of Carron, and runs in the neighborhood of Agricola's wall, which Carauſius repaired to obſtruct the incurſions of the Caledonians. Several other paſſages in the poems allude to the wars of the Romans; but the two juſt mentioned clearly fix the epoch of Fingal to the third century; and this account agrees exactly with the Iriſh hiſtories, which place the death of Fingal, the ſon of Comhal, in the year 283, and that of Oſcar and their own celebrated Cairbre, in the year 296.

SOME people may imagine, that the alluſions to the Roman hiſtory might have been induſtriouſly inſerted into the poems, to give them the appearance of antiquity. This fraud muſt then have been committed at leaſt three ages ago, as the paſſages in which the alluſions are made, are alluded to often in the compoſitions of thoſe times.

EVERY one knows what a cloud of ignorance and barbariſm overſpread the north of Europe three hundred years ago. The minds of men, addicted to ſuperſtition, contracted a narrowneſs that deſtroyed genius. Accordingly we find the compoſitions of thoſe times trivial and puerile to the laſt degree. But let it be allowed, that, amidſt all the untoward circumſtances of the age, a genius might ariſe, it is not eaſy to determine what could induce him to give the honour of his compoſitions to an age ſo remote. We find no fact that he has advanced, to favour any deſigns which could be entertained by any man who lived in the fifteenth century. But ſhould we ſuppoſe a poet, through humour, or for reaſons which cannot be ſeen at this diſtance of time, would aſcribe his own compoſitions to Oſſian, it is next to impoſſible, that he could impoſe upon his countrymen, when all of them were ſo well acquainted with the traditional poems of their anceſtors.

THE ſtrongeſt objection to the authenticity of the poems now given to the public under the name of Oſſian, is the improbability of their being handed down by tradition through ſo many centuries. Ages of barbariſm ſome will ſay, could not produce poems abounding with the diſintereſted and generous ſentiments ſo conſpicuous in the compoſitions of Oſſian; and could theſe ages produce them, it is impoſſible but they muſt be loſt, or altogether corrupted in a long ſucceſſion of barbarous generations.

THESE objections naturally ſuggeſt themſelves to men unacquainted with the ancient ſtate of the northern parts of Britain. The bards, who were an inferior order of the Druids, did not ſhare their bad fortune. They were ſpared by the victorious king, as it was through their means only he could hope for immortality to his fame. They attended him in the camp, and contributed to eſtabliſh his power by their ſongs. His great actions were magnified, and the populace, who had no ability to examine into his character narrowly, were dazzled with his fame in the rhimes of the bards. In the mean time, men aſſumed ſentiments that are rarely to be met with in an age of barbariſm. The bards who were originally the diſciples of the Druids, had their minds opened, and their ideas enlarged, by being initiated in the learning of that celebrated order. They could form a perfect hero in their own minds, and aſcribe that character to their prince. The inferior chiefs made this ideal character the model of their conduct; and by degrees brought their minds to that generous ſpirit which breathes in all the poetry of the times. The prince, flattered by his bards, and rivalled by his own heroes, who imitated his character as deſcribed in the eulogies of his poets, endeavored to excel his people in merit, as he was above them in ſtation. This emulation continuing, formed at laſt the general character of the nation, happily compounded of what is noble in barbarity, and virtuous and generous in a poliſhed people.

WHEN virtue in peace, and bravery in war, are the characteriſtics of a nation, their actions become intereſting, and their fame worthy of immortality. A generous ſpirit is warmed with noble actions, and becomes ambitious of perpetuating them. This is the true ſource of that divine inſpiration, to which the poets of all ages pretended. When they found their themes inadequate to the warmth of their imaginations, they varniſhed them over with fables, ſupplied with their own fancy, or furniſhed by abſurd traditions. Theſe fables, however ridiculous, had their abettors; poſterity either implicitly believed them, or through a vanity natural to mankind, pretended that they did. They loved to place the founders of their families in the days of fable, when poetry, without the fear of contradiction, could give what character ſhe pleaſed of her heroes. It is to this vanity that we owe the preſervation of what remain of the works of Oſſian. His poetical merit made his heroes famous in a country where heroiſm was much eſteemed and admired. The poſterity of theſe heroes, or thoſe who pretended to be deſcended from them, heard with pleaſure the eulogiums of their anceſtors; bards were employed to repeat the poems, and to record the connection of their patrons with chiefs ſo renowned. Every chief in proceſs of time had a bard in his family, and the office became at laſt hereditary. By the ſucceſſion of theſe bards, the poems concerning the anceſtors of the family were handed down from generation to generation; they were repeated to the whole clan on ſolemn occaſions, and always alluded to in the new compoſitions of the bards. This cuſtom came down to near our own times; and after the bards were diſcontinued, a great number in a clan retained by memory, or committed to writing, their compoſitions, and founded the antiquity of their families on the authority of their poems.

THE uſe of letters was not known in the North of Europe till long after the inſtitution of the bards: the records of the families of their patrons, their own, and more ancient poems were handed down by tradition. Their poetical compoſitions were admirably contrived for that purpoſe. They were adapted to muſic; and the moſt perfect harmony obſerved. Each verſe was ſo connected with thoſe which preceded or followed it, that if one line, had been remembered in a ſtanza, it was almoſt impoſſible to forget the reſt. The cadences followed in ſo natural a gradation, and the words were ſo adapted to the common turn of the voice, after it is raiſed to a certain key, that it was almoſt impoſſible, from a ſimilarity of ſound, to ſubſtitute one word for another. This excellence is peculiar to the Celtic tongue, and is perhaps to be met with in no other language. Nor does this choice of words clog the ſenſe or weaken the expreſſion. The numerous flections of conſonants, and variation in declenſion, make the language very copious.

THE deſcendants of the Celtæ, who inhabited Britain and its iſles, were not ſingular in this method of preſerving the moſt precious monuments of their nation. The ancient laws of the Greeks were couched in verſe, and handed down by tradition. The Spartans, through a long habit, became ſo fond of this cuſtom, that they would never allow their laws to be committed to writing. The actions of great men, and the eulogiums of kings and heroes were preſerved in the ſame manner. All the hiſtorical monuments of the old Germans were comprehended in their ancient ſongs; which were either hymns to their gods, or elegies in praiſe of their heroes, and were intended to perpetuate the great events in their nation, which were carefully interwoven with them. This ſpecies of compoſition was not committed to writing, but delivered by oral tradition. The care they took to have the poems taught to their children, the uninterrupted cuſtom of repeating them upon certain occaſions, and the happy meaſure of the verſe, ſerved to preſerve them for a long time uncorrupted. This oral chronicle of the Germans was not forgot in the eighth century; and it probably would have remained to this day, had not learning, which thinks every thing, that is not committed to writing, fabulous, been introduced. It was from poetical traditions that Garcillaſſo compoſed his account of the Yncas of Peru. The Peruvians had loſt all other monuments of their hiſtory, and it was from ancient poems which his mother, a princeſs of the blood of the Yncas, taught him in his youth, that he collected the materials of his hiſtory. If other nations then, that had often been overrun by enemies, and had ſent abroad and received colonies, could, for many ages, preſerve, by oral tradition, their laws and hiſtories uncorrupted, it is much more probable that the ancient Scots, a people ſo free of intermixture with foreigners, and ſo ſtrongly attached to the memory of their anceſtors, had the works of their bards handed down with great purity.

IT will ſeem ſtrange to ſome, that poems admired for many centuries in one part of this kingdom ſhould be hitherto unknown in the other; and that the Britiſh, who have carefully traced out the works of genius in other nations, ſhould ſo long remain ſtrangers to their own. This, in a great meaſure, is to be imputed to thoſe who underſtood both languages and never attempted a tranſlation. They, from being acquainted but with detached pieces, or from a modeſty, which perhaps the preſent tranſlator ought, in prudence, to have followed, deſpaired of making the compoſitions of their bards agreeable to an Engliſh reader. The manner of thoſe compoſitions is ſo different from other poems, and the ideas ſo confined to the moſt early ſtate of ſociety, that it was thought they had not enough of variety to pleaſe a poliſhed age.

THIS was long the opinion of the tranſlator of the following collection; and though he admired the poems, in the original, very early, and gathered part of them from tradition for his own amuſement, yet he never had the ſmalleſt hopes of ſeeing them in an Engliſh dreſs. He was ſenſible that the ſtrength and manner of both languages were very different, and that it was next to impoſſible to tranſlate the Galic poetry into any thing of tolerable Engliſh verſe; a proſe tranſlation he could never think of, as it muſt neceſſarily fall ſhort of the majeſty of an original. It was a gentleman, who has himſelf made a figure in the poetical world, that gave him the firſt hint concerning a literal proſe tranſlation. He tried it at his deſire, and the ſpecimen was approved. Other gentlemen were earneſt in exhorting him to bring more to the light, and it is to their uncommon zeal that the world owes the Galic poems, if they have any merit.

IT was at firſt intended to make a general collection of all the ancient pieces of genius to be found in the Galic language; but the tranſlator had his reaſons for confining himſelf to the remains of the works of Oſſian. The action of the poem that ſtands the firſt, was not the greateſt or moſt celebrated of the exploits of Fingal. His wars were very numerous, and each of them afforded a theme which employed the genius of his ſon. But, excepting the preſent poem, thoſe pieces are irrecoverably loſt, and there only remain a few fragments of them in the hands of the tranſlator. Tradition has ſtill preſerved, in many places, the ſtory of the poems, and many now living have heard them, in their youth, repeated.

THE complete work, now printed, would, in a ſhort time, have ſhared the fate of the reſt. The genius of the highlanders has ſuffered a great change within theſe few years. The communication with the reſt of the iſland is open, and the introduction of trade and manufactures has deſtroyed that leiſure which was formerly dedicated to hearing and repeating the poems of ancient times. Many have now learned to leave their mountains, and ſeek their fortunes in a milder climate; and though a certain amor patriæ may ſometimes bring them back, they have, during their abſence, imbibed enough of foreign manners to deſpiſe the cuſtoms of their anceſtors. Bards have been long diſuſed, and the ſpirit of genealogy has greatly ſubſided. Men begin to be leſs devoted to their chiefs, and conſanguinity is not ſo much regarded. When property is eſtabliſhed, the human mind confines its views to the pleaſure it procures. It does not go back to antiquity, or look forward to ſucceeding ages. The cares of life increaſe, and the actions of other times no longer amuſe. Hence it is, that the taſte for their ancient poetry is at a low ebb among the highlanders. They have not, however, thrown off the good qualities of the anceſtors. Hoſpitality ſtill ſubſiſts, and an uncommon civility to ſtrangers. Friendſhip is inviolable, and revenge leſs blindly followed than formerly.

TO ſay any thing, concerning the poetical merit of the poems, would be an anticipation of the judgment of the public: The poem which ſtands firſt in the collection is truly epic. The characters are ſtrongly marked, and the ſentiments breathe heroiſm. The ſubject of it is an invaſion of Ireland by Swaran king of Lochlin, which is the name of Scandinavia in the Galic language. Cuchullin, general of the Iriſh tribes in the minority of Cormac king of Ireland, upon intelligence of the invaſion, aſſembled his forces near Tura, a caſtle on the coaſt of Ulſter. The poem opens with die landing of Swaran, councils are held, battles fought, and Cuchullin is, at laſt, totally defeated. In the mean time, Fingal, king of Scotland, whoſe aid was ſollicited before the enemy landed, arrived and expelled them from the country. This war, which continued but ſix days and as many nights, is, including the epiſodes, the whole ſtory of the poem. The ſcene is the heath of Lena near a mountain called Cromleach in Ulſter.

ALL that can be ſaid of the tranſlation, is, that it is literal, and that ſimplicity is ſtudied. The arrangement of the words in the original is imitated, and the inverſion of the ſtyle obſerved. As the tranſlator claims no merit from his verſion, he hopes for the indulgence of the public where he fails. He wiſhes that the imperfect ſemblance he draws, may not prejudice the world againſt an original, which contains what is beautiful in ſimplicity, and grand in the ſublime.