The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian

By Fiona J. Stafford | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Macpherson at the University of Aberdeen 1752-1755

The education of Nature is most perfect in savages, who have no other tutor; and we see that, in the quickness of all their senses, in the agility of their motions, in the hardiness of their constitutions, and in the strengths of their minds to bear hunger, thirst, pain, and disappointment, they commonly far exceed the civilised. A most ingenious writer, on this account, seems to prefer the savage life to that of society. But the education of Nature could never of itself produce a Rousseau.

Thomas Reid, Inquiry into the Human Mind, 17641

Throughout his life, Macpherson was to draw on his Highland background for a symbol of ideal society, uncorrupted by civilisation. Yet his very praise of the Highlands, depended largely on having left them. The advantages of the physical 'education of Nature' became apparent only through his experience of urban life and, ironically, Macpherson's personal revolt against the advancing civilisation of the Lowlands owed more to his education at Aberdeen University than to his 'natural' education in Badenoch.

How did Macpherson come to see his declining home as an ideal society, infinitely superior to the prosperous cities of eighteenth- century Britain? Why did his family and friends, who were simply carrying on their normal daily lives, suddenly seem part of a living museum? And what was to make him want to record the popular songs and stories that people such as Finlay Macpherson would recite to anyone who came to visit? James Macpherson was only twenty- three when Fragments of Ancient Poetry was published, so it seems reasonable to look for answers to some of these questions at the University of Aberdeen. We know the subjects Macpherson would have studied and which tutors taught him, so it is possible to trace some of the ideas that influenced Ossian in the degree course.

The few surviving descriptions of Macpherson at University suggest that he was an able, but not particularly diligent, student. A fellow undergraduate remembered him as being 'more remarkable for quietness of parts and soundness of intellect than for application or proficiency in his studies' 2. The biographical entry in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia concurs:' His talent for poetry displayed itself at this

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The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Illustrations vi
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Abbreviations viii
  • Prologue 1
  • Notes 4
  • Chapter One - Macpherson's Childhood in the Scottish Highlands 6
  • Notes 20
  • Chapter Two - Macpherson at the University of Aberdeen 1752-1755 24
  • Notes 37
  • Chapter Three - Macpherson's Early Poetry 40
  • Notes 58
  • Charter Four the Highlander 61
  • Notes 75
  • Chapter Five - The Death of Oscur 77
  • Notes 94
  • Chapter Six - Fragments of Ancient Poetry 96
  • Notes 111
  • Chapter Seven - The Highland Tours 113
  • Notes 129
  • Chapter Eight - Fingal 133
  • Notes 149
  • Chapter Nine - Macpherson's Vision of Celtic Scotland 151
  • Notes 160
  • Chapter Ten the Response to Ossian 163
  • Notes 178
  • Epilogue 181
  • Surviving Gaelic Manuscripts collected by James Macpherson 184
  • Index 188
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