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

By Fiona J. Stafford | Go to book overview

such a community, untainted by commerce or conquest since their original settlement.

Macpherson's views help to explain his deep anxiety about the 1707 Union with England and the changes that were taking place in the Highlands in the eighteenth century. His ostensibly historical dissertation on Fingal concluded not with remarks on the ancient Celts, but with a discussion of the contemporary Highlanders:

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 patriae 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 . . . consanguinity is not so much regarded. ( Fingal, xv)

Macpherson's description of the contemporary Highlands is in sharp contrast to his vision of Celtic Scotland. He was acutely conscious of the steady integration of the Highlands into the rest of Britain, seeing himself as a witness to the final collapse of a society which had remained uncorrupted for over two thousand years. Instead of expressing anger over the events of the '45, he observed factors which were to have far more permanent effects on the Highlands. Communication with Lowland Britain brought commercial products and trade to the Highlands, while the wealth of the South drew the inhabitants away from their homes. The erosion of the Gaelic language was another important factor in the disintegration of Highland culture, breaking down the close communities and destroying the memories of their ancestors. Macpherson's own emphasis on poetry as a moral guide suggested that the disappearance of the oral tradition threatened the very virtues of the Highlanders. Thus he saw his own collection of Gaelic poetry as a hopeless gesture towards the preservation of Celtic Scotland. He could identify only too closely with Ossian as the last of the heroic race. The age of Fingal had vanished, but at least the memory of a greater society could be carried into the degenerate civilisation of eighteenth-century Europe.


NOTES
1.
D. Erskine Baker, The Muse of Ossian, ( Edinburgh 1763). The British Library's copy includes John Wilkes' note, 'The Muse of Ossian is a vile Scottish jade'.

-160-

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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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