James Macpherson

British writer, poet, translator and politician (1736-1796)

James Macpherson (Gaelic: Seumas MacMhuirich or Seumas Mac a' Phearsain) (27 October 173617 February 1796) was a Scottish poet and literary hoaxer. His supposed translations from poems by the ancient Highland bard Ossian, sensationally successful in their day, were largely forgeries, though with an admixture of traditional Gaelic material.

Those who have doubted my veracity have paid a compliment to my genius.


  • Those who have doubted my veracity have paid a compliment to my genius.
    • "A Dissertation concerning the Poems of Ossian", in The Poems of Ossian (1773), Vol. II, p. ix
  • The wrath of the son of Peleus,—O goddess of song, unfold! The deadly wrath of Achilles: To Greece the source of many woes! Which peopled the regions of death,—with shades of heroes untimely slain: While pale they lay along the shore: Torn by beasts and birds of prey: But such was the will of Jove! Begin the verse, from the source of rage,—between Achilles and the sovereign of men.

The Poems of Ossian

Page numbers refer to The Poems of Ossian (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1847).
Often, like the evening sun, comes the memory of former times on my soul.
  • Often does the memory of former times come, like the evening sun, on my soul.
    • "Conlath and Cuthona"
    • Quoted by Lord Henry Home Kames in Elements of Criticism as "Often, like the evening-sun, comes the memory of former times on my soul."
  • Go, view the settling sea: the stormy wind is laid. The billows still tremble on the deep. They seem to fear the blast.
    • "Conlath and Cuthona"
  • Daughter of heaven, fair art thou! the silence of thy face is pleasant! Thou comest forth in loveliness. The stars attend thy blue course in the east. The clouds rejoice in thy presence, O moon! They brighten their dark-brown sides. Who is like thee in heaven, light of the silent night? The stars are ashamed in thy presence. They turn away their sparkling eyes. Whither dost thou retire from thy course, when the darkness of thy countenance grows? Hast thou thy hall, like Ossian? Dwellest thou in the shadow of grief? Have thy sisters fallen from heaven? Are they who rejoiced with thee, at night, no more? Yes! they have fallen, fair light! and thou dost often retire to mourn. But thou thyself shalt fail, one night; and leave thy blue path in heaven. The stars will then lift their heads: they, who were ashamed in thy presence, will rejoice. Thou art now clothed with thy brightness. Look from thy gates in the sky. Burst the cloud, O wind! that the daughter of night may look forth! that the shaggy mountains may brighten, and the ocean roll its white waves in light.
    • "Dar-thula"
  • Hast thou left thy blue course in heaven, golden-haired son of the sky? The west has opened its gates; the bed of thy repose is there. The waves come to behold thy beauty. They lift their trembling heads. They see thee lovely in thy sleep; they shrink away with fear. Rest, in thy shadowy cave, O sun! let thy return be in joy.
    • "Carric-thura"
  • The people bend before me. I turn the battle in the field of the brave. I look on the nations, and they vanish: my nostrils pour the blast of death. I come abroad on the winds: the tempests are before my face. But my dwelling is calm, above the clouds; the fields of my rest are pleasant.
    • "Carric-thura", p. 147
  • They stood in silence, in their beauty: like two young trees of the plain, when the shower of spring is on their leaves, and the loud winds are laid.
    • "Carric-thura".
    • Compare:
      • Τὼ δ᾽ ἄνεῳ καὶ ἄναυδοι ἐφέστασαν ἀλλήλοισιν,
        ἢ δρυσίν, ἢ μακρῇσιν ἐειδόμενοι ἐλάτῃσιν,
        τε παρᾶσσον ἕκηλοι ἐν οὔρεσιν ἐρρίζωνται,
        νηνεμίῃ· μετὰ δ᾽ αὖτις ὑπὸ ῥιπῆς ἀνέμοιο
        κινύμεναι ὁμάδησαν ἀπείριτον.
        • The pair then faced each other, silent, unable to speak, like oaks or tall firs, which at first when there is no wind stand quiet and firmly rooted on the mountains, but afterwards stir in the wind and rustle together ceaselessly.
        • Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica (3rd century BC), Book III, lines 967–971 (tr. Richard Hunter)
  • Sorrow, like a cloud on the sun, shades the soul of Clessammor.
    • "Carthon"
Thou shalt sleep in thy clouds, careless of the voice of the morning.
  • O thou that rollest above, round as the shield of my fathers! Whence are thy beams, O sun! thy everlasting light? Thou comest forth in thy awful beauty; the stars hide themselves in the sky; the moon, cold and pale, sinks in the western wave; but thou thyself movest alone. Who can be a companion of thy course? The oaks of the mountains fall; the mountains themselves decay with years; the ocean shrinks and grows again; the moon herself is lost in heaven: but thou art for ever the same, rejoicing in the brightness of thy course. When the world is dark with tempests, when thunder rolls and lightning flies, thou lookest in thy beauty from the clouds, and laughest at the storm. But to Ossian thou lookest in vain, for he beholds thy beams no more: whether thy yellow hair flows on the eastern clouds, or thou tremblest at the gates of the west. But thou art, perhaps, like me, for a season; thy years will have an end. Thou shalt sleep in thy clouds, careless of the voice of the morning. Exult then, O sun, in the strength of thy youth!
    • "Carthon", pp. 163–164
  • The music was like the memory of joys that are past, pleasant and mournful to the soul.
    • "The Death of Cuthullin"
  • "Whither hast thou fled, O wind?" said the king of Morven. "Dost thou rustle in the chambers of the south? pursuest thou the shower in other lands? Why dost thou not come to my sails? to the blue face of my seas?"
    • "Lathmon"
  • I was a lovely tree, in thy presence, Oscar, with all my branches round me; but thy death came like a blast from the desert, and laid my green head low.
    • "Croma", p. 178
Happy are they who fell in their youth, in the midst of their renown! They have not beheld the tombs of their friends.
  • Why should Ossian sing of battles? For never more shall my steel shine in war. I remember the days of my youth with grief, when I feel the weakness of my arm. Happy are they who fell in their youth, in the midst of their renown! They have not beheld the tombs of their friends, or failed to bend the bow of their strength.
    • "The War of Caros"
  • O lay me, ye that see the light, near some rock of my hills! let the thick hazels be around, let the rustling oak be near. Green be the place of my rest; let the sound of the distant torrent be heard. Daughter of Toscar, take the harp, and raise the lovely song of Selma, that sleep may overtake my soul in the midst of joy; that the dreams of my youth may return, and the days of the mighty Fingal.
    • "The War of Inis-thona"
  • Star of descending night! fair is thy light in the west! thou liftest thy unshorn head from thy cloud: thy steps are stately on thy hill. What dost thou behold in the plain? The stormy winds are laid. The murmur of the torrent comes from afar. Roaring waves climb the distant rock. The flies of evening are on their feeble wings; the hum of their course is on the field. What dost thou behold, fair light? But thou dost smile and depart. The waves come with joy around thee: they bathe thy lovely hair. Farewell, thou silent beam! Let the light of Ossian's soul arise!
    • "The Songs of Selma"
  • The stream and the wind roar aloud. I hear not the voice of my love! Why delays my Salgar, why the chief of the hill, his promise? Here is the rock, and here the tree! here is the roaring stream! Thou didst promise with night to be here. Ah! whither is my Salgar gone? With thee I would fly from my father; with thee, from my brother of pride.
    • "The Songs of Selma", p. 209
  • My tears, O Ryno! are for the dead; my voice for those that have passed away. Tall thou art on the hill; fair among the sons of the vale. But thou shalt fall like Morar; the mourner shall sit on thy tomb. The hills shall know thee no more; thy bow shall lie in thy hall, unstrung!
    Thou wert swift, O Morar! as a roe on the desert; terrible as a meteor of fire. Thy wrath was as the storm. Thy sword in battle, as lightning in the field. Thy voice was a stream after rain; like thunder on distant hills. Many fell by thy arm; they were consumed in the flames of thy wrath. But when thou didst return from war, how peaceful was thy brow! Thy face was like the sun after rain; like the moon in the silence of night; calm as the breast of the lake when the loud wind is laid.
    Narrow is thy dwelling now! dark the place of thine abode! With three steps I compass thy grave, O thou who wast so great before. Four stones, with their heads of moss, are the only memorial of thee. A tree with scarce a leaf, long grass, which whistles in the wind, mark to the hunter's eye the grave of the mighty Morar.
    • "The Songs of Selma"
  • Far before the rest, the son of Ossian comes; bright in the smiles of youth, fair as the first beams of the sun. His long hair waves on his back: his dark brows are half hid beneath his helmet of steel. His sword hangs loose on the hero's side. His spear glitters as he moves. I fled from his terrible eyes, King of high Temora!
  • Where art thou, beam of light? Hunters, from the mossy rock, saw ye the blue-eyed fair?
    • Temora, Book VI, p. 353
  • Then rose the strife of kings about the hill of night; but it was soft as two summer gales, shaking their light wings on a lake.
    • "Cathlin of Clutha"
  • Can I forget that beam of light, the white-handed daughter of kings?
    • "Cath-Loda", Duan I
Whence is the stream of years? Whither do they roll along? Where have they hid, in mist, their many-coloured sides?
  • Whence is the stream of years? Whither do they roll along? Where have they hid, in mist, their many-coloured sides?
    I look into the times of old, but they seem dim to Ossian's eyes, like reflected moon-beams, on a distant lake.
    • "Cath-Loda", Duan III
  • I look down from my height on nations
    And they become ashes before me.
    • "Carric", as quoted by Thoreau in "Life Without Principle"

Fingal, an ancient Epic Poem

  • I beheld their chief, tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the shore, like a cloud of mist on the silent hill!
    • Book I
  • As autumn's dark storms pour from two echoing hills, toward each other approached the heroes.—As two dark streams from high rocks meet, and mix and roar on the plain; loud, rough and dark in battle met Lochlin and Innis-fail. Chief mixed his strokes with chief, and man with man; steel, clanging, sounded on steel, helmets are cleft on high. Blood bursts and smokes around. ... As the troubled noise of the ocean when roll the waves on high; as the last peal of the thunder of heaven, such is the noise of battle.
    • Book I
  • As roll a thousand waves to the rocks, so Swaran's host came on. As meets a rock a thousand waves, so Erin met Swaran of spears.
    • Book I
Lovely are the tales of other times. They are like the calm dew of the morning on the hill of roses, when the sun is faint on its side, and the lake is settled and blue in the vale.
  • "Pleasant are the words of the song," said Cuthullin, "and lovely are the tales of other times. They are like the calm dew of the morning on the hill of roes, when the sun is faint on its side, and the lake is settled and blue in the vale."
    • Book III
  • The gloom of the battle roared.
    • Book III
  • The groan of the people spread over the hills; it was like the thunder of night, when the cloud bursts on Cona; and a thousand ghosts shriek at once on the hollow wind.
    • Book III
  • "Son of my son," begun the king, "O Oscar, pride of youth! I saw the shining of thy sword, I gloried in my race. Pursue the fame of our fathers; be thou what they have been, when Trenmor lived, the first of men, and Trathal the father of heroes! They fought the battle in their youth. They are the song of bards. O Oscar! bend the strong in arm: but spare the feeble hand. Be thou a stream of many tides against the foes of thy people; but like the gale, that moves the grass, to those who ask thine aid. So Trenmor lived; such Trathal was; and such has Fingal been. My arm was the support of the injured; the weak rested behind the lightning of my steel."
    • Book III
    • Compare:
      • Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.
        • Spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
        • Virgil, Aeneid (19 BC), Book VI, line 853 (tr. Robert Fitzgerald)
  • Hail, Carril of other times! Thy voice is like the harp in the halls of Tura.
    • Book V


We may boldly assign Ossian a place among those whose works are to last for ages. ~ Hugh Blair
  • We may boldly assign him [Ossian] a place among those, whose works are to last for ages.
    • Hugh Blair, A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian (1763), p. 75.
  • That Fingal is not from beginning to end a translation from the Gallick, but that some passages have been supplied by the editor to connect the whole, I have heard admitted by very warm advocates for its authenticity. If this be the case, why are not these distinctly ascertained? Antiquaries, and admirers of the work, may complain, that they are in a situation similar to that of the unhappy gentleman whose wife informed him, on her death-bed, that one of their reputed children was not his; and, when he eagerly begged her to declare which of them it was, she answered, 'That you shall never know', and expired, leaving him in irremediable doubt as to them all.
    • James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), p. 490.
  • Dr. Blair, relying on the internal evidence of their antiquity, asked Dr. Johnson whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems? Johnson replied, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children."
  • Ossian, sublimest, simplest bard of all,
    Whom English infidels Macpherson call.
  • Ossian is the decay and old age of poetry. He lives only in the recollection and regret of the past. There is one impression which he conveys more entirely than all other poets, namely, the sense of privation, the loss of all things.
    • William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets (1818), Lecture I: "On Poetry in General".
  • Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.
    • Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell Life of Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p. 1207.
  • Why is not the original deposited in some public library, instead of exhibiting attestations of its existence? Suppose there were a question in a court of justice, whether a man be dead or alive. You aver he is alive, and you bring fifty witnesses to swear it. I answer, 'Why do you not produce the man?'
    • Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), p. 487.
  • I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian. What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the publick, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable; and what I hear of your morals, inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.
    • Samuel Johnson, letter to James Macpherson (20 January 1775), quoted in James Boswell Life of Johnson, Vol. I (1791), p. 449.
  • These pieces have been and will, I think, during my life, continue to be to me the sources of daily and exalted pleasures. The tender and the sublime emotions of the mind were never before so wrought up by the human hand. I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest poet that has ever existed. Merely for the pleasure of reading his works, I am become desirous of learning the language in which he sung, and of possessing his songs in their original form.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles McPherson, February 25, 1773, cited from H. A. Washington (ed.) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853) vol. 1, pp. 195-6.
  • With a genius truly poetical, he [Macpherson] was one of the first literary impostors in modern times.
  • I first read the poems in my early youth, with an ardent credulity that remained unshaken for many years of my life; and with a pleasure to which even the triumphant satisfaction of detecting the imposture is comparatively nothing. The enthusiasm with which I read and studied the poems, enabled me afterwards, when my suspicions were once awakened, to trace and expose the deception with greater success. Yet, notwithstanding the severity of minute criticism, I can still peruse them as a wild and wonderful assemblage of imitations, with which the fancy is often pleased and gratified, even when the judgment condemns them most.
  • Par une de ces journées sombres qui attristent la fin de l'année, et que rend encore plus mélancoliques le souffle glacé du vent du Nord, écoutez, en lisant Ossian, la fantastique harmonie d'une harpe éolienne balancée au sommet d'un arbre dépouillé de verdure, et vous pourrez éprouver un sentiment profond de tristesse, un désir vague et infini d'une autre existence, un dégoût immense de celle-ci.
    • Some gloomy autumn day, when the dreary north wind is howling, read Ossian to the accompaniment of the weird moans of an Æolian harp hung in the leafless branches of a tree, and you will experience a feeling of intense sadness, an infinite yearning for another state of existence, an intense disgust with the present.
    • Hector Berlioz, Mémoires, ch. 39 [1]; Eleanor Holmes, Rachel Holmes and Ernest Newman (trans.) Memoirs of Hector Berlioz from 1803 to 1865 (New York: Dover, 1966) pp. 156-7.
  • He produced a work of art which by its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature.
  • One is tempted to call them works of genius; they are quite Homeric in their internal unity, purity of phrasing, clear, ringing music of language and dramatic coloring.
  • All hail, Macpherson! hail to thee, Sire of Ossian! The Phantom was begotten by the suing embrace of all impudent Highlander upon a cloud of tradition—it travelled southward, where it was greeted with acclamation, and the thin Consistence took its course through Europe, upon the breath of popular applause. [...] Having had the good fortune to be born and reared in a mountainous country, from my very childhood I have felt the falsehood that pervades the volumes imposed upon the world under the name of Ossian. From what I saw with my own eyes, I knew that the imagery was spurious. In Nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute independent singleness. In Macpherson's work, it is exactly the reverse; every thing (that is not stolen) is in this manner defined, insulated, dislocated, deadened,—yet nothing distinct. It will always be so when words are substituted for things. [...] Yet, much as those pretended treasures of antiquity have been admired, they have been wholly uninfluential upon the literature of the Country. No succeeding writer appears to have taught from them a ray of inspiration; no author, in the least distinguished, has ventured formally to imitate them—except the boy, Chatterton, on their first appearance. [...] This incapacity to amalgamate with the literature of the Island, is, in my estimation, a decisive proof that the book is essentially unnatural; nor should I require any other to demonstrate it to be a forgery, audacious as worthless.