James Macpherson

James Macpherson

James Macpherson

Gaelic Poet and Fraudster (1736-1796)

Mr. James Macpherson, ---

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 not 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 public, 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.

James Boswell

So, "Big Jimmy" Boswell didn't think much of James Macpherson. And in truth, Macpherson was a controversial figure in his own time and beyond.

James Macpherson was born a Highlander, the son of a farmer, on 27 October 1736 at Ruthven, Badenoch.

He attended Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, graduating at neither, and in 1756 he returned to his native village as a teacher. But he had ambitions, which were never going to be fulfilled in the Highlands, and within two years he moved to Edinburgh to act as a tutor to well-to-do families and to pursue a literary career.

And from here on it got exciting. He released a long poem, "The Highlander" which met with near universal indifference. Undeterred, in 1760, "Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language" was published.

The book, which was a huge success, suggested that Macpherson had tapped into an oral tradition of Highland and Gaelic storytelling. That this was a traditional method of passing folklore from generation to generation is undisputed. What was disputed was the suggestion contained in the book, that the stories could be traced back to the third century AD, some fourteen hundred years, and therefore, the veracity of the collection of stories in the first place.

Undeterred by the scepticism and encouraged by the success of the book, in August 1760, Macpherson embarked on a tour of Perthshire, Inverness-shire, Skye, Benbecula, Uist, Mull and Argyll to further research and collect these unpublished ancient Scottish and Irish stories.

The result was "Fingal" in 1762, followed indecently swiftly by "Temora" in 1763. Purporting to be translations of epic poems by Ossian dating back to the third century, they were immediate and substantial successes and attracted favourable comparisons with Homer and Virgil. Not bad for a relatively uneducated Scotsman with a crude grasp of the Gaelic language of the supposedly original stories.

But not everyone was convinced, amongst them James Boswell, who was an early, vocal and enduring critic. Macpherson's refusal to reveal the sources of his stories only added fuel to the fire of his critics.

Ultimately, Macpherson didn't give a monkeys. He made a huge amount of money from the books and buggered off to London where he fornicated on a truly Herculean scale (hence the reference to his morals in Boswell's letter).

In 1763 he took up a government post in the East Indies, returning to London in 1766 where he lived comfortably as a historian, pamphleteer and political lobbyist.

He retired to a Badenoch estate, bought with the proceeds of his publications and died there in 1796. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, which may give some indication of Establishment acceptance. The fact that this was at his own expense though, may suggest that there was a legacy of doubt to the end.

Although they were largely fabricated, the stories contributed to the romanticised notions of Scotland that would later become widely adopted by the Victorians and also influenced the arch-perpetrator of such crap, Sir Walter Scott.

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