MacPherson and Gaelic Myth–What Actually Matters when Saving Your Culture?

In this still place, remote from men, 
Sleep Ossian, in the narrow glen; 
In this still place, where murmurs on
But one meek streamlet, only one

Glen-Almain; or, The Narrow Glen
William Wordsworth, cir 1803

How do you tell the stories of your culture if your culture is being erased? Do you have to be 100% accurate? Do you only have to have primary sources? What actually matters in the face of culture extinction?

If you were to ask James McPherson and his contemporaries such as Robert Burns, James Hogg, William Wordsworth, and Horace Walpole, the answer would be to do what you can.

Like Walpole, who was ridiculed for seeming overly dramatic Castle of Otranto, and for presenting it as a translation instead of his own work, James McPherson produced a series of poems which he claimed were translations of Ossian–a very ancient Gaelic bard who was well-known both in Scotland and Ireland.

Whether or not Ossian actually existed is a matter of debate.

One of MacPherson’s most prominent critics was none other than Samual Johnson. If you don’t know who that is, don’t worry. We’ll cover him at some later date. Basically, think of him as the Father of the English Dictionary. Coincidentally, he also wrote a work based upon a journey he made through Scotland’s Western Isles (think Isle of Mull, Iona, Isle of Harris, etc).

The Poems of Ossian turned out to be as important as Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. You know you’ve hit it big when Napoleon carries a copy into battle with him.

Whether MacPherson actually translated his work from original source material or not didn’t actually end up mattering. While scholars, writers, and the like still debate whether he had true source material or not, Scotland has emerged not only as an example of clean energy but is a major tourist destination, partially thanks to the hype generated by MacPherson and his contemporaries.

All those reels on Instagram with scenes from Edinburgh? Isle of Sky? Shetland? You have writers and poets like MacPherson to thank for those.

On behalf of the much-maligned MacPherson: You’re welcome.

He sang of battles, and the breath
Of stormy war, and violent death;

Glen-Almain; or, The Narrow Glen
William Wordsworth, cir 1803

The Poems of Ossian, as Peter Berresford Ellis points out in Celtic Myths and Legends are largely based upon common tales to both Scotland and Ireland. In fact, the events in Fingal: An Epic Poem take place in Ireland which MacPherson calls Erin.

The publication of Ossian I have is from a company I’d never heard of until I started searching for a copy of Ossian for my very own: Leopold Classic Library. It will definitely not be my last acquisition! Leopold specializes in out-of-print books and there are some very interesting editions in their collection which may or may not make it into future blog posts!

Leopold’s Ossian is a facsimile of an edition published in 1850 in Edinburgh and it’s extremely well done. I like older books as a rule–my bookshelves are loaded with them and it’s very instructive in how different historical editions compare to one another.

It also makes it glaringly obvious to me that if this was MacPherson’s own work, it was very badly written.

To read any of the entries in Ossian is like reading a bad translation of Homer. They’re not in verse at all like an epic poem should be. The wording is awkward since it’s prose which is trying to be poetic, the place-names and the heroes’ names are all largely Anglicized, and the events are not always clear.

In other words, it’s not the easiest reading in the world.

This is something I largely attribute to MacPherson writing in the eighteenth century.

While not true Early Modern English (which is Shakespeare’s domain), it’s not yet the more straightforward prose of the twentieth century. As with Otranto, sentence structure in the eighteenth century was far more complex than it is today.

Personally, I would dearly have liked J.R.R. Tolkien to have taken a crack at revising these, as he did when he translated Kullervo. He would have produced something marvelous indeed. Alas! Tolkien’s interests did not lie in the direction of Gaelic tradition. He was more concerned with Anglo-Saxon rhythmic verse.

Doe then the Bard sleep here indeed?
Or is it but a groundless creed?
What matters it?

He sang of battles, and the breath
Of stormy war, and violent death;

Glen-Almain; or, The Narrow Glen
William Wordsworth, cir 1803

If MacPherson’s ultimate success is something to strive for–whatever piece of your culture heritage you’re trying to save–then you don’t have to be anything resembling an authority to help contribute. All you have to do is carry on a tradition even if it’s just re-telling an old story.

Accuracy has nothing to do with it. Capturing and holding interest does. And I can certainly imagine an eighteenth century audience becoming very captivated with the adventures of Fingal. It’s the story that counts and the story has to be moving.

As Ellis points out in his introduction to Scottish myths in Celtic Myths and Legends, folklore is largely the telling and re-telling of old stories over and over again. So whether MacPherson was actually translating texts from the 3rd century or merely re-telling old stories of the Gaelic tradition (both Irish and Scottish) it matters very little in the end.

I agree with him.

Fairy tales, folklore, and mythology are not there to be historically accurate records. They are there for quite another purpose altogether and it has absolutely nothing to do with getting every tiny detail correct.

Just as the also controversial Kalevala revived interest in Finnish culture and The Witcher (both books and Netflix series) are reviving interest in Slavic culture, MacPherson’s The Poems of Ossian created a large enough of a sensation to revive interest in Scotland.

Besides, if we can glorify activists, politicians, and fill-in-the-blank “warriors” for trying to change the world, why can’t we glorify the humble storyteller? The traveling bard–the original storyteller–has a far older and more noble tradition than any of the other groups of people. Why

Well, and there’s the small detail that books and stories last a lot longer than a demonstration or protest.

Did not Ossian hear a voice? or is it the sound of days that are no more? Often does the memory of former times come, like the evening sun, on my soul.

The Poems of Ossian, James MacPherson

I am not completely dismissing academic endeavors to accurately bring a culture back to life or to save an almost extinct language. Accuracy does matter to keep historical records straight, to find commonality between ancient (and not so ancient) cultures, and to correctly represent a people as they were and not as someone with a political or economic interest would have us see them for whatever reason.

However, funding for academic endeavors only comes with general interest. And how do you create interest in a dead or dying culture? Basically, you do it with content marketing. Tell the story, travel there, show what’s happening. Make it desirable to the general public.

In the 21st century, this can mean anything from starting your own blog, to writing your own novels, posting about your travels, sharing recipes, making videos, writing knitting patterns, the list goes on. There are more ways than ever to get other people interested in your cultural heritage and to help save it from extinction.

Again, no degree required. All you need is what the Scots have always had and what I’m almost certain you have: a deep love of heritage.

And it has to matter enough to you personally to write what’s needed.

But Ossian did hear a voice! Who are thou, son of night? The Children of the feeble are asleep. The midnight wind is in my hall.

The Poems of Ossian, James MacPherson

Want to know more about Ossian? He’ll come up again at some point! Sign up to get notified by email when new posts are added and to get a sneak the peak at what’s in works!

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