Macpherson, James (1736-1796) (DNB00)

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MACPHERSON, JAMES (1736–1796), the alleged translator of the Ossianic poems, was born at Ruthven in the parish of Kingussie, Inverness-shire, on 27 Oct. 1786 (tombstone in Westminster Abbey). His father, Andrew Macpherson, a penurious farmer, was closely related to the chief of the northern clan of that name. His mother, Ellen, was daughter of a respectable tacksman of the second branch of the clan. Macpherson was educated at home, and at the district school in Badenoch, where the talent he showed decided his relations to bring him up to a learned profession. Accordingly in February 1753 he entered King's College, Aberdeen. In 1755 two months were added to the length of the annual session, and Macpherson consequently migrated, with other poor students, to Marischal College. He then went, probably as a student of divinity, to the university of Edinburgh, but though he read widely, he took no degree either there or at Aberdeen. In Edinburgh he did some hack-work for booksellers, and during his vacations, and also after he left the university, he taught in the village school at Ruthven. Although he prepared for the ministry, and Gray in 1760 spoke of him as a young clergyman, it is doubtful if he took orders.

At college, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, he is said to have composed over four thousand verses (Poems of Ossian, ed. Laing, 1807, i. p. viii). His earliest were, on ‘Death,’ in blank verse, and ‘The Hunter,’ in heroics. He also attempted an ode, in the manner of Pindar, on ‘The Arrival of the Earl Marischal in Scotland.’ Various pieces in the ‘Scots Magazine,’ signed ‘J. M.,’ are probably his, besides several signed ‘M.’ in a ‘Collection of Original Poetry by Blacklock and other Scots Gentlemen,’ Edinburgh, 1766. In 1758 he published at Edinburgh ‘The Highlander,’ a more ambitious effort; but, like all his early poetry, it was a failure, and he afterwards wished to suppress it.

On leaving Ruthven he sought employment as a private tutor, an occupation not to his taste (Hill Burton, Life of Hume, i. 464). In the autumn of 1759 he was at Moffat with the son of Mr. Graham of Balgowan, afterwards Lord Lynedoch. There he met John Home, the author of ‘Douglas,’ and Dr. Carlyle of Inveresk, both of whom were interested in ancient highland poetry. Macpherson repeated to them Gaelic verses from memory, and showed others in manuscript, which he said he had collected among the highlanders. At Home's request he translated in a day or two a fragment entitled ‘The Death of Oscar.’ Home and Carlyle, much pleased with it, asked for more; and when Macpherson produced some sixteen translated pieces, which he described as portions of a greater work, they strongly urged him to publish them. Macpherson reluctantly yielded, but afterwards stated that ‘his highland pride was alarmed at appearing to the world only as a translator’ (Letter from George Laurie, given in Laing, op. cit. ii. 46–50).

Home took the manuscripts with him to Edinburgh, where Dr. Hugh Blair [q. v.] was greatly struck by them, and to London, where they excited interest in literary circles. At length Macpherson published them at Edinburgh in July 1760, under the title, ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands,’ with an introduction by Blair, who pronounced them genuine remains of ancient Scottish poetry. They were well received. Gregory and Lord Kames joined Blair in pronouncing them genuine, and Macpherson became a man of note. Although Gray was warm in praise of the poems, he was doubtful ‘whether they were the invention of antiquity or of a modern Scotchman’ (Mason, Life of Gray, 1807, ii. 167–73). Hume inclined to a belief in their authenticity, and described Macpherson as a modest, sensible young man.

In the preface to the ‘Fragments’ Blair referred to the existence of a longer poem, in epic form, relating at great length the wars of Fion or Fingal, and said he thought it might, with trouble, be collected entire. But Macpherson showed reluctance to undertake the task. Home encouraged him to persevere, and was of so much service at this period that, probably in recognition of it, Macpherson left him 2,000l. (Baker, Biog. Dram. i. 362). Lord Elibank, Robertson, Adam Fergusson, Robert Chalmers, and others, met together at dinner to discuss means of raising the requisite funds; and Macpherson, who was present, at their persuasion agreed to undertake the search. A subscription list was started by the Faculty of Advocates, and Hume, among others, contributed.

Armed with letters of introduction to the gentry and clergy, Macpherson then made two journeys to the highlands. The first was to the north-west of Inverness-shire, and the isles of Skye, Uist, and Benbecula, and on a part of it he was accompanied by Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, who assisted him by taking down poems as they were orally recited, and transcribing others from old manuscripts. From Ewen Macpherson, who met him at Knock, in Sleat, he obtained other poems orally recited in different places, and taken down in his absence, together with a book of Gaelic poems, given to Ewen Macpherson by Macmhurich, the representative of a long line of bards attached to the family of Clanranald. Macpherson also visited Captain Morrison in Skinnader, Skye, and gave him some of the poems he had collected. On his way back he stayed for some time with the Rev. A. Gallie, then missionary in Brae Badenoch, and exhibited to him several volumes beautifully written on vellum, but much worm-eaten and obscured, which Macpherson said he had from the Clanranalds. (For the probable character of one of these volumes see Laing, op. cit. ii. 392.) With the assistance of Gallie and Morrison, who, unlike Macpherson, were good Gaelic scholars, he spent some time in arranging his materials, and preparing a version for translation. After a visit to Ruthven in October 1760, he made a second journey to Mull and the coast of Argyllshire, and obtained some manuscripts from the Fletchers of Glenforsa.

Returning to Edinburgh, he lodged in Blackfriars' Wynd, close to Dr. Blair, and busied himself with the translation both of what he had collected and of other poems sent him by friends. Writing on 16 Jan. 1761 to the Rev. Mr. M'Laggan, he referred to his luck in finding ‘a pretty complete poem, truly epic, concerning Fingal, and of an antiquity easily ascertainable’ (Report of the Committee of the Highland Society, Edinburgh, 1805, Appendix, pp. 153–156).

Probably at the invitation of Lord Bute, then at the height of his power, Macpherson went to London, where in December 1761 he issued, partly by subscription, the first result of his translation as ‘Fingal,’ an epic poem in six books, describing the invasion of Ireland by Swaran, king of Lochlin (Denmark). He dedicated it to Bute, who had helped him in publishing it, and he prefixed a critical dissertation of his own, in which Celtic was preferred to Greek heroic poetry. ‘Fingal’ was reprinted in Dublin in the same year, and at once became popular in translations on the continent. In England it met with a mixed reception, and it was soon denounced as spurious and bombastic, partly, no doubt, owing to the prejudice current at the time, both in England and Scotland, and traceable to the memories of 1745, against anything connected with the Gaelic language, or those who spoke it.

In 1763 appeared ‘Temora,’ in eight books, published entirely at Bute's expense. If ‘Fingal’ had raised doubts, ‘Temora’ confirmed them. Hume wrote to Blair on 19 Sept. 1763 that most men of letters in London took the poems for ‘a palpable and impudent forgery,’ but he admitted that a few fragments might be genuine (see his Essay in Burton's Hume, vol. i. App. p. 471). Writing again to Blair on 6 Oct. Hume described Macpherson as a ‘strange and heteroclite mortal, and most perverse and unamiable.’

By the two poems Macpherson had made some 1,200l., and, becoming proud of his success, he was scornful of suspicion. Writing to Cesarotti, who had sent him a complimentary letter (Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 22899, f. 5), he had promised on 4 May 1763 that if the prefatory dissertation failed to satisfy the abbé on the question of authenticity, he would transmit such further light as might be required (ib. f. 165). But subsequently Macpherson declined to adopt Blair's suggestion that he should ask those who had given him materials in the highlands for their direct testimony. It is said that when challenged to produce the originals, he deposited certain manuscripts with his publishers, Beckett and De Hondt in the Strand; advertised the fact in the newspapers, and offered to print them if enough subscribers came forward; and as none came, Beckett returned the manuscripts to their owner (see Beckett's letter, dated Adelphi, 19 Jan. 1775, in Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 28; but compare Boswell, Johnson, ed. Birkbeck Hill, ii. 294). Macpherson then withdrew from the controversy, and declined further requests to publish the originals on the plea of expense or want of leisure. He never seriously exerted himself to rebut the charge of forgery.

In his ‘Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’ (1775) Johnson gave, as the result of local investigation, an opinion strongly adverse to Macpherson's honesty. He denied the existence of any originals; declared Macpherson's stubborn audacity to be the last refuge of guilt; and belief in Macpherson to flow from a mistaken patriotism. ‘Macpherson,’ said Johnson, ‘had only found names, and stories, and phrases, nay, passages in old songs, and with them blended his own compositions, and so made what he gave to the world as translations of an ancient poem’ (ib. v. 242); ‘it was easy,’ Johnson continued, ‘to abandon one's mind to write such stuff.’ Macpherson appears to have heard of the terms in which Johnson was going to attack him, before the publication was issued, and tried to prevent it by letters to William Strahan, Johnson's publisher. Johnson proved obdurate and failed to insert in the volume a protest which Macpherson sent in the form of a slip advertisement (see Macpherson's letters in the Academy, 19 Oct. 1878). When the book appeared, Macpherson sent Johnson a challenge through his intimate friend, William Duncan (Sinclair's edition of the Poems of Ossian, i. ccxx). Johnson purchased a stout oak stick, and answered in a well-known letter that he would repel violence, and not desist from detecting what he thought a cheat, from any fear of the menaces of a ruffian (copy of the letter sold in 1875 for 50l.) Macpherson made no reply, but he is said to have afterwards assisted Donald McNicol [q. v.] in his ‘Remarks on Dr. Johnson's Tour’ (1779); McNicol affirmed that the scurrilities in the book were inserted without his knowledge after it was sent to London for publication. Walpole wrote in March 1775 that Macpherson had been as much a bully as Johnson a brute (Journal, i. 472). In 1781 William Shaw, a Scottish minister, and author of a Gaelic dictionary, published in London an ‘Inquiry into the Authenticity of Ossian,’ supporting Johnson's view. Shaw was answered in an abusive style by one Clerk of Edinburgh, and Johnson then took Shaw under his protection, and helped him to reply.

Meanwhile, early in 1764 Macpherson was, through Bute's influence, appointed secretary to Governor Johnstone at Pensacola, West Florida, which had been ceded to England by Spain on 10 Feb. 1763. According to another account, he was surveyor-general and president of the council there. He soon, however, quarrelled with Johnstone, and, after visiting certain provinces of North America and some of the West India islands, returned to England in 1766, with permission to retain his salary for life. He settled in London, and seems to have been at once employed by the government as a political writer. In this capacity he attempted to combat the letters of Junius, under the signatures of ‘Musæus,’ ‘Scævola,’ &c. He also took up historical literature. His ‘Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland’ (1771) was, he says in the preface, composed merely for his private amusement. It was bitterly attacked, especially by Pinkerton, mainly for its extreme Celtic spirit (Burton, Hume, ii. 462); while its statements were traversed in the next year by John Whitaker in his ‘Genuine History of the Britons asserted’ (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. iii. 102). This was followed in 1775 by ‘A History of Great Britain, from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hannover,’ written from the Jacobite point of view. For it he received 3,000l. (for a hostile account of his historical writings, see Horace Walpole, Journal, i. 472). In the same year appeared the most valuable of his publications, viz. ‘Original Papers, containing the Secret History of Great Britain’ for the same period, with memoirs of James II. Macpherson is said to have obtained these papers from the Scots College at Paris (see Ranke, Hist. of England, 1875, vi. 35, 44); but he also had access to ten quarto volumes of the Brunswick papers collected by Thomas Carte [q. v.], and then belonging to Matthew Duane [q. v.]

In 1773 Macpherson published a translation of the ‘Iliad,’ which was printed in Scotland; but, in spite of the efforts of friends, particularly of Sir John Eliot, the physician, who carried portions of it round to his patients, it was generally ridiculed in London.

In and after 1776 Macpherson was specially employed by Lord North's ministry to defend their American policy, and in that year published a pamphlet, which ran through many editions, in reply to the Declaration of the General Congress. He also supervised the ministerial newspapers, at a salary which in February 1776 was 600l. and by December 1781 800l. a year (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 17, 483). Walpole had a very low opinion of Macpherson's conduct of this office, stating that he wrote ‘a daily column of lies,’ of which posterity will not be able to discern the thousandth part (Letters, viii. 115, 139, 186). In 1779 Macpherson issued an anonymous pamphlet, describing the conduct of the opposition during the previous session; it was, at the time, ascribed to Gibbon.

On the resignation of his kinsman, Sir John Macpherson [q. v.], in 1781, according to Wraxall (Memoirs, iv. 83), or more probably earlier, Macpherson was appointed agent or minister in London to Mohammed Ali, nabob of Arcot, and in that capacity defended the nabob against the East India Company, and transmitted his letters to the court of directors (for some of these letters see Burke, Speech on the Nabob of Arcot's Debts, App. x.) He was also employed to publish the nabob's letters in England, and to explain his rights, and is credited with a history of the East India Company from its commencement in 1600. In 1783 he held his office of agent jointly with Wraxall. His post gave him unusual opportunities of making money, and he grew rich. It was desirable that as agent of the nabob he should enter parliament, and accordingly in 1780 he became member for Camelford, Cornwall, and although he never addressed the house, he held the seat for the rest of his life, being re-elected in 1784 and 1790. The government offered him the lands of his relative, Macpherson of Cluny, confiscated in the Jacobite rising; but he refused them in favour of the rightful heir.

During his residence in London, Macpherson lived for some years in Manchester Buildings; afterwards in Norfolk Street, Strand (Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 27780, fol. 53; 29168, fol. 461), and finally in Fludyer Street, Westminster (will in Somerset House). He also had a villa on Putney Common, to which he often retired, and where he entertained his friends.

When his health began to fail he returned to his native Inverness-shire, bought an estate in Badenoch, and, changing its name from Raitts to Belville, built himself a mansion, which, however, he did not live to see entirely finished. He treated his tenants with good-natured indulgence, and grew domestic and religious. In his last illness he was constant in imploring divine mercy, and he refused all remedies, feeling that his hour was come. He died at Belville on 17 Feb. 1796. By his will, dated June 1793, he left 500l. for a monument to himself on his estate, and directed that he should be buried in the abbey of Westminster, ‘being the city wherein he had lived and passed the greatest and best part of his life.’ His body, after being eighteen days on the road to London, was met at Highgate by several coaches, and on 15 March 1796 was buried in the south transept of the abbey, not far from Poets' Corner.

Macpherson's portrait was painted by Reynolds, and engraved by Samuel Freeman [q. v.] He was a big man, good-looking, and with thick legs, to hide which he wore top-boots, though not then in fashion. He was proud, reserved, and on the subject of Ossian easily offended. His life was somewhat irregular. Johnson in his famous letter declared that what he heard of Macpherson's morals inclined him to attend not to what he should say, but to what he should prove. Mrs. Anne Grant, his neighbour in Inverness-shire, who described his last days, speaks of him as excluded from domestic life by unhappy connections and tavern company, the prey of toad-eaters and designing house-keepers (Letters from the Mountains, iii. 32). He left four illegitimate children: James, who succeeded to the estates; Charles, who died in India; Anne, who succeeded James and died unmarried at Belleville in 1862 (Gent. Mag. s.a. ii. 236); and Juliet, who in July 1810 married Sir David Brewster. Their son took the additional name of Macpherson. It is unfortunate that Macpherson's journal, which, according to Brewster, contained important information as to the composition of the Ossianic poems, and was for other reasons carefully guarded by the family, mysteriously disappeared in 1868.

Boswell in 1785 declared that public interest in the question of the authenticity of the Ossianic poems was at an end, but on Macpherson's death the controversy broke out afresh. In 1797 the Highland Society of Scotland appointed a committee to investigate the poems ascribed to Ossian. While the committee was at work, criticism took a new form in the hands of Malcolm Laing [q. v.], who, first in an appendix to his ‘History of Scotland,’ Edinburgh, 1800, ii. 377, and afterwards in an elaborate edition of the ‘Poems of Ossian,’ denounced the whole of them as unhistorical, and a mere patchwork of plagiarism from a hundred sources. He further attempted to show that the ‘Fragments,’ published while their author was studying divinity, were tinged with the phrases of his professional pursuits, and that there was scarcely a page of ‘Fingal’ or ‘Temora’ which could not be proved to owe its inspiration to some passage in classical or modern literature. Laing particularly mentioned two instances of plagiarism from ‘Paradise Lost.’ Scott, who thought that the greater part of the poems were Macpherson's own composition, especially the descriptions of scenery and the romantic sentiment, noticed Laing's work sympathetically in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ July 1805. Laing's attack was ably, if not conclusively, answered by Patrick. Graham in his ‘Essay on the Authenticity of Ossian,’ Edinburgh, 1807. Graham admitted that much of ‘Fingal’ and ‘Temora’ consisted of episodes for which there were no authentic originals.

The ‘Highland Society's Report,’ prepared with great care and scrupulous fairness, was presented in 1805, with an appendix of letters and affidavits received in answer to queries which the committee had framed and addressed to various persons throughout the highlands. The ‘Report's’ conclusion was: (1) That a great legend of Fingal and Ossian, his son and songster, had immemorially existed in Scotland, and that Ossianic poetry, of an impressive and striking character, was still found generally and in great abundance in the highlands; (2) That while fragments were found giving the substance and sometimes the literal expression of parts of Macpherson's work, no one poem was discoverable the same in title or tenor with his publications. Further, the committee inclined to believe (3) that he had liberally edited his originals and inserted passages of his own. But the committee recognised that the social changes which had taken place in the highlands since Macpherson wrote had largely destroyed the practice of orally reciting Gaelic poems, and that the opportunities of research had thus been diminished.

In 1807 Dr. Ross somewhat carelessly edited for the society what it had received from John Mackenzie, Macpherson's executor, as exact transcripts of the Gaelic originals. These papers, all in Macpherson's own hand or in that of an amanuensis, had passed under Macpherson's will to his executor, John Mackenzie of the Inner Temple, along with 1,000l. sent Macpherson in 1783 by Sir J. Murray Macgregor and other highlanders in the East India Company's service, to pay for their publication. Neither the papers presented to the Highland Society by Mackenzie, nor Dr. Ross's transcript of them, formerly in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, are now known to be extant. The manuscript Gaelic originals which Macpherson is said to have collected in the highlands also disappeared without any explanation of their fate, although it was reported that those of some of the smaller poems were lost on the journey to Florida.

Subsequent argument has tended to confirm the conclusion at which the committee arrived, and in some points to establish a view more favourable to Macpherson. In 1841 P. Macgregor published in London his ‘Ossian's Entire Remains, illustrated,’ with an introduction in which the evidence then accessible is set out at some length. Twenty years later, fresh material for settling the question was afforded by the publication of the ‘Dean of Lismore's Book’ (ed. T. MacLauchlan, London, 1862, with a valuable introduction by W. F. Skene), which contains some eleven thousand verses of Gaelic poetry written at various times, and collected between 1512 and 1526 by James MacGregor [q. v.], dean of Lismore (see also Notes and Queries, 6th ser. ix. 137, 272, 2nd ser. iii. 217). The best general defence of Macpherson appeared in 1870, in a prefatory essay to a fine edition of the ‘Poems of Ossian,’ by Archibald Clerk.

It is therefore clear that the general charge of forgery, in the form in which it was made by Johnson, was unjustifiable. It is unlikely, from the character of Macpherson's other writings, that he could be the sole author of the poems, or that he could have written so much original poetry in so short a time. On the other hand, it is highly improbable that Macpherson found any such epic as he claimed to have discovered. He undoubtedly ‘arranged’ what he found (see Highland Soc. Rep. pp. 31, 44). In the process he occasionally combined legends of two different epochs (see Encycl. Britann. s.v. ‘Celtic Literature’). Further, there is no proof that the poems emanated, as was alleged, from the third century, nor is it now possible to fix their date. They are stated to be pre-Christian; but reference to Christianity may have been omitted with the object of increasing their apparent antiquity (see Archibald Clerk, i. xxxv et seq.)

Macpherson's ‘Ossian’ exerted much influence on the romantic movement in Europe. Goethe acknowledged its sway in his ‘Sturm und Drang’ period, and introduced from ‘Fingal’ the song of Selma into his Werther's ‘Leiden.’ Schiller admired Ossian's ‘great nature.’ Macpherson's Ossianic poems, in the Abbé Cesarotti's Italian translation, were the favourite reading of Napoleon I. They were published in French translations—by Letourneur in 1777 and 1810, and by A. Lacaussade in 1842—and they were imitated in French verse by Baour-Lormian in 1801. Coleridge wrote in 1793 two poems in imitation of Ossian. In Byron's ‘Hours of Idleness,’ 1807, appears ‘The Death of Calmar and Orla,’ an imitation of Macpherson's ‘Ossian.’ Byron appended a note, in which, while admitting the discovery of ‘the imposture,’ he declared ‘the merit of the work’ to remain undisputed, despite its ‘turgid and bombastic diction.’ Byron offered his ‘humble imitation’ to Macpherson's admirers as proof of his ‘attachment to their favourite author.’

Macpherson published the following: 1. ‘The Highlander,’ an heroic poem in six cantos, Edinburgh, 1758. 2. ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse Languages,’ Edinburgh, 1760. 3. ‘Fingal, an ancient Epic Poem in six books, together with several other Poems composed by Ossian, the son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language,’ London, 1762. 4. ‘Temora, an ancient Epic Poem in eight books, together with several other Poems, composed by Ossian, the son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language,’ London, 1763. 5. ‘Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland, or an Inquiry into the Origin, Religion, Manners, Government, Courts of Justice, etc., of the Ancient Britons,’ London, 1771. 6. ‘The Iliad of Homer, translated into Prose,’ London, 1773. 7. ‘A History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hannover,’ London, 1775. 8. ‘Original Papers, containing the Secret History of Great Britain, from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hannover; to which are prefixed Extracts from the Life of James II, as written by himself,’ London, 1775. 9. ‘The Rights of Great Britain asserted against the Claims of America, being an Answer to the Declaration of the General Congress,’ London, 1776. 10. ‘Letters from Mohammed Ali Chan, Nabob of Arcot, to the Court of Directors, to which is annexed a Statement of Facts relative to Tanjore, with an Appendix of Original Papers,’ London, 1777. 11. ‘A Short History of the Opposition during the last Session,’ London, 1779. 12. ‘The History and Management of the East India Company, from its origin in 1600 to the Present Times: vol. i. containing the Affairs of the Carnatic, in which the Rights of the Nabob are explained, and the Injustice of the Company proved,’ London, 1779. It is possible that one or both of the last two works may have been from the pen of his kinsman, Sir John Macpherson, who preceded him as agent to the nabob.

[There is no good contemporary account of Macpherson. Most of the information here gathered is founded on authorities mentioned in the text or on facts supplied by descendants. See also the European Magazine, March 1796, xxix. 156, 305, which gives the date of his birth as ‘the end of 1738,’ and is closely followed by the Annual Register, 1796, p. 366, and by Chalmers's General Biog. Dict. xxi. 75; also Gent. Mag. 1796, pt. i. p. 256, Allardyce's Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, ed. Thomson, iii. 72. Some information has been obtained from the Registrars of Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities. Allibone's Dict. of English Literature, s.v. 'James Macpherson', gives a fair list of works bearing on the controversy.]

T. B. S.