27 October 1736 at Ruthven, Badenoch
17 February 1796 at Badenoch
Perpetraitor of one of the greatest hoaxes in literary history, that being his "translation" of the works of the fictional blind Scottish bard Ossian.
A farmer's son in an obscure Scottish village, Macpherson studied at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, worked as a teacher in his village, and later moved to Edinburgh to become a poet. With the publication of his Fragments of Ancient Poetry, he introduced the idea that the works of the third-century "Ossian" may have survived intact in the oral literature of the Highlands. However, there is no evidence of any such thing. This didn't detract from his fame at the time, and he was sent out to the Scottish countryside, charged with recording the oral literature. While he certainly did this, it was also the inspiration for his Ossian epic.
As for Ossian, it is clear that Macpherson was working with the stories of Finn mac Cumhaill, the Irish hero popular among the folktales of Scotland. In Macpherson's works, Finn becomes Fingal; Oisin is Ossian; Ros-cranna is Grainne; and so on. While there are some fifteen poems which are thought "authentic," even these have been greatly altered by Macpherson.
In 1763, he was made secretary to the governor of Florida, but returned to Britain in 1766, where he worked as a political pamphleteer and historian, joining parliament and being an outspoken critic of the American revolution. He eventually retired to his birthplace in Badenoch, where he died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey at his own expense--fitting, in its way.
What prompted Macpherson's forgeries?
There are likely two impulses: first, very little had survived with regards to early Scottish literature. Though their oral folktales are well documented, "high literature" had not been recorded. There are a few fragments in some medieval manuscripts, but most of these are short notes in the margins of religious tracts or law books, such as the case of the Book of Deer. Macpherson may have been driven by the growing Celtic nationalism and Romanticism.
Secondly, it is thought that this was an easy way for Macpherson to become famous, a plan which, obviously, worked.
It is perhaps Macpherson's success as a forger and creator of an "ancient" Scottish literature that inspired the Welsh Iolo Morgannwg and the Breton Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué.
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Mary Jones © 2004