Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated From the Gaelic or Erse Language.. 1760
The Fragments were soon followed by Fingal (1762) Temora (1763) and The Works of Ossian (1765). They were purported to be translations of poems by the 3rd century Caelic poet Ossian. Macpherson never produced the original texts though he denied that he was guilty of forgery. However, he left £1,000 to pay for the publication of the Gaelic, which appeared in 1807. Although many were deceived then and later, it is clear that the Gaelic version is a translation of Macpherson’s English. Macpherson went on to become an MP (1780-96), and a well-paid pamphleteer for Lord North.
The ‘translations’ met with instant success. Hugh Blair, who collected money to finance Macpherson expedition to the Western Isles in 1760-1, strongly upheld the authenticity of the poems. Thomas Gray’s admiration for ‘the infinite beauty’ of the Fragments was tinged with doubt and Blake held them in high regard. Johnson, like Hume, was sceptical. When he was asked whether any modern man could have written the poems, Johnson replied: “Yes Sir, many men, many women, and many children”. Indignant, Macpherson threatened Johnson with physical violence. The poems remained popular through the Romantic period, they were admired by Goethe and Napoleon carried a copy of Macpherson on his campaigns and took it into exile to St Helena.
The Fragments were translated into German (1768), French (1777), Russian (1792), Dutch (1805), Danish (1807-09) and Czech (1827).
“Authorities on Celtic culture continued to be baffled by them for some forty years and a certain aura of mystery still envelops them today. Ossian had exactly that blend of high drama, raw nature, and primitive emotions on which the sentimentalist throve. Part of Macpherson’s skill was to establish this as a kind of cultural missing link, neatly fitting contemporary anthropological speculation. In his introduction to Fingal he explained how the warlords of the fifth century enjoyed ‘a primeval dignity of sentiment’ which later developments in the history of property and government had eroded and corrupted. Such hints to the academics were shrewdly placed. John Millar duly considered Ossian as evidence that in ‘the manners of a people acquainted with pasturage, there is often a degree of tenderness and delicacy of sentiment which can hardly be equalled in the most refined productions of a civilised age’. (Observations concerning the Distinctions of Ranks in Society, 1771, p. 43.) At least one English scholar thought that the most striking proof of Ossian’s authenticity was the fact that it contained not ‘a single image but what is taken from the views of nature, and scarcely the least allusion to any art of science whatever; an omission scarcely possible in an imposture of modern invention’. (Letters from Mrs Elizabeth Carter, to Mrs Montagu, ii, p. 292.)” (Langford, A Polite and Commercial People, p. 475-6.)