In This Article James MacPherson

  • Introduction
  • Key Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions
  • The Scottish Enlightenment
  • Sentimentalism
  • Politics
  • Primitivism
  • Poetics
  • Folklore Studies

British and Irish Literature James MacPherson
Dafydd Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0066


James Macpherson (b. 1736–d. 1796) was a poet, historian and controversialist most famous for The Poems of Ossian, his supposed translations from the works of the 3rd-century CE Celtic poet Ossian. While inspired by and incorporating the Gaelic balladry of the Scottish Highlands, Ossian was not as Macpherson claimed, and it is better read as a creative construction of what Macpherson would have liked to think was the heroic poetic tradition emanating from the Highlands of Scotland. It was a reconstruction greeted with recognition within the Irish and Gaelic Scottish world. Macpherson did collaborate with Gaelic poets and incorporated both Classical and Vernacular Gaelic traditions to differing extents across his oeuvre (there are identifiable sources for passages in Fingal even if none such have been identified for Temora). This makes the notion of fakery or fraud in any straightforward sense untenable. Ossian was highly influential on a global scale. Macpherson’s works were also subject to controversy, notably involving Samuel Johnson, though this and the misconceptions upon which it was based have played a disproportionately large role within the Anglo-American critical tradition. Until the 1980s, consideration of Macpherson tended to be concerned with questions of influence or questions of authenticity and controversy. Since then, however, scholarship has emphasized other things as well: Macpherson’s Scottish Enlightenment context, mid-18th-century ideas of the epic and the place of poetry in culture; the aesthetics and politics of Sentiment; and Ossian’s place within debates about British identity in the 18th century within the context of “four nations” or “archipelagic” criticism. With increasingly rare exceptions, considerations of fraud and influence are now read through one of these lenses. The Anglo-American obsession with forgery is interpreted as a response to the unsettling Celtocentricism of Macpherson’s vision. The presence here of some of the more unreconstructed, and apparently uninformed, views is a moot point. However, it seems important to acknowledge the availability of different emphases, partly because a denial of plurality is one of the most disappointing things about the neo-Johnsonite position. This bibliography allows readers to make up their own minds by mapping the contours of Macpherson scholarship today, for good or ill. One symptom of renewed interest in Macpherson is passing reference in works of a more general nature. This bibliography does cite some particularly significant individual chapters and sections of larger works, while generally being restricted to stand-alone items. This might misrepresent a critical heritage that has relied on the kindness of strangers. However, a focus on works that specifically address Macpherson is justified, given the need to be selective, doubly so because many glancing references do not do Ossian appropriate justice. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Leanne Tough in sourcing some of the references in this bibliography.

Key Overviews

This slightly arbitrary section contains works that play into several of the sections in the rest of the article. It covers book-length studies on Ossian (by individuals and diverse hands), as well as two shorter contributions richer and more comprehensive than many a book. Many of the individual chapters in essay collections are cited elsewhere in appropriate sections, but it is also important to note their collections as a whole. Gaskill 1991 represents a landmark collection edited by one of the major contributors to the field, containing essays by many of those responsible for Macpherson’s rehabilitation through the 1980s. It focuses on aspects of the reception of Macpherson and on his Scottish Enlightenment (but also Gaelic) context. Stafford and Gaskill 1998 is a more eclectic mix through which the reader is immersed in a range of approaches, parallels, and suggestive avenues of investigation. Moore 2003 remains the only modern monograph devoted entirely to Ossian and can be broadly understood as an attempt to make sense of new historicist accounts of Ossian in terms of the experience of reading the poems. Gaskill 2004 anatomizes the reception of Ossian in thirteen European languages, with contributions from a range of international scholars. Essays range from the broad survey to the specialist case study, and it is an indispensible starting point for this important aspect of the field. Pittock 2008 offers, in the midst of his seminal account of Scottish Romanticism, an overview of Macpherson that plays into so many of the sections below that it can with justice belong only in this section of key works. Stafford 2011 is the latest contribution to the field by its foremost expert and manages to encapsulate all of the most significant things to say about Macpherson in a way stimulating to the expert and inspiring to the beginner. The presence of Duncan 2004 is slightly unexpected here. It is not in itself directly about Macpherson, but it is so key a statement of archipelagic criticism that it is essential reading.

  • Duncan, Ian, Leith Davis, and Janet Sorensen. “Introduction.” In Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism. Edited by Leith Davis, Ian Duncan and Janet Sorensen, 1–9. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511484186.001E-mail Citation »

    An important introduction to the growing understanding of Scottish Romanticism, in which Macpherson plays such a key role. Although not specifically about Macpherson, this is such a key argument for the understanding of any late-18th-century Scottish writer that it should be read by anyone undertaking serious thought about Ossian.

  • Gaskill, Howard, ed. Ossian Revisited. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ten essays (including the Introduction) from many of those responsible for placing Macpherson back on the critical stage, including Stafford, deGategno, and Sher. Essays cover aspects of Macpherson’s reception and, particularly, various Scottish Enlightenment contexts. An important starting point for generalists and specialists alike.

  • Gaskill, Howard, ed. The Reception of Ossian in Europe. London: Continuum, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Twenty essays on Macpherson’s impact in fifteen different parts of Europe, as well as his influence in music, art, and literary criticism. Also contains a valuable introduction and comprehensive timeline of European reception of Macpherson divided into translations, criticism, and other responses (e.g., musical, exhibitions).

  • Moore, Dafydd. Enlightenment and Romance in James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

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    Book-length study reading the central preoccupations of Ossian—the sentimental, the sublime, cultural defeat—through the generic lens of romance rather than epic. Perhaps the most sustained attempt yet to read the poems as one might any other literary text.

  • Pittock, Murray. Scottish and Irish Romanticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199232796.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Seminal study of Scottish Romanticism that finds the space to consider Macpherson’s literary, cultural and political heritage, his relation to Scottish and British identity building, and his influence on Romantic and later literature in a usefully condensed form (chapter 3, especially pp. 71–80). It is also aware of the tensions and potential contradictions of Macpherson’s powerful and influential national elegy.

  • Stafford, Fiona. “Romantic Macpherson.” In The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Romanticism. Edited by Murray Pittock, 27–38. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Title belies the broad sweep of this introduction to Macpherson, his reception history, and the range of cultural and aesthetic contexts from the Scottish Enlightenment to postmodernism and contemporary art practice. An up-to-date and readily accessible starting point for anyone interested in Ossian (including the general reader).

  • Stafford, Fiona and Howard Gaskill, eds. From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Seventeen essays on various aspects of Ossian’s origins and reception. Along with Gaskill 1991, a comprehensive introduction to the variety of approaches it is now possible to take on Macpherson, along with significant examples of those approaches in their own right.

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