British and Irish Literature James MacPherson
Dafydd Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • 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 dispute and the misconceptions on 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 might be controversial. 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 article allows readers to make up their own minds by mapping the contours of Macpherson scholarship in the 2010s, for good or ill. One symptom of renewed interest in Macpherson is passing reference in works of a more general nature. This article 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 appropriate 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 the original version of this article.

Key Overviews

This section contains the key and indispensable works that play into many 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. In the case of the four essay collections cited here, occasionally individual chapters are cited elsewhere in appropriate sections. However, it would be impractical to cite all individual pieces in every place they are relevant, and it is also important to note them as collections in their own right. 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. Mitchell 2016 and Moore 2017 offer another pair of collections that remain true to the modern tradition of lively encounters with Macpherson’s work while pushing scholarship into some fresh, and fresh disciplinary, areas. Moore 2003 remains the only modern monograph devoted entirely to Ossian and is 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 the authors 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, et al. 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/CBO9780511484186.001

    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.

    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.

    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).

  • Mitchell, Sebastian, ed. Special Issue: Forum on Ossian in the Twenty-First Century. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.2 (2016).

    Eight essays spanning a range of disciplinary and theoretical approaches to Ossian, published to mark the twentieth anniversary of Gaskill and Stafford’s seminal modern edition. Taken together with Moore 2017, represents the latest state of thinking in the field.

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

    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.

  • Moore, Dafydd, ed. The International Companion to James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2017.

    Nine chapters, an introduction, and a synoptic bibliography, covering all aspects of Macpherson’s career, including his work as a historian and translator, and an insight into some of his activities in the murky world of East India Company politics. The volume also contains essays on the influence of the poems and the ideas of translation that Macpherson embodies. To this extent the volume has a fair claim to being the most comprehensive treatment of Macpherson yet available, written for the generalist as well as the researcher. Taken together with Mitchell 2016, represents the current state of thinking in the field.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199232796.001.0001

    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.

    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.

    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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