The Future of History

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Ossian: Culture and Prejudice

It's taken me a while, but I've finally got round to researching the poems of Ossian.

"So what?" I hear you cry.  Well, each to his own.

Let me fill you in.

James Macpherson was born in the Scottish Highlands in 1736.  A native Gaelic speaker, he wasn't quite ten years old when the Jacobite rebellion under Bonnie Prince Charlie came to a terrible end at Culloden, not so very far from where Macpherson had grown up. 

There had been prominent rebels in his family - including Cluny Macpherson, who makes a colourful appearance in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.

James Macpherson was clever, quick-witted and well-educated.  In 1760, he published Fragments of Ancient Poetry - Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language.  These Fragments introduced the world to the ancient world of Fingal (Fionn mac Cumhail), his son Ossian and grandson Oscar (yes, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was named after him).  They were an instant success.

The Scottish literati then raised the funds for Macpherson to make a research trip to the Highlands and Islands with a view to collecting more scraps of traditional Gaelic verse, either orally or in manuscript form.  The result of this expedition was Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Sixth Books.

Macpherson had made his name.  His Ossianic collections were the talk of Europe and beyond.  Thomas Jefferson considered them his favourite books; Napoleon Buonaparte never went into battle without a copy to hand, and Goethe was hugely inspired by the Gaelic epic.  Romanticism - the predominant aesthetic movement of the 19th century - owed a great deal to Macpherson's work.  Felix Mendelssohn made a sort of pilgrimage to the Western Isles after reading the Ossian poems, and was inspired to write his stirring Hebridean Overture, although sea-sickness had prevented him from viewing "Fingal's Cave" on Staffa.

But the English hated the Ossian poems.  Led by the bullish figure of Dr Samuel Johnson, the southern establishment poured scorn on Macpherson's efforts.  Johnson demanded that Macpherson reveal his sources and produce the Gaelic manuscripts from which he had drawn his translations.  As far as Dr Johnson was concerned, the whole thing was a hoax.  There were no historic manuscripts concerning Fingal.  Macpherson had made the whole thing up.

Not true.  There were mentions of Fingal and Ossian in historical manuscripts, and subsequent research has shown that Macpherson did indeed base his work on original, authentic Gaelic poetry.  And yet Macpherson - and Ossian - are little known today.  So one could say that Dr Johnson and his English crew succeeded.  They threw enough mud for some of it to stick.

Why, though?  Why was it so important to Dr Johnson, and others like him, to undermine James Macpherson's achievements?

At the time, Gaelic society was in decline.  It has since been sentimentalised and fetishised, but first its roots had to be torn up and the culture pretty much destroyed.

The crowns of England and Scotland had been united in 1603 under James Stuart, the sixth King James of Scotland (but usually referred to as James I - his English designation).  It was not until 1707, though, that the Scots were bribed and bullied into accepting an Act of Union with England.  This was very much to England's benefit - it meant that France lost a valuable ally north of England's border - and very much to Scotland's disadvantage.  Indeed, the Union was detested on both sides of the English-Scottish border.

The last serious attempt to break up the Union, or to restore the Stuart line to the throne (if only in Scotland), came when Charles Edward Stuart landed with seven men in the Outer Hebrides.  It ended with the disaster at Culloden in 1746.  The English, under the "Butcher" Duke of Cumberland, a son of the reigning Hanoverian king, raped and massacred their way through the Highlands.  The wearing of Scottish dress (the tartan kilt) was banned, as was the possession of weapons.

Before too long, the time-honoured clan system was breaking down.  The clan chiefs were replaced by landlords, who held no sense of responsibility to the inhabitants of the Highlands.  Sheep were more profitable than people, and so houses were burned down, possessions confiscated, and thousands of men, women and children herded into overcrowded vessels to make long and painful journeys to the farthest flung corners of the Empire.  The Highlands became a wasteland, an exclusive playground for the very rich.

With the determined annihilation of Gaelic culture well and truly underway, Macpherson's publications were a bit of a problem.  They demonstrated that the culture of the Highlands (and, in particular, the west) was truly ancient.  Some even considered the Ossianic poems comparable with the works of Homer and Virgil.  It was as if, just as the English and their supporters in the Lowlands were systematically crushing Highland society, a Highlander had come along and shown that the Gaels had a culture and tradition which far surpassed anything that any Englishman could boast of.

To men like Dr Samuel Johnson, the Scots were primitives, a ragged bunch of scheming savages.  English racism - never very far from the surface - was making exaggerated and hysterical claims about Scots migrating en masse to London and taking jobs, houses and women (sound familiar?).  South of the border, words like "Scot" and "Scottish" were a form of abuse

Things worsened when John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, became the first Scottish prime minister of Great Britain.  Bute was a favourite of King George III (the "mad" one), but he bore the hated name of Stuart, and he was a Scot - so the English loathed him.  Macpherson had dedicated his Ossianic works to Lord Bute, which gave Englishmen like Dr Johnson another reason to attack Macpherson and his discoveries.

There is much that is magnificent in the Ossianic poems, even if Macpherson had embellished the original Gaelic verses he collected throughout the Highlands and Islands.  They give flashes of insight into a heroic society and glimpses of life at a time when Christianity was just beginning to establish itself (there are no Christian references in the poems).  What is more, they offer proof that the western seaboard of Scotland was home to a remarkable culture before the invading Angles and Saxons converged to form England.  They deserve to be better known.  No; more than that - they are part of the ancestral heritage of the British Isles, and it was a cultural atrocity on the part of the English to try to wipe them from the record and to impugn the reputation of the man who collected, translated and published them.

And there's more.  The Ossian poems give us an insight into the society of Arthur.  Yes, Arthur.  That Arthur - the one the English falsely insist on calling "King Arthur".

English prejudices run deep.  If they can't have Arthur all to themselves, then no one can.

The real, original, historical Arthur was a Scottish prince.  There never was an "English" King Arthur, and no evidence at all exists for an Arthur in the south.  He was a North Briton, and his world was the world of Fingal and Ossian and Oscar.

But just as English scholars refused to allow the Scots to have an ancient, heroic culture - refused even to let them have a language, or a home - so English commentators continue to tell lies about Arthur, if only to prevent the world from knowing that his father was King of the Scots.

One day - let us hope - the Ossianic poems will take their place alongside the native tales of Arthur and his heroes (which continually refer to "the North").  Macpherson will be honoured as he should be: as the man who preserved these traces of authentic tradition and was cruelly satirised and savagely lambasted for doing so.  The crimes committed against the culture and people of the Highlands will be fully recognised and acknowledged.  And it will be possible to investigate and celebrate the genuine Arthur of history, rather than the insipid legendary concoction foisted upon us by the propagandists of the south.

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