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He was born at Ruthven in the parish of Kingussie, Inverness-shire. In 1753, he was sent to King's College, Aberdeen, moving two years later to Marischal College. He also studied at Edinburgh, but took no degree. He is said to have written over 4000 lines of verse while a student, but though some of this was published, notably The Highlander (1758), he afterwards tried to suppress it. On leaving college, he returned to Ruthven to teach in the school there. At Moffat he met John Home, the author of Douglas, for whom he recited some Gaelic verses from memory. He also showed him manuscripts of Gaelic poetry, supposed to have been picked up in the Highlands, and, encouraged by Home and others, he produced a number of pieces translated from the Gaelic, which he was induced to publish at Edinburgh in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland. Dr Hugh Blair, who was a firm believer in the authenticity of the poems, raised a subscription to allow Macpherson to pursue his Gaelic researches. In the autumn he set out to visit western Inverness-shire, the islands of Skye, North and South Uist and Benbecula. He obtained manuscripts which he translated with the assistance of Captain Morrison and the Rev. A Gallie. Later in the year he made an expedition to Mull, when he obtained other manuscripts. In 1761 he announced the discovery of an epic on the subject of Fingal (Finn mac Cumhail), and in December he published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language, written in the musical measured prose of which he had made use in his earlier volume. Temora followed in 1763, and a collected edition; The Works of Ossian, in 1765.
The genuineness of these so-called translations from the works of a 3rd century bard was immediately challenged in England, and Dr Samuel Johnson, after some local investigation, asserted (in Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775) that Macpherson had found fragments of ancient poems and stories, which he had woven into a romance of his own composition. Macpherson is said to have challenged Johnson, who replied that he was not to be deterred from detecting what he thought a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian. Macpherson never produced his originals, which he refused to publish on the grounds of expense. In 1764 he was made secretary to General Johnstone at Pensacola, Florida, and when he returned, two years later, to England, after a quarrel with Johnstone, he was allowed to retain his salary as a pension. He went on to write several historical works, the most important of which was Original Papers, containing the Secret History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover, to which are prefixed Extracts from the Life of James II, as written by himself (1775). He enjoyed a salary for defending the policy of Lord North's government, and held the lucrative post of London agent to Mahommed Ali, nabob of Arcot. He entered parliament in 1780, and continued to sit until his death. In his later years he bought an estate, to which he gave the name of Belville, in his native county of Inverness, where he died.
After Macpherson's death, Malcolm Laing, in an appendix to his History of Scotland (1800), propounded the extreme view that the so-called Ossianic poems were altogether modern in origin, and that Macpherson's authorities were practically non-existent. Much of Macpherson's matter is clearly his own, and he confounds the stories belonging to different cycles. But apart from the doubtful morality of his transactions he must still be regarded as one of the great Scottish writers. The varied sources of his work and its worthlessness as a transcript of actual Celtic poems do not alter the fact that he produced a work of art which by its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature. It was speedily translated into many European languages, and Herder and Goethe (in his earlier period) were among its profound admirers. Melchiore Cesarotti's Italian translation was one of Napoleon's favourite books.
- For Macpherson's life, see The Life and Letters of James Macpherson ... (1894, new ed., 1906), by T Bailey Saunders.
- The antiquity of the Ossianic poems was defended in the introduction by Archibald Clerk to his edition of the Poems of Ossian (1870).Macpherson, James
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