The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 11. Literary career of Macpherson
The life of Macpherson has the interest of an ironical fable. Nemesis came upon him with a humorous cruelty; no detective romance ever worked out a more coherent plot. The end of the story is that Macpherson, long after his first successes, was compelled by the enthusiasm of his supporters to provide them with Gaelic originals. He laboured hard to compose the Gaelic Ossian, when he was weary of the whole affair. He would gladly have been allowed to pass with credit as the original composer of the English Ossian, which was all that he really cared for. But his ingenuity had brought him to this dilemma, that he could not claim what really belonged to him in the invention of Ossian without affronting his generous friends; and so, twenty years after his triumph, he had to sit down in cold blood and make his ancient Gaelic poetry. He had begun with a piece of literary artifice, a practical joke; he ended with deliberate forgery, which, the more it succeeded, would leave to him the less of what was really his due for the merits of the English Ossian.
James Macpherson was born in 1736 near Kingussie, the son of a small farmer. He did well at the university of Aberdeen and then, for some time, was schoolmaster in his native parish, Ruthven. His literary tastes and ambitions were keen, and, in 1758, he published a poem, The Highlander. About this date, he was made tutor to the son of Graham of Balgowan, and, in 1759, he went to Moffat with his pupil (Thomas Graham, the hero of Barrosa); from which occasion the vogue of Ossian began. At Moffat, Macpherson met John Home, the author of Douglas, who was full of the romantic interest in the Highlands which he passed on to Collins, and which was shared by Thomson. Macpherson really knew something about Gaelic poetry, and particularly the poems of Ossianic tradition which were generally popular in Badenoch. But his own literary taste was too decided to let him be content with what he knew; he honestly thought that the traditional Gaelic poems were not very good; he saw the chance for original exercises on Gaelic themes. His acquaintance Home, however, wanted to get at the true Celtic spirit, which at the same time, ought to agree with what he expected of it. Macpherson supplied him with The Death of Oscar, a thoroughly romantic story, resembling in plot Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, but more tragical—it ended in the death of the two rivals and the lady also. This was followed by others, which Home showed to Blair in Edinburgh. In the next year, 1760, appeared Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language.