JAMES Macpherson went north in 1760 to find the storytellers from whom he could recover the epic tales of the ancient Gaels. He knew the Gaelic language and he met the local tradition-bearers. What he did in his transcriptions has been the cause of contention ever since.

He’s usually scorned by English-language readers as a charlatan. But go closer. He knew Gaelic, he travelled in the Highlands and he talked to Gaelic speakers. To modern eyes, his English-language versions are stilted and “artificial”. But all works of art are made by artifice. They’re often described as a “fraud” or a “hoax”. This in itself has been a long-standing hoax of the British establishment, always opposed to the notion of an ancient Scottish Gaelic civilisation predating its own. As always, priority is power.

There were only three pub-lications: Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760), followed by Fingal, An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books (1761) and Temora, An Ancient Poem in Eight Books: together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal (1763). The first collected edition was The Works of Ossian, The Son of Fingal (1765). They are not all “fabrications”. Many episodes are recognisable versions of traditional tales from Gaelic sources. But their language and style is distinctively mannered Enlightenment English, and there’s a monotonous consistency of diction, posture and address and little variation of tone, despite dramatic battles, deaths and flamboyant gestures.

So what are they about?

Fragments collects 15 items, some inexplicable, allusive, misty, with characters whose names sound vaguely familiar yet elude solidity. Some are clearly based on Gaelic originals to be found for example in The Book of the Dean of Lismore.

Fingal tells the story of an invasion of Ireland by King Swaran of Denmark (confusingly termed “Lochlyn”). The Irish chief Cuchulaid rallies his people and raging battles follow but Swaran is winning until Fingal, King of Scotland, comes to the rescue, repulses the Danes, reconciles all enemies, and returns to Scotland victorious.

Temora recounts Fingal’s further adventures, again travelling to Ireland to remove a usurper and reinstate the rightful ruler. After a version of a Gaelic ballad appears in book one, it is the most fabricated of the three books. Added to these “epics” are a number of shorter items, fragments relating to named places, the deaths of particular heroes, songs and evocations of atmosphere and landscape, nobles, bards and battles. Some are related to Gaelic originals, in varying degrees. All are characterised by Macpherson’s mellifluous yet ponderous style.

The appetite for this epic was keen for more than one reason. A reclamation of Gaelic cultural authority arising from antiquity was effectively a Scottish cultural counterpoint to the post-Culloden military and social devastation. From the “British” point of view, the outbreak of war with France in 1756 meant that stories of Fingal’s heroes defeating invading armies was an inspiring example. In “polite” or “genteel” society, the atmosphere of lament for fallen heroes chimed precisely with the sentiment of readers “of feeling” and fuelled the characterisation of the Celt as emotional, moody and vague, as opposed to the hard-headed practicalities embodied in what could be promoted as the “Anglo-Saxon” ethos.

When Macpherson heard what he heard in the Scottish Highlands, the people who had gathered the stories across generations may well have adapted them from earlier versions to their own location. In other words, the stories themselves, their characters and actions, had come to inhabit the country of the storytellers. The stories themselves would be immigrants, settled, whose descendants would grow to be natives. Does that make any difference?

Fiona Stafford summarises the Macpherson legend like this: “Fingal may not be a direct translation of Gaelic poems that had survived intact since the third century, but neither is it a ‘fake’ or a ‘forgery’, because of Macpherson’s peculiar situation at the confluence of very different cultures.”

As a Highlander, he drew on the Gaelic oral traditions, where Ossian was often acknowledged as author; as a university-educated gentleman, he considered the oral tradition unreliable and appealed to his patrons’ hopes that the Gaelic tradition matched that of Homeric Greece. Stafford concludes: “Macpherson’s Ossian is thus a text belonging exclusively to neither Gaelic nor English culture, and can only be understood sympathetically as an attempt to mediate between the two.”

After the publication of his Ossianic works in the 1760s, Macpherson’s writing and career took a different turn. His works generally endorsed Anglocentric Hanoverian authority: Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1771) was followed by Rights of Great Britain asserted against the Claims of America (1776) and The History and Management of the East India Company (1779). He became the MP for Camelford in Cornwall but never visited the constituency or spoke in parliament. He died in 1796 on his estate in the Highlands, which he had purchased with wealth accrued in his career.

But both aspects of his life require understanding: his childhood, youth and experience of Scotland through and after the crucial turning point of the 1740s, and the confluence of his comprehension of his native territory with his ambition to address wealthy readers and potential patrons. He helped the Gaelic world became imaginable, even if often imaginary, to an international readership. He prompted curiosity about an unfinished story, an unsettled account. These are the keys to unlock the value as well as the liability of his Ossianic tales.

And there’s also more to it: there’s his legacy.