THE idea that Macpherson perpetrated a “hoax” persists. This is unjust and inadequate. In Fiona Stafford’s words, Macpherson’s Ossian is “pre-eminently a text of the margins – not in the sense that it is peripheral to serious literary study but because it inhabits the margins of contrasting, oppositional cultures.

“For Macpherson’s ‘translations’ involved acts of interpretation not only between Gaelic and English, but also between the oral culture of the depressed rural communities of the Scottish Highlands, and the prosperous urban centres of Lowland Britain, where the printed word was increasingly dominant.”

In this context, they are “less the work of an inexpert linguist, or an unscrupulous ‘Scotsman on the make’ than a sophisticated attempt to mediate between two apparently irreconcilable cultures.”

The legacy of Ossian, beyond Macpherson’s actual works, is immense, deep and surprisingly rich. Images of Ossian have perennially been a subject for the visual arts. Alexander Runciman (1736-85), John Duncan (1866-1945) and Calum Colvin (b.1961) are among the most famous Scottish artists to have depicted them, while a host of European artists – including Danish Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), French Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Anne-Louis Girodet (1767-1824), Francois Pascal Simon Gerard (1770-1837), English JMW Turner (1775-1851) – all created epic paintings, components of the Romantic movement, alongside other distinguished artists who have ensured that the meanings inherent in the Ossianic tales are re-envisioned and rejuvenated for new generations.

And it is not only paintings and drawings. The literary influence is there, too, and was felt early. Wordsworth (1770-1850), in “Glen-Almain; or, the Narrow Glen” (1803), a result of his tour in Scotland, writes this:

In this still place, remote from men,

Sleeps Ossian, in the NARROW GLEN;

In this still place, where murmurs on

But one meek streamlet, only one:

He sang of battles, and the breath

Of stormy war, and violent death

Here, Wordsworth tells us, there is “a spirit turbulent”: “sights were rough, and sounds were wild, / And everything unreconciled”. And then he asks the question:

Does then the Bard sleep here indeed?

Or is it but a groundless creed?

What matters it? – I blame them not

Whose Fancy in this lonely spot

Was moved; and in such way expressed

Their notion of its perfect rest.

And this ethos, this atmosphere, hypersensitive Wordsworth cautiously tells us:

Is of the grave; and of austere

Yet happy feelings of the dead:

And therefore, was it rightly said

That Ossian, last of all his race!

Lies buried in this lonely place.

And in 1793, Coleridge (1772-1834) ended his “The Complaint of Nina-Thoma” (imitated from Ossian) with this verse:

A Ghost! by my cavern it darted!

In moon-beams the Spirit was drest

For lovely appear the Departed

When they visit the dreams of my rest!

But disturbed by the tempest’s commotion

Fleet the shadowy forms of delight Ah cease, thou shrill blast of the Ocean!

To howl through my cavern by night.

Ghosts and graves and windy hills and caves are essential parts of the story, as in the short, haunting poem “Ossian’s Grave” by the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41), here given in my own translation:

In the Highlands of Scotland I love,

Storm clouds curve down on the dark fields and strands,

With icy grey mist closing in from above –

Here Ossian’s grave still stands.

In dreams my heart races to be there,

To deeply breathe in its native air –

And from this long-forgotten shrine

Take its second life as mine.

IN the most radically modernist of Hugh MacDiarmid’s books, Stony Limits (1934), in his poem “Lament for the Great Music”, a tragic vision of the loss of Scotland’s highest cultural traditions, such as that of the classical music, of the Highland bagpipe, the pibroch, or to be accurate, piobaireachd or ceòl mòr, we have this:

To remember the great music and to look

At Scotland and the world today is to hear

An Barr Buadh again where there are none to answer

And to feel like Oisin d’ éis na Féine or like Christ

In that least homoousian hour.

The word “homoousian” is a Christian theological term, referring to the belief that Jesus, God the Son, is the same “in being” or “in essence” as God the Father. MacDiarmid is saying that Christ’s cry upon the cross, the anguish of the forsaken, is a sign of feeling at the furthest remove from the promised coherence of identity and redemption.

The Gaelic phrases relate to this. In footnotes, MacDiarmid explains “An Barr Buadh” is “somewhat in a state between existence and non-existence.”

And “d’ éis na Féine” is:

“A withered babbling old man, ‘Oisin after the Fianna’ (ie when his love for Ireland made him return to it from Tir-na-nog) in that immortal phrase which has in it more than Virgilian tears.”

In other words, the evocation of Ossian “after the Fianna” –

after his father and family and companions of high youth, health and vigour, have all gone into the past, leaving him old, blind and alone – delivers a permanent image of tragic and irrecoverable loss, encompassing and predating other ancient religions and civilisations.

And there is no fraud or hoax involved in that. Its permanence is also Ossian’s legacy.

Next week, John Purser returns to consider the Ossianic legacy in music