‘PRIORITY is power”. That’s what Alan Riach wrote in The National in relation to James Macpherson’s Ossian claims.

He’s spot on. Macpherson didn’t just believe, he knew that there

was a body of traditional song and story rooted in the ancient past of the Gaels.

Samuel Johnson claimed that Gaelic “had formerly nothing written”. That’s not true. The early 16th-century Book of the Dean of Lismore (known to Macpherson) has Ossianic material in it based on much older sources.

No, it wasn’t as old as Homer, but it was certainly as old as anything to be found in the English literary or oral traditions. Johnson’s opinion was and sadly remains enough for most critics of Macpherson. They know little of Gaelic culture, don’t speak the language, can’t read it and see no need to admit it.

There was also a political context to the controversy related to support for Macpherson from the Earl of Bute. The Earl was extremely unpopular in England and the controversy allowed those who hated all things Scottish to rubbish the Ossian story and the Earl along with it. As Professor Hook has it in his book of essays From Mount Hooly to Princeton: “How better put down this latest in the line of upstart Scotchmen? How better embarrass his supporters? The strategy worked. In England and Scotland the debate ran and ran.”

The strategy is still working. It’s not confined to Macpherson and it’s fed by ignorance. It was also driven by racial prejudice, as Richard Payne Knight reveals in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, London 1805:

“As the works of an ancient bard, discovered after the lapse of so many ages, in a remote corner of the world, amidst a rude and ignorant people, national vanity joined with antiquarian prejudice in extolling them.”

So the Gaels were classed, without any explanation or justification, as remote, rude, ignorant, vain and prejudiced. That this was a political issue within Scotland and England becomes clearer if we look at how Macpherson’s work was received elsewhere.

Abroad, and free from the political divisions and racial prejudices of the dis-United Kingdom, Macpherson’s influence was such that the German Romantic Revival can be substantially ascribed to it, his noble heroes being seen as preferable to Homer’s vengeful Greeks, and inspiring most of the major writers and composers of the age, including Goethe, Schiller, Klopstock, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and many more.

Operas based on Macpherson were composed by Le Sueur, Mehul, Pavesi and others; Loewe, Schubert and Brahms set the poems to music. In a chapter entitled “Beethoven’s Ossianic Manner”, James Porter makes a case for an indirect Ossianic influence on Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Ossian was Napoleon’s favourite poet. In the USA, where Macpherson was widely read, Jefferson thought Ossian was the greatest poet that ever lived.

Given such evidence, I would not describe Macpherson’s achievement as simply being an important part of the Romantic movement. I would claim it initiated it.

Not commonly known is that Macpherson is said to have sung his own material, and some of those versions were published and reputedly taken down by the Scottish composer James Oswald. Oswald was no more of a fake than Burns.

He collected, he altered, he added. Why should he not? For them, the tradition was living and they were a part of it.

Oswald’s Songs of Selma are definitely not traditional in either words or music, though imitating aspects of the tradition, sometimes identifiable with a particular melody.

Published in The Scots Musical Museum, they come from a group which appear at the end of the Dundee Wighton Collection’s unique copy of The Pocket Companion for the Guittar which declares that: “The following Airs have been handed down since the time of OSSIAN. The Musick taken from Mr. Mc.Pherson’s singing by Mr. Oswald.”

We have no proof to support this, though it is very likely Oswald and Macpherson met in London, where both were patronised by the Earl of Bute and where Oswald was chamber composer to George III.

A parallel to these songs is to be found in Rees’s Cyclopaedia. The article on Ossian has a section on Macpherson’s singing as taken down by the music historian Charles Burney. Burney suggests Macpherson was re-working material he heard from his Gaelic-singing mother. Three of these settings are nearly identical with Oswald’s and suggest that Burney may indeed have got them from Oswald.

Whatever one may think of this music in terms of the tradition, either in Scots or in Gaelic, these songs offer an intriguing insight into the crossover from Highland to Lowland, Lowland to Highland – and from Classical to Romantic.

Burns was happy to include two in The Scots Musical Museum, and he wrote that Macpherson’s poetry was “one of the glorious models after which I endeavour to form my conduct.”

Next week we will look at the actual Gaelic original songs and stories that inspired Macpherson. They are still sung today.