AFTER all the criticism thrown at James MacPherson from the 1760s to the present day, it’s a wonder the man’s work has any currency at all. Some say it’s in an 18th-century mannered style. It’s not. It was revolutionary. Find me anything remotely like it in English literature before MacPherson.

Perhaps something in the religious ecstasy of Traherne in the 17th century, but after that the nearest you’ll get is William Blake. Blake accepted MacPherson had heavily reworked his material but nonetheless claimed that what MacPherson said was “ancient”.

“I own myself an admirer of Ossian equally with any other poet whatever,” Blake said.

How ancient? Not as ancient as MacPherson claims, but old enough. Take Teanntachd Mhòr na Feinne, collected in Nova Scotia in 1953. It’s a dialogue between Oisin and Saint Patrick, but there’s no agreement between them and there isn’t going to be any. Oisin threatens Patrick with decapitation. As Sir Walter Scott has it: “... you should have heard McAlpin sing the original. The speeches of Ossian come in upon a strong bass – those of Patrick are upon a tenor key.”

This confrontation between pagan and Christian and between the psalms and Oisin’s Fenian lays has a history 700 years old, with the sounds of nature preferred to Christian chanting.

“I have heard music better than their music, though you praise the clergy highly: the chatter of the blackbird of Leitir Laoi and the sound made by the Dord Fian.” Even today at Scottish weddings, as you leave the church, the continued braying of the organ is challenged by the assertive skirl of the pipes at the door, the mutual disdain seeming almost ritualistic. Perhaps it is.

One of the sections in MacPherson’s Croma is quite closely based on a traditional tale with roots in the 12th century. The MacPherson was republished in Lyrica Celtica in 1932, and a 20th-century masterpiece of Scottish music is wholly inspired by it – Erik Chisholm’s eponymous Night Song of the Bards for piano solo. It’s on the Divine Art label ddv24149. Here’s some of the MacPherson:

“Night is dull and dark. The clouds rest on the hills. No star with green trembling beam; no moon looks from the sky ... The distant dog is howling from the hut of the hill. The stag lies on the mountain moss: the hind is at his side. She hears the wind in his branchy horns. She starts, but lies again.

“The roe is in the cleft of the rock; the heath-cock’s head is beneath his wing. No beast, no bard is abroad, but the owl and the howling fox. She on a leafless tree: he in a cloud on the hill . . . Dark, dusky, howling is night, cloudy, windy, and full of ghosts! The dead are abroad! my friends, receive me from the night.

“Where are our chiefs of old? Where our kings of mighty name? The fields of their battles are silent. Scarce their mossy tombs remain. We shall also be forgot. This lofty house shall fall. Our sons shall not behold the ruins in grass. They shall ask of the aged, ‘Where stood the walls of our fathers?’.”

It’s easy to assert that this is typical MacPherson romantic nostalgia, with (according to Laing) borrowings from Homer, Virgil, Catullus, Horace, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Home, Gray, Blair, Parnell, and anyone else who had the temerity to mention the moon, the stars, meteors, owls, and foxes in connection with the night.

But there are Gaelic characteristics in MacPherson’s style. Sentences are relatively short with few subordinate clauses. Nature is referred to constantly and loss and lament are common. Statements of fact expressed through verbs and nouns are more prominent than similes and metaphors. To all this MacPherson adds imagination and direct experience. In his Highland travels he might well have spotted a fox in a cloud on the hill, but the wind in the stag’s horns is more probably splendidly imagined.

What do we find in the old Gaelic sources themselves? That precisely such romantic scene-painting, tinged with a world-weary nostalgia was on the go in the 12th century, as in this passage from Acallamh na Senorach:

“Then Cailte spoke this poem. Winter is cold; the wind has risen; the fierce stark-wild stag arises; not warm tonight is the unbroken mountain, even though the swift stag be belling. The stag of Slievecarran of the assemblies does not lay his side to the ground; the stag of the head of cold Aughty listens likewise to wolf-music.

"I Cailte, and brown-haired Diarmait, and keen light Oscar, used to listen to wolf-music at the end of a very cold night. Well, forsooth, sleeps the brown stag pressing his hide to Corran’s earth as though he were beneath the water of the Tuns at the end of a truly cold night!

"Today I am old and aged; few men do I recognise; I used to brandish a pointed spear hardily on a morning of truly cold ice.”

This is not MacPherson. It’s Professor Gerard Murphy’s near-literal translation of the 12th-century original. I rest my case.