Lord Auchinleck's Fingal



There are many ways to categorize book collectors; one is to divide them into the "books-are-sacred-objects" camp, who would never deface a book, even with a personal bookpate on the end-papers. The others regard books as an invitation to fill in the white space with the owner's comments and reactions to the text. There have been famous owner-annotators, for example, Hester Thrale Piozzi, whose "marginalia" in her copies of Johnson, Boswell, the Bible and virtually every book she owned often give us a deeper insight to her world and her place in it than the books themselves.
One pleasure provided by "association" copies is the revelations often disclosed by similar marginal notes or comments from the owner with whom a particular copy is associated. For me nothing illustrates this better than a book from the library of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, the father of James Boswell and a man proud of his Scots heritage. Let us begin with the story of one of the most controversial literary issues in the lively eighteenth century, when literature had a broad significance in the world of culture and ideas it now must share with movies and television and other diversions.
The remains of James Macpherson (1736-96) lie in Westminster Abbey, perpetrating on the casual visitor the last hoax of a life now remembered - at least among Johnsonians - only for a greater one. The presence of his bones near those of the great literary figures in the Poets' Corner was not the result, as in the case of his now-eternal neighbors, of popular recognition of his literary immortality, but came instead at his own request, and was achieved at his own expense.
Born in rural Inverness-shire, Macpherson became a schoolmaster and then worked as a private tutor. Ambitious to write, he recognized the growing taste in Britain for ancient poetry, later to reach its peak with Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. In Scotland interest in ancient or bardic verse was heightened by post-1745 nostalgic romanticization of all things relating to the Highlands, and in 1758 Macpherson took advantage of it to publish an "epic" poem, The Highlander. Attracting the attention and encouragement of such notables as the distinguished Edinburgh scholar and rector of the High Church of St. Giles, Hugh Blair, Macpherson next published, in 1760, scraps of Gaelic or Erse poetry, titled Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, with an introduction by Blair. Blair suggested there that the fragments presented might be "episodes" of a larger work relating to the legendary third century Celtic hero Fingal:
It is believed that by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius . . . might be found in the same country where these have been collected. In particular there is reason to hope that one work of considerable length, and which deserves to be styled an heroic poem, might be recovered and translated if encouragement were given to such an undertaking.
Blair, John Home (the author of Douglas) and others organized a dinner for Macpherson in 1760 and raised some sixty pounds from forty or so subscribers, including the young James Boswell, in order to provide just such encouragement. That same year the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh joined the subscribers and commissioned Macpherson to tour the Highlands and search for more "remains" of ancient genius. Claiming to have found them, Macpherson published Fingal. An Ancient Epic Poem, in 1762. According to its title page, the work was "composed" by "Ossian, the son of Fingal," and "translated" from the "Galic" language by James Macpherson. Hailed by many in Scotland as the Scottish equivalent and near-contemporary of Virgil, in time Ossian was much imitated, and admired by as diverse a group as Goethe, Coleridge, Byron and even Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson.
Enthusiasm in Scotland, on the continent, and in the colonies, however, was matched by skepticism in England. The self-identified translator's "Advertisement" at the front of Fingal itself raised suspicion, at least for readers predisposed to be skeptical. In it Macpherson apologized for departing from his original scheme of either simply publishing by subscription the whole of the original manuscripts, or depositing them in a public library for examination. He had found, however, that there were no subscribers, nor any present necessity for a public display. He therefore offered his translation, with the promise that "there is a design on foot to print the Originals, as soon as the translator shall have time to transcribe them for the press. . . ." If this did not happen, he assured the reader, he would then deposit copies in a public library. It might be noted that, by the time of his death thirty-four years later in 1796, he had neither published the originals, nor displayed them in a library, or anywhere else, even to his most fervent Scottish supporters, with one disputed exception.
Samuel Johnson - a sensitive reader if ever there was one - was suspicious from the start. Johnson loved truth as much as he did literature, if not more, and he detected not only the eighteenth century in what was represented as the third, but fantasy in what paraded as history. Asked by Blair if "any man of a modern age could have written such poems," Johnson replied, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children." Yet Johnson was always open to evidence, and when he and Boswell made their tour of the Hebrides in 1773, Johnson made a point of looking for old Erse or Gaelic manuscripts or texts to settle the dispute. Because Macpherson had failed earlier to produce the so-called "Originals" of Ossian's poems, Johnson wrote, in his 1775 Journey to the Western Islands, of the confirmation of his suspicions:
I suppose my opinion of the poems of Ossian is already discovered. I believe they never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. The editor, or author, never could shew the original; nor can it be shewn by any other; to revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted: and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt.
Macpherson learned of this passage before its publication, and wrote to Johnson demanding that it be deleted, asking an apology, and threatening him with harm. Some accounts suggest he even challenged Johnson to a duel. In 1775 Macpherson was a young man of thirty-nine years, and Johnson sixty-six. But Johnson, like Macpherson large and powerful, was also a former boxer, still a strong swimmer, and not to be intimidated. His reply is famous, and worth repeating:
Mr. James Macpherson - I received your foolish and impudent note. Whatever insult is offered me I will do my best to repel, and what I cannot do for myself the law will do for me. I will not desist from detecting what I think a cheat, from any fear of the menaces of a Ruffian.
You want me to retract. What shall I retract? I thought your book an imposture from the beginning, I think it upon yet surer reasons an imposture still. For this opinion I give the publick my reasons which I here dare you to refute.
But however I may despise you, I reverence truth and if you can prove the genuineness of the work I will confess it. Your rage I defy, your abilities . . . are not so formidable, and what I have heard of your morals disposes me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you can prove.
You may print this if you will.
Sam: Johnson
Boswell had known of Johnson's thinking about Ossian for many years. The controversy was one in which Boswell, an early supporter of Macpherson's efforts, was never free from the tension which always held him taut between the views of his hero Johnson, and his father, Alexander Boswell, the eighth laird of Auchinleck. The Boswells pride in their aristocratic and ancient Scots heritage was no less strong in Alexander the father than it was in James the son. Remember too that Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, was one of the judges of the highest courts in Scotland. He was a man accustomed to sifting through evidence, separating objective indicia of facts from subjective wishes. Small details were not likely to be missed in his scrupulous review of any circumstances.
In the spring of 1761 James, then studying law under his father's personal direction, had accompanied his father on the Northern Circuit, where Lord Auchinleck not only heard cases but indulged his interest in Scottish history, visiting historic sites and meeting equally distinguished Scots. James had accompanied his father earlier on the Northern Circuit, in 1758, at which time he kept his first known journal (now lost). He also kept a journal of the 1761 trip. It tells us that on Wednesday 13 May 1761, the Boswells arrived at Dalwhinnie, near Aviemore, both in Inverness-shire, the ancestral home of the Macphersons.
Dalwhinnie, on the Truim, which feeds into the Spey, had been the home of Ewen Macpherson of Cluny, often called Cluny Macpherson, the hereditary chief of the Macpherson clan. He was a hero, leading the Jacobite forces with success at Falkirk, before the ultimate disaster at Culloden. After the defeat of the Young Pretender's forces, the humiliation heaped on the Highlanders included not only banning the kilt and the bagpipe, but the destruction of the Macpherson seat at Cluny. James Boswell wrote in his journal for that same day in 1761 that they rode on "to the burnt house of Cluny - it made my heart sore to see it."
With the Boswells that day was another Macpherson, Macpherson of Benchar. It was surely known to both James and his father that their guide was related to Cluny Macpherson, and it is clear that by that date in 1761 James, and probably his father as well, knew of another cousin, the schoolmaster and poet, James Macpherson. We know that Lord Auchinleck made later tours of the Northern Circuit, stopping in many of the same places, and no doubt seeing many of the same people. In 1764, for example, his itinerary again took him to Inverness-shire, and perhaps again to Macpherson of Benchar.
On one of these Northern Circuit tours, we do not know which, Macpherson of Benchar, an early amateur archaeologist, told Lord Auchinleck that between Dalwhinnie and Aviemore to the northwest there were tumuli, or grave mounds, several of which he had opened, thereby discovering two important facts: first, that the remains had been buried lying on a north/south axis, and second, that at right angles to, and above, each body was the horn of a red deer. The first suggests that the graves antedated the arrival of Christianity in the Highlands, and dated therefore to the Ossian era, because thereafter bodies were buried on the east/west axis, facing the Holy Land. And, according to Lord Auchinleck, the heroes in the Ossian poems, when they are going to die, commonly say "make ready my Deers horn."
Lord Auchinleck might have had in mind at least two passages, one each in Fingal and Temora published first in 1762. In Fingal, Book IV, we find:
"Raise, Oscar, rather raise my tomb. I will not yield the war to thee. The first and bloodiest in the strife, my arm shall teach thee how to fight. But remember, my son, to place this sword, this bow, the horn of my deer, within that dark and narrow house, whose mark is one grey stone!"
In a fragment from Temora, included in Fingal, we find:
"Ossian, carry me to my hills! Raise the stones of my fame. Place the horn of the deer, and my sword within my narrow dwelling."
That Lord Auchinleck remembered lines such as these is clear from his brief account of a conversation with Macpherson of Benchar, written in his hand on the blank recto leaf after the free front fly leaf - which itself has his signature, "Alex. Boswel" - in a book from his own library. This volume contains, bound together: Fingal, published in 1762; A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, published in 1763 (unattributed, but by Hugh Blair); and Temora An Ancient Epic Poem, published in 1763. Fingal and Temora are identified as having been "translated from the Galic language" by James Macpherson. Temora also contains "A Dissertation," by Macpherson, and "A Specimen of the Original of Temora," in Gaelic. This last was offered "for the satisfaction of those who doubt the authenticity of Ossian's poems," according to Macpherson's explanatory note in Temora, to which he added: "To print any part of the former collection was unnecessary, as a copy of the originals lay, for many months, in the bookseller's hands, for the inspection of the curious." Note, the claim is that "a copy of the originals" had been in the bookseller's hands.
We do not know when Lord Auchinleck acquired these books, nor whether he acquired them separately and had them bound together, or whether he bought the combined volume in its present form. The binding itself is distinctly mid-eighteenth century. Nor, unfortunately, do we know when he wrote his essay.
In January of 1775, twelve years after the appearance of Temora, some curious support for Macpherson's claim that "a copy of the originals" had been on display appeared in a notice printed by the publisher of Fingal in the London Chronicle and the St. James Chronicle. The notice read:
To the Public. Doctor Johnson having asserted in his late publication [A Journey to the Western Islands], that the Translator of Ossian's Poems "never could show the Original, nor can it be shown by any other," I hereby declare, that the Originals of Fingal and other Poems of Ossian, lay in my shop for many months in the year 1762, for the inspection of the curious. The Public were not only apprized of their lying there, for inspection, but even proposals for publishing the Originals of the Poems of Ossian were dispersed through the kingdom, and advertized in the news-papers. Upon finding that a number of Subscribers, sufficient to bear the expences, were not likely to appear, I returned the manuscripts to the Proprietor, in whose hands they still remain.
Adelphi, Jan. 19, 1775. Tho. Becket.
Note here the inconsistency between Becket's 1775 claim that he had displayed the "Originals" for many months in 1762, and Macpherson's own claim in the Advertisement to the 1762 printing of Fingal that there was no "present necessity" for a public display, but that he might consider one later, if he had not yet transcribed them for the press. Furthermore, with the printing of Temora in 1763, he claimed only that a copy of the originals had in fact been at the booksellers. Yet, in 1775, Becket claimed that he had displayed "the Originals" themselves in early 1762. Nor was Becket either a disinterested neutral in the question of the existence of the "Originals," or particularly qualified to make a judgment about their authenticity. In fact, in a letter to David Garrick on 4 February 1775, after reading Becket's notices, Boswell asked:
How could you let Honest Tom Becket put an Advertisment into the Newspapers gravely asserting that the originals of Fingal and other Poems of Ossian lay in his shop for the inspection of the curious, when for any thing that he knows those papers may have been muster rolls of the highland regiment, or receipts for brewing heathbeer, distilling whiskey, or baking oatmeal cakes; for, not a word of erse does he understand.
Becket was Garrick's - as well as Macpherson's - publisher.
Boswell had asked Johnson, in an earlier letter of 27 January 1775, what Becket had meant by the "Originals" of Fingal. Although Johnson seems never to have replied directly to that inquiry, he did respond, testily, to an inquiry from Boswell dated 2 February 1775, relating current gossip in Edinburgh that Macpherson had offered to let Johnson see the "originals in his possession." Denying the existence of any Erse documents, Johnson wrote:
I am surprized that, knowing as you do the disposition of your countrymen to tell lies in favour of each other, you can be at all affected by any reports that circulate among them. . . . Where are the manuscripts? They can be shown if they exist, but they were never shown.
Whether or not they had been offered to Johnson for his review, Hugh Blair, referring in 1797 to Becket's notice, stated that Becket had "found no one person had ever called to look at the originals."
Lord Auchinleck's essay begins: "As some confirmation of the Authenticity of Ossian's Poems, I must here note that in sundry places of Ossian when a Hero or great man is going to die, He commonly says make ready my Deers horn, The meaning of which I never understood till on going the North Circuit . . . ." He had learned from Macpherson of Benchar of the pre-Christian era graves with deer horns. What are we to make of this? Has Lord Auchinleck's memory and his legal training marshaled evidence supporting Macpherson's claims of authenticity, a cause in which he, like many Scots, wanted to believe?
Lord Auchinleck's essay, as we can observe, is undated. He lived until 1782, and we cannot connect with certainty the composition of the essay to any particular Northern Circuit trip. The chronology of Macpherson's publications made clear that Lord Auchinleck wrote it sometime after the publication of Fingal and Temora in 1762 and 1763, and probably after his 1764 Northern Circuit. It appears that it was during that visit that Macpherson of Benchar told Lord Auchinleck of the contents of the tumuli. This must be so, since the purported poems of Ossian were not published until more than a year after the spring of 1761 Northern Circuit visit and meeting with Macpherson of Benchar memorialized by James Boswell. The 1762 and 1763 "translations" do, in fact, as we have noted, "in sundry places" mention dying heroes asking for their deer horns. It is hardly a criticism of Lord Auchinleck that he appears to have forgotten a footnote near the very beginning of Fingal, and well before the references to deers horns, explaining that in "the manner of burial among ancient Scots . . . above [the body] they placed the horn of a deer, the symbol of hunting." It is instead a tribute to his memory that he remembered the lines themselves.
Lord Auchinleck's curiosity about the references to deer horns likely did not come from a reading of the Ossianic materials in their earliest form. The 1760 Macpherson Fragments of Ancient Poetry contains fragments (fifteen in the first edition of 1760, sixteen in a subsequent edition of the same year), some of which were alleged to have been written by Ossian, and to be part of a larger work. But there is no mention of entombed deer horns there, although there are references indeed to dying heroes, deer hunters and tombs.
Does Alexander Boswell's brief argument indeed provide support for the "Authenticity of Ossian's Poems" as he claims? In the first place, it is not obvious whether he is suggesting that the references to deer horns merely confirm that the Ossian poems contain "authentic" ancient detail supported by archeological data, or whether he means to say that such data actually confirm the "authenticity" of the poems as "translations" of ancient Gaelic or Erse. Nor, of course, does he appear to consider the fact that the source of his information about the deer horns in the tombs, Macpherson of Benchar, could also have provided the same information to his cousin, James Macpherson, or that James Macpherson could have learned of their existence from others during his research journeys in the North.
In fairness to both sides it should be said that the arguments over "authenticity" and "originals" may be ships passing in the night. Johnson focused on (and ultimately was incensed by) Macpherson's literal claim to be, and insistence on being recognized as, "translator," rather than as transcriber or recreator or compiler of works from an ancient narrative tradition. While that tradition was originally, of course, oral rather than written, Johnson, holding Macpherson to his own words, demanded to see documents, written words, from which the "translations" were made. Even Johnson, of course, did not believe Macpherson had original manuscripts from the third century A.D., in no small part because there was never any claim that a written Gaelic or Erse existed in the third century, let alone some form of manuscript in which it could have survived.
Macpherson's supporters, on the other hand, then and now, can be seen as arguing more for the existence of an historic line of epic Gaelic narrative, originally orally transmitted, and only much later, perhaps, transcribed. Johnson himself, in his Journey, recognizes that tradition of bards and senachies, or "men of talk," and would not have denied the possibility of ancient legends handed down orally.
Macpherson may well have drawn on transcriptions of those legends into Gaelic manuscripts, a few centuries old at most, as he did on other sources such as interviews with locals (including perhaps Macpherson of Benchar). But Johnson and Macpherson were both stubborn, proud men, and Macpherson's refusal to characterize his work in a way which would have permitted Johnson to accept his sources, collided with Johnson's insistence that that which was offered as "translation," not recreation or transcription, should be tested against its alleged sources. If Macpherson may have claimed more than he needed, Johnson may have insisted on more than really mattered. Modern scholarship grants Macpherson credit for passing on and preserving remnants of the Highlands that might otherwise have been lost. Johnson just as certainly established that Fingal was something other than represented by Macpherson. While Lord Auchinleck's essay can be seen as reframing the question of the authenticity of Fingal, it surely does not discredit Johnson's better known, but entirely different point.
No matter, for our purposes. Lord Auchinleck's copy of Fingal is more than just scarce first editions of several of the famous and controversial works of Macpherson. It is proof that Macpherson's work mattered, intensely, and personally, to a great man of Scottish jurisprudence, and the father of the remarkable author of both remarkable books and a remarkable life. We can feel that life, and the life of its progenitor, when we hold that book ourselves, and read thoughts written only for the owner's satisfaction, in his own hand.
This volume, with Lord Auchinleck's essay, provides more than its text alone could reveal. It gives us not only a contemporary comment on the famous debate the text initiated, but also a tangible connection of our own, the only physical connection possible, to those people, and their times, and places. We could not otherwise touch them, but we can, and do, through their books.


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