MACPHERSON, JAMES (1736-1796), Scottish "trans lator" of the Ossianic poems, was born at Ruthven, Inverness, on Oct. 27, 1736. He studied at King's college, Aberdeen (1753), at Marischal college and in Edinburgh. He is said to have written over 4,000 lines of verse while a student, but though some of this was published, notably The Highlander (1758), he afterwards tried to suppress it. On leaving college he taught in the school of his native place. At Moffat he met John Home, the author of Douglas, who encouraged him to publish transla tions from the Gaelic, as Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1760). Dr. Hugh Blair, who was a firm believer in the authenticity of the poems, got up a subscription to allow Macpherson to pursue his Gaelic re searches. In the autumn he set out to visit western Inverness, the islands of Skye, North and South Uist and Benbecula. He obtained mss. which he translated with the assistance of Captain Morrison and the Rev. A. Gallie. Later in the year he made an expedition to Mull, when he obtained other mss. In 1761 he announced the discovery of an epic on the subject of Fingal, and in December he published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language, written in the musical measured prose of which he had made use in his earlier volume. Ternora followed in 1763, and a collected edition, The Works of Ossian, in 1765.
The genuineness of these so-called translations from the works of a 3rd-century bard was immediately challenged in England, and Samuel Johnson, after some local investigation, asserted (Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775) that Mac pherson had only found fragments of ancient poems and stories, which he had woven into a romance of his own composition. Macpherson never produced his originals, which he refused to publish on the ground of the expense. In 1764 he was made secre tary to General Johnstone at Pensacola, West Florida, and when he returned, two years later, to England, after a quarrel with Johnstone, he was allowed to retain his salary as a pension. He wrote several historical works, the most important of which was Original Papers, containing the Secret History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover; to which are prefixed Extracts from the Life of James II., as written by himself (1775). He enjoyed a salary for defending Lord North's government, and held the lucrative post of London agent to Mohammed Ali, nabob of Arcot. He entered parliament
in 178o, and at his estate, Belville, Inverness, he died, Feb. 17, 1796.
After Macpherson's death, Malcolm Laing, in an appendix to his History of Scotland (I800), propounded the view that the so-called Ossianic poems were altogether modern in origin, and that Macpherson's authorities were practically non-existent. For a discussion of this question see SCOTTISH LITERATURE : In Gaelic. Apart from the doubtful morality of Macpherson's transactions he was a great writer. He did not transcribe actual Celtic poems, but he appreciated natural beauty and his art, with its tender ness, did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature. It was translated into many European languages, and Herder and Goethe (in his earlier period) were among its admirers. Cesarotti's Italian translation was one of Napoleon's favourite books.