Macpherson, James

Macpherson, James,

1736–96, Scottish author. Educated at Aberdeen and Edinburgh, he spent his early years as a schoolmaster. In later life he held a colonial secretaryship in West Florida (1764–66), and he was a member of Parliament from 1780 until his death. In 1760, at the insistence of John Home and others, he published Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, supposedly his own translations of ancient Gaelic poems. Later he published translations of two epic poems, Fingal (1761) and Temora (1763), which were represented as the work of a 3d-century Irish bard named Ossian. A collection, The Works of Ossian, appeared in 1765. Samuel Johnson and others heatedly challenged the authenticity of the poems. After Macpherson's death an investigating committee of scholars agreed that he had used some ancient Gaelic poems and traditions, but composed most of the supposedly ancient poetry himself. His prose poems, written in a loose, rhythmical style, filled with supernaturalism and melancholy, influenced powerfully the rising romantic movement in literature, especially German literature. Macpherson also wrote several histories.


See T. B. Saunders, Life and Letters of James Macpherson (1894, repr. 1969); study by D. S. Thomson (1951); I. Haywood, The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to 18th Century Ideas of History and Fiction (1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Macpherson, James


Born Oct. 27, 1736, in Ruthven, Inverness; died Feb. 17, 1796, in Belville, Inverness. Scottish writer.

Macpherson was the son of a farmer. He studied at the University of Edinburgh. In 1760 he edited and anonymously published Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated From the Gaelic or Erse Language. Encouraged by the success of this publication, Macpherson published two heroic epics, Fingal (1762) and Temora (1763), later combining them with the Fragments into The Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal, Translated From the Gaelic Language by James Macpherson (1765; partial Russian translation, 1788). A foreword to this edition claims that the author of the Scottish epic poems was the legendary Ossian (third century).

Samuel Johnson soon questioned the authenticity of the Ossianic poems. After Macpherson’s death, his literary hoax was conclusively established. The narrative poems of Macpherson bear the traits of preromanticism, which made them popular with his contemporaries and with European readers of the early 19th century.


Ossian, vols. 1-3. [Published by O. L. Jiriczek.] Heidelberg, 1940.


Balobanova, E. V. [“Issledovanie, perevod i primechaniia.”]
In J. Macpherson, Poemy Ossiana. St. Petersburg, 1890.
Maslov, V. I. Ossian v Rossii: Bibliografiia. Leningrad, 1928. Saunders, T. B. The Life and Letters of J. Macpherson. London, 1894.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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