Nations, small in their beginnings and slow in their progress to maturity, cannot, with any degree of certainty, be traced to their source. The first historians, in every country, are therefore, obscure and unsatisfactory. Swayed by a national partiality, natural to mankind, they adopted uncertain legends and ill-fancied fictions, when they served to strengthen a favourite system, or to throw lustre on the antient state of their country. Without judgment or discernment to separate the probable and more antient traditions, from ill-digested tales of late invention, they jumbled the whole together, in one mass of anachronisms and inconsistencies. Their accounts, however, though deduced from æras too remote to be known, were received with that partial credulity which always distinguishes an unpolished age. Mankind had neither abilities nor inclination to dispute the truth of relations, which, by throwing lustre on their ancestors, flattered their own vanity.—Such were the historians of Europe, during the dark ages, which succeeded the subversion of the Roman empire. When learning began to revive, men looked into antiquity with less prejudiced eyes. They chose rather to trust their national fame to late and well-attested transactions, than draw it from ages, dark and involved in fable.[ ii ] View Page Image
The Romans give the first and, indeed, the only authentic accounts of the northern nations. Destitute of the use of letters, they themselves had no means of transmitting their history to posterity. Their traditions and songs were lost, or altogether corrupted, in their revolutions and migrations, which were so frequent and universal, that no kingdom in Europe is now possessed by its original inhabitants. Societies were formed, and kingdoms erected, from a mixture of nations, who, in process of time, lost all knowlege of their own origin.
If tradition could be depended upon, it is only among a people, from all time, free of intermixture with foreigners. We are to look for these among the mountains and inaccessible parts of a country: places, on account of their barrenness, uninviting to an enemy, or whose natural strength enabled the natives to repel invasions. Such are the inhabitants of the mountains of Scotland. We, accordingly, find, that they differ materially from those who possess the low aud more fertile part of the kingdom. Their language is pure and original, and their manners are those of an antient and unmixed race of men. Conscious of their own antiquity, they long despised others, as a new and mixed people. As they lived in a country only fit for pasture, they were free of that toil and business, which engross the attention of a commercial people. Their amusement consisted in hearing or repeating their songs and traditions, and these intirely turned on the antiquity of their nation, and the exploits of their forefathers. It is no wonder, therefore, that there are more remains of antiquity among them, than among any other people in Europe. Traditions, however, concerning remote periods, are only to be regarded, in so far as they co-incide with cotemporary writers of undoubted credit and veracity.[ iii ] View Page Image
No writers began their accounts from a more early period, than the historians of the Scotch nation. Without records, or even tradition itself, they give a long list of antient kings, and a detail of their transactions, with a scrupulous exactness. One might naturally suppose, that, when they had no authentic annals, they should, at least, have recourse to the traditions of their country, and have reduced them into a regular system of history. Of both they seem to have been equally destitute. Born in the low country, and strangers to the antient language of their nation, they contented themselves with copying from one another, and retailing the same fictions, in a new colour and dress.
John Fordun was the first who collected those fragments of the Scotch history, which had escaped the brutal policy of Edward I. and reduced them into order. His accounts, in so far as they concerned recent transactions, deserved credit: beyond a certain period, they were fabulous and unsatisfactory. Some time before Fordun wrote, the king of England, in a letter to the pope, had run up the antiquity of his nation to a very remote æra. Fordun, possessed of all the national prejudice of the age, was unwilling that his country should yield, in point of antiquity, to a people, then its rivals and enemies. Destitute of annals in Scotland, he had recourse to Ireland, which, according to the vulgar errors of the times, was reckoned the first habitation of the Scots. He found, there, that the Irish bards had carried their pretensions to antiquity as high, if not beyond any nation in Europe. It was from them he took those improbable fictions, which form the first part of his history.
The writers that succeeded Fordun implicitly followed his system, tho' they sometimes varied from him in their relations of particular transactions, and the order of succession of their kings. [ iv ] View Page Image As they had no new lights, and were, equally with him, unacquainted with the traditions of their country, their histories contain little information concerning the origin of the Scots. Even Buchanan himself, except the elegance and vigour of his stile, has very little to recommend him. Blinded with political prejudices, he seemed more anxious to turn the fictions of his predecessors to his own purposes, than to detect their misrepresentations, or investigate truth amidst the darkness which they had thrown round it. It therefore appears, that little can be collected from their own historians, concerning the first migration of the Scots into Britain.
That this island was peopled from Gaul admits of no doubt. Whether colonies came afterwards from the north of Europe is a matter of mere speculation. When South-Britain yielded to the power of the Romans, the unconquered nations to the north of the province were distinguished by the name of Caledonians. From their very name, it appears, that they were of those Celts, or Gauls, who possessed themselves originally of Britain. It is compounded of two Celtic words, Caël signifying Celts, or Gauls, and Dun or Don, a hill; so that Caël-don, or Caledonians, is as much as to say, the Celts of the hill country. The Highlanders, to this day, call themselves Caël, and their language Caëlic, or Galic. This, of itself, is sufficient to demonstrate, that they are the genuine descendents of the antient Caledonians, and not a pretended colony of Scots, who settled first in the north, in the third or fourth century.
From the double meaning of the word Caël, which signifies strangers, as well as Gauls, or Celts, some have imagined, that the ancestors of the Caledonians were of a different race from the rest [ v ] View Page Imageof the Britons, and that they received their name upon that account. This opinion, say they, is supported by Tacitus, who, from several circumstances, concludes, that the Caledonians were of German extraction. A discussion of a point so intricate, at this distance of time, could neither be satisfactory nor important.
Towards the latter end of the third, and beginning of the fourth century, we meet with the Scots in the north. Display notePorphyrius makes the first mention of them about that time. As the Scots were not heard of before that period, most writers supposed them to have been a colony, newly come to Britain, and that the Picts were the only genuine descendents of the antient Caledonians. This mistake is easily removed. The Caledonians, in process of time, became naturally divided into two distinct nations, as possessing parts of the country, intirely different in their nature and soil. The western coast of Scotland is hilly and barren; towards the east the country is plain, and fit for tillage. The inhabitants of the mountains, a roving and uncontrouled race of men, lived by feeding of cattle, and what they killed in hunting. Their employment did not fix them to one place. They removed from one heath to another, as suited best with their convenience or inclination. They were not, therefore, improperly called, by their neighbours, Scuite, or, the wandering nation; which is evidently the origin of the Roman name of Scoti.
On the other hand, the Caledonians, who possessed the east coast of Scotland, as their division of the country was plain and fertile, applied themselves to agriculture, and raising of corn. It was from this, that the Galic name of the Picts proceeded; for they are called, in that language, Cruithnich, i.e. the wheat or corn-eaters. [ vi ] View Page ImageAs the Picts lived in a country so different in its nature from that possessed by the Scots, so their national character suffered a material change. Unobstructed by mountains, or lakes, their communication with one another was free and frequent. Society, therefore, became sooner established among them, than among the Scots, and, consequently, they were much sooner governed by civil magistrates and laws. This, at last, produced so great a difference in the manners of the two nations, that they began to forget their common origin, and almost continual quarrels and animosities subsisted between them. These animosities, after some ages, ended in the subversion of the Pictish kingdom, but not in the total extirpation of the nation, according to most of the Scotch writers, who seemed to think it more for the honour of their countrymen to annihilate, than reduce a rival people under their obedience. It is certain, however, that the very name of the Picts was lost, and those that remained were so compleatly incorporated with their conquerors, that they soon lost all memory of their own origin.—
The end of the Pictish government is placed so near that period, to which authentic annals reach, that it is matter of wonder, that we have no monuments of their language or history remaining. This favours the system I have laid down. Had they originally been of a different race from the Scots, their language of course would be different. The contrary is the case. The names of places in the Pictish dominions, and the very names of their kings, which are handed down to us, are of Galic original, which is a convincing proof, that the two nations were, of old, one and the same, and only divided into two governments, by the effect which their situation had upon the genius of the people. [ vii ] View Page Image
The name of Picts was, perhaps, given by the Romans to the Caledonians, who possessed the east coast of Scotland, from their painting their bodies. This circumstance made some imagine, that the Picts were of British extract, and a different race of men from the Scots. That more of the Britons, who fled northward from the tyranny of the Romans, settled in the low country of Scotland, than among the Scots of the mountains, may be easily imagined, from the very nature of the country. It was they who introduced painting among the Picts. From this circumstance proceeded the name of the latter, to distinguish them from the Scots, who never had that art among them, and from the Britons, who discontinued it after the Roman conquest.
The Caledonians, most certainly, acquired a considerable knowledge in navigation, by their living on a coast intersected with many arms of the sea, and, in islands, divided, one from another, by wide and dangerous firths. It is, therefore, highly probable, that they, very early, found their way to the north of Ireland, which is within sight of their own country. That Ireland was first peopled from Britain is certain. The vicinity of the two islands; the exact correspondence of the antient inhabitants of both, in point of manners and language, are sufficient proofs, even if we had not the testimony of authors of undoubted veracityDisplay note to confirm it. The abettors of the most romantic systems of Irish antiquities allow it; but they place the colony from Britain in an improbable and remote æra. I shall easily admit, that the colony of the Firbolg, confessedly the Belgæ of Britain, settled in the south of Ireland, before the Caël, or Caledonians, discovered the north: but it is not at all likely, that the migration of the Firbolg to Ireland happened many centuries before the incarnation. [ viii ] View Page Image
Display noteOssian, in the poem of Temora, throws considerable light on this subject. His accounts agree so well with what the antients have delivered, concerning the first population and inhabitants of Ireland, that every unbiased person will confess them more probable, than the legends handed down, by tradition, in that country. From him, it appears, that, in the days of Trathal, grandfather to Fingal, Ireland was possessed by two nations; the Firbolg or Belgæ of Britain, who inhabited the south, and the Caël, who passed over from Caledonia and the Hebrides to Ulster. The two nations, as is usual among an unpolished and lately settled people, were divided into small dynasties, subject to petty kings, or chiefs, independent of one another. In this situation, it is probable, they continued long, without any material revolution in the state of the island, until Crothar, Lord of Atha, a country in Connaught, the most potent chief of the Firbolg, carried away Conlama, the daughter of Cathmin, a chief of the Caël, who possessed Ulster.
Conlama had been betrothed, some time before, to Turloch, a chief of her own nation. Turloch resented the affront offered him by Crothar, made an irruption into Connaught, and killed Cormul, the brother of Crothar, who came to oppose his progress. Crothar himself then took arms, and either killed or expelled Turloch. The war, upon this, became general, between the two nations: and the Caël were reduced to the last extremity.—In this situation, they applied, for aid, to Trathal king of Morven, who sent his brother Conar, already famous for his great exploits, to their relief. Conar, upon his arrival in Ulster, was chosen king, by the unanimous consent of the Caledonian tribes, who possessed that country. The war was renewed with vigour and success; but the Firbolg appear to have been rather repelled than subdued. In suceeding [ ix ] View Page Imagereigns, we learn from episodes in the same poem, that the chiefs of Atha made several efforts to become monarchs of Ireland, and to expel the race of Conar.
Display noteTo Conar succeeded his son Cormac, who appears to have reigned long. In his latter days he seems to have been driven to the last extremity, by an insurrection of the Firbolg, who supported the pretensions of the chiefs of Atha to the Irish throne. Fingal, who then was very young, came to the aid of Cormac, totally defeated Colc-ulla, chief of Atha, Display noteand re-established Cormac in the sole possession of all Ireland. It was then he fell in love with, and took to wife, Ros-crana, the daughter of Cormac, who was the mother of Ossian.
Cormac was succeeded in the Irish throne by his son, Cairbre; Cairbre by Artho, his Son, who was the father of that Cormac, in whose minority the invasion of Swaran happened, which is the subject of the poem of Fingal. The family of Atha, who had not relinquished their pretensions to the Irish throne, rebelled in the minority of Cormac, Display notedefeated his adherents, and murdered him in the palace of Temora. Cairbar, lord of Atha, upon this, mounted the throne. His usurpation soon ended with his life; for Fingal made an expedition into Ireland, and restored, after various vicissitudes of fortune, the family of Conar to the possession of the kingdom. This war is the subject of Temora; the events, tho' certainly heightened and embellished by poetry, seem, notwithstanding, to have their foundation in true history.
Ossian has not only preserved the history of the first migration of the Caledonians into Ireland, he has also delivered some important [ x ] View Page Imagefacts, concerning the first settlement of the Firbolg, or Belgæ of Britain, in that kingdom, under their leader Larthon, who was ancestor to Cairbar and Cathmor, who, successively, mounted the Irish throne, after the death of Cormac, the son of Artho. I forbear to transcribe the passage, on account of its length. It is the song of Display note Fonar, the bard; towards the latter end of the seventh book of Temora. As the generations from Larthon to Cathmor, to whom the episode is addressed, are not marked, as are those of the family of Conar, the first king of Ireland, we can form no judgment of the time of the settlement of the Firbolg. It is, however, probable, it was some time before the Caël, or Caledonians, settled in Ulster.—One important fact may be gathered from this history of Ossian, that the Irish had no king before the latter end of the first century. Fingal lived, it is certain, in the third century; so Conar, the first monarch of the Irish, who was his grand-uncle, cannot be placed farther back than the close of the first. The establishing of this fact, lays, at once, aside the pretended antiquities of the Scotch and Irish, and cuts off the long list of kings which the latter give us for a millennium before.
Of the affairs of Scotland, it is certain, nothing can be depended upon, prior to the reign of Fergus, the son of Erc, who lived in the fifth century. The true history of Ireland begins somewhat Display notelater than that period. Sir James Ware, who was indefatigable in his researches after the antiquities of his country, rejects, as mere fiction and idle romance, all that is related of the antient Irish, before the time of St. Patrick, and the reign of Leogaire. It is from this consideration, that he begins his history at the introduction of christianity, remarking, that all that is delivered down, concerning the times of paganism, were tales of late invention, [ xi ] View Page Image strangely mixed with anachronisms and inconsistencies. Such being the opinion of Ware, who had collected, with uncommon industry and zeal, all the real and pretendedly antient manuscripts, concerning the history of his country, we may, on his authority, reject the improbable and self-condemned tales of Keating and O’Flaherty. Credulous and puerile to the last degree, they have disgraced the antiquities they meant to establish. It is to be wished, that some able Irishman, who understands the language and records of his country, may redeem, ere it is too late, the genuine antiquities of Ireland, from the hands of these idle fabulists.
By comparing the history preserved by Ossian with the legends of the Scotch and Irish writers, and, by afterwards examining both by the test of the Roman authors, it is easy to discover which is the most probable. Probability is all that can be established on the authority of tradition, ever dubious and uncertain. But when it favours the hypothesis laid down by cotemporary writers of undoubted veracity, and, as it were, finishes the figure of which they only drew the out-lines, it ought, in the judgment of sober reason, to be preferred to accounts framed in dark and distant periods, with little judgment, and upon no authority.
Concerning the period of more than a century, which intervenes between Fingal and the reign of Fergus, the son of Erc or Arcath, tradition is dark and contradictory. Some trace up the family of Fergus to a son of Fingal of that name, who makes a considerable figure in Ossian’s poems. The three elder sons of Fingal, Ossian, Fillan, and Ryno, dying, without issue, the succession, of course, devolved upon Fergus, the fourth son and his posterity. This Fergus, say some traditions, was the father of Congal, whose [ xii ] View Page Imageson was Arcath, the father of Fergus, properly called the first king of Scots, as it was in his time the Caël, who possessed the western coast of Scotland, began to be distinguished, by foreigners, by the name of Scots. From thence forward, the Scots and Picts, as distinct nations, became objects of attention to the historians of other countries. The internal state of the two Caledonian kingdoms has always continued, and ever must remain, in obscurity and fable.
It is in this epoch we must fix the beginning of the decay of that species of heroism, which subsisted in the days of Ossian. There are three stages in human society. The first is the result of consanguinity, and the natural affection of the members of a family to one another. The second begins when property is established, and men enter into associations for mutual defence, against the invasions and injustice of neighbours. Mankind submit, in the third, to certain laws and subordinations of government, to which they trust the safety of their persons and property. As the first is formed on nature, so, of course, it is the most disinterested and noble. Men, in the last, have leisure to cultivate the mind, and to restore it, with reflection, to a primæval dignity of sentiment. The middle state is the region of compleat barbarism and ignorance. About the beginning of the fifth century, the Scots and Picts were advanced into the second stage, and, consequently, into those circumscribed sentiments, which always distinguish barbarity.—The events which soon after happened did not at all contribute to enlarge their ideas, or mend their national character.
About the year 426, the Romans, on account of domestic commotions, entirely forsook Britain, finding it impossible to defend so distant a frontier. The Picts and Scots, seizing this favourable [ xiii ] View Page Imageopportunity, made incursions into the deserted province. The Britons, enervated by the slavery of several centuries, and those vices, which are inseparable from an advanced state of civility, were not able to withstand the impetuous, tho’ irregular attacks of a barbarous enemy. In the utmost distress, they applied to their old masters, the Romans, and (after the unfortunate state of the Empire could not spare aid) to the Saxons, a nation equally barbarous and brave, with the enemies of whom they were so much afraid. Tho’ the bravery of the Saxons repelled the Caledonian nations for a time, yet the latter found means to extend themselves, considerably, towards the South. It is, in this period, we must place the origin of the arts of civil life among the Scots. The seat of government was removed from the mountains to the plain and more fertile provinces of the South, to be near the common enemy, in case of sudden incursions. Instead of roving thro’ unfrequented wilds, in search of subsistance, by means of hunting, men applied to agriculture, and raising of corn. This manner of life was the first means of changing the national character.—The next thing which contributed to it was their mixture with strangers.
In the countries which the Scots had conquered from the Britons, it is probable the most of the old inhabitants remained. These, incorporating with the conquerors, taught them agriculture, and other arts, which they themselves had received from the Romans. The Scots, however, in number as well as power, being the most predominant, retained still their language, and as many of the customs of their ancestors, as suited with the nature of the country they possessed. Even the union of the two Caledonian kingdoms did not much affect the national character. Being originally descended from the same stock, the manners of the Picts and [ xiv ] View Page ImageScots were as similar as the different natures of the countries they possessed permitted.
What brought about a total change in the genius of the Scots nation, was their wars, and other transactions with the Saxons. Several counties in the south of Scotland were alternately possessed by the two nations. They were ceded, in the ninth age, to the Scots, and, it is probable, that most of the Saxon inhabitants remained in possession of their lands. During the several conquests and revolutions in England, many fled, for refuge, into Scotland, to avoid the oppression of foreigners, or the tyranny of domestic usurpers; in so much, that the Saxon race formed perhaps near one half of the Scottish kingdom. The Saxon manners and language daily gained ground, on the tongue and customs of the antient Caledonians, till, at last, the latter were entirely relegated to inhabitants of the mountains, who were still unmixed with strangers.
It was after the accession of territory which the Scots received, upon the retreat of the Romans from Britain, that the inhabitants of the Highlands were divided into clans. The king, when he kept his court in the mountains, was considered, by the whole nation, as the chief of their blood. Their small number, as well as the presence of their prince, prevented those divisions, which, afterwards, sprung forth into so many separate tribes. When the seat of government was removed to the south, those who remained in the Highlands were, of course, neglected. They naturally formed themselves into small societies, independent of one another. Each society had its own regülüs, who either was, or, in the succession of a few generations, was regarded as chief of their blood.—The nature of the country favoured an institution of this sort. [ xv ] View Page ImageA few valleys, divided from one another by extensive heaths and impassible mountains, form the face of the Highlands. In these valleys the chiefs fixed their residence. Round them, and almost within sight of their dwellings, were the habitations of their relations and dependents.
The seats of the Highland chiefs were neither disagreeable nor inconvenient. Surrounded with mountains and hanging woods, they were covered from the inclemency of the weather. Near them generally ran a pretty large river, which, discharging itself, not far off, into an arm of the sea, or extensive lake, swarmed with variety of fish. The woods were stocked with wild-fowl; and the heaths and mountains behind them were the natural seat of the red-deer and roe. If we make allowance for the backward state of agriculture, the valleys were not unfertile; affording, if not all the conveniences, at least the necessaries of life. Here the chief lived, the supreme judge and law-giver of his own people; but his sway was neither severe nor unjust. As the populace regarded him as the chief of their blood, so he, in return, considered them as members of his family. His commands, therefore, tho’ absolute and decisive, partook more of the authority of a father, than of the rigor of a judge.—Tho’ the whole territory of the tribe was considered as the property of the chief, yet his vassals made him no other consideration for their lands than services, neither burdensome nor frequent. As he seldom went from home, he was at no expence. His table was supplied by his own herds, and what his numerous attendants killed in hunting.
In this rural kind of magnificence, the Highland chiefs lived, for many ages. At a distance from the seat of government, and secured, [ xvi ] View Page Imageby the inaccessibleness of their country, they were free and independent. As they had little communication with strangers, the customs of their ancestors remained among them, and their language retained its original purity. Naturally fond of military fame, and remarkably attached to the memory of their ancestors, they delighted in traditions and songs, concerning the exploits of their nation, and especially of their own particular families. A succession of bards was retained in every clan, to hand down the memorable actions of their forefathers. As the æra of Fingal, on account of Ossian’s poems, was the most remarkable, and his chiefs the most renowned names in tradition, the bards took care to place one of them in the genealogy of every great family.—That part of the poems, which concerned the hero who was regarded as ancestor, was preserved, as an authentic record of the antiquity of the family, and was delivered down, from race to race, with wonderful exactness.
The bards themselves, in the mean time, were not idle. They erected their immediate patrons into heroes, and celebrated them in their songs. As the circle of their knowledge was narrow, their ideas were confined in proportion. A few happy expressions, and the manners they represent, may please those who understand the language; their obscurity and innacuracy would disgust in a translation.—It was chiefly, for this reason, that I kept wholly to the compositions of Ossian, in my former and present publication. As he acted in a more extensive sphere, his ideas are more noble and universal; neither has he so many of those peculiarities, which are only understood in a certain period or country. The other bards have their beauties, but not in that species of composition in which Ossian excels. Their rhimes, only calculated to kindle a martial [ xvii ] View Page Image spirit among the vulgar, afford very little pleasure to genuine taste. This observation only regards their poems of the heroic kind; in every other species of poetry they are more successful. They express the tender melancholy of desponding love, with irresistible simplicity and nature. So well adapted are the sounds of the words to the sentiments, that, even without any knowledge of the language, they pierce and dissolve the heart. Successful love is expressed with peculiar tenderness and elegance. In all their compositions, except the heroic, which was solely calculated to animate the vulgar, they give us the genuine language of the heart, without any of those affected ornaments of phraseology, which, tho’ intended to beautify sentiments, divert them of their natural force. The ideas, it is confessed, are too local, to be admired, in another language; to those, who are acquainted with the manners they represent, and the scenes they describe, they must afford the highest pleasure and satisfaction.
It was the locality of his description and sentiment, that, probably, kept Ossian so long in the obscurity of an almost lost language. His ideas, tho’ remarkably proper for the times in which he lived, are so contrary to the present advanced state of society, that more than a common mediocrity of taste is required, to relish his poems as they deserve.—Those who alone were capable to make a translation were, no doubt, conscious of this, and chose rather to admire their poet in secret, than see him received, with coldness, in an English dress.
These were long my own sentiments, and, accordingly, my first translations, from the Galic, wrere merely accidental. The publication, which soon after followed, was so well received, that I was [ xviii ] View Page Imageobliged to promise to my friends a larger collection. In a journey thro’ the Highlands and isles, and, by the assistance of correspondents, since I left that country, all the genuine remains of the works of Ossian have come to my hands. In the publication of last year compleat poems were only given. Unfinished and imperfect poems were purposely omitted; even some pieces were rejected, on account of their length, and others, that they might not break in upon that thread of connection, which subsists in the lesser compositions, subjoined to Fingal.—That the comparative merit of pieces was not regarded, in the selection, will readily appear to those who shall read, attentively, the present collection.—It is animated with the same spirit of poetry, and the same strength of sentiment is sustained throughout.
The opening of the poem of Temora made its appearance in the last collection. The second book, and several other episodes, have only fallen into my hands lately. The story of the poem, with which I had been long acquainted, enabled me to reduce the broken members of the piece into the order in which they now appear. For the ease of the reader, I have divided it myself into books, as I had done before with the poem of Fingal. As to the merit of the poem I shall not anticipate the judgment of the public. My impartiality might be suspected, in my accounts of a work, which, in some measure, is become my own. If the poem of Fingal met with the applause of persons of genuine taste, I should also hope, that Temora will not displease them.
But what renders Temora infinitely more valuable than Fingal, is the light it throws on the history of the times. The first population of Ireland, its first kings, and several circumstances, which [ xix ] View Page Image regard its connection of old with the south and north of Britain, are presented to us, in several episodes. The subject and catastrophe of the poem are founded upon facts, which regarded the first peopling of that country, and the contests between the two British nations, which originally inhabited it.—In a preceding part of this dissertation, I have shewn how superior the probability of Ossian’s traditions is to the undigested fictions of the Irish bards, and the more recent and regular legends of both Irish and Scotch historians. I mean not to give offence to the abettors of the high antiquities of the two nations, tho’ I have all along expressed my doubts, concerning the veracity and abilities of those who deliver down their antient history. For my own part, I prefer the national fame, arising from a few certain facts, to the legendary and uncertain annals of ages of remote and obscure antiquity. No kingdom, now established in Europe, can pretend to equal antiquity with those of Ireland and Scotland, even according to my system, so that it is altogether needless to fix their origin a fictitious millennium before. This subject I have only lightly touched upon, as it is to be discussed, with more perspicuity, and at a much greater length, by a gentleman, who has thoroughly examined the antiquities of Britain and Ireland.
Since the publication of the last collection of Ossian’s poems, many insinuations have been made, and doubts arisen, concerning their authenticity. I shall, probably, hear more of the same kind after the present poems shall make their appearance. Whether these suspicions are suggested by prejudice, or are only the effects of ignorance of facts, I shall not pretend to determine.—To me they give no concern, as I have it always in my power to remove them. An incredulity of this kind is natural to persons, who confine all [ xx ] View Page Image merit to their own age and country. These are generally the weakest, as well as the most ignorant, of the people. Indolently confined to a place, their ideas are narrow and circumscribed.—It is ridiculous enough to see such people as these are, branding their ancestors, with the despicable appellation of barbarians. Sober reason can easily discern, where the title ought to be fixed, with more propriety.
As prejudice is always the effect of ignorance, the knowing, the men of true taste, despise and dismiss it. If the poetry is good, and the characters natural and striking, to them it is a matter of indifference, whether the heroes were born in the little village of Angles in Juteland, or natives of the barren heaths of Caledonia. That honour which nations derive from ancestors, worthy, or renowned, is merely ideal. It may buoy up the minds of individuals, but it contributes very little to their importance in the eyes of others.—But of all those prejudices which are incident to narrow minds, that which measures the merit of performances by the vulgar opinion, concerning the country which produced them, is certainly the most ridiculous. Ridiculous, however, as it is, few have the courage to reject it; and, I am thoroughly convinced, that a few quaint lines of a Roman or Greek epigrammatist, if dug out of the ruins of Herculaneum, would meet with more cordial and universal applause, than all the most beautiful and natural rhapsodies of all the Celtic bards and Scandinavian Scalders that ever existed.
While some doubt the authenticity of the compositions of Ossian, others strenuously endeavour to appropriate them to the Irish nation. Tho’ the whole tenor of the poems sufficiently contradict so absurd an opinion, it may not be improper, for the satisfaction of some, to examine the narrow foundation, on which this extraordinary claim is built.[ xxi ] View Page Image
Of all the nations descended from the antient Celtæ, the Scots and Irish are the most similar in language, customs, and manners. This argues a more intimate connection between them, than a remote descent from the great Celtic stock. It is evident, in short, that, at some one period or other, they formed one society, were subject to the same government, and were, in all respects, one and the same people. How they became divided, which the colony, or which the mother nation, does not fall now to be discussed. The first circumstance that induced me to disregard the vulgarly-received opinion of the Hibernian extraction of the Scotch nation, was my observations on their antient language. That dialect of the Celtic tongue, spoken in the north of Scotland, is much more pure, more agreeable to its mother language, and more abounding with primitives, than that now spoken, or even that which has been writ for some centuries back, amongst the most unmixed part of the Irish nation. A Scotchman, tolerably conversant in his own language, understands an Irish composition, from that derivative analogy which it has to the Galic of North-Britain. An Irishman, on the other hand, without the aid of study, can never understand a composition in the Galic tongue.—This affords a proof, that the Scotch Galic is the most original, and, consequently, the language of a more antient and unmixed people. The Irish, however backward they may be to allow any thing to the prejudice of their antiquity, seem inadvertently to acknowledge it, by the very appellation they give to the dialect they speak.—They call their own language Caëlic Eirinach, i. e. Caledonian Irish, when, on the contrary, they call the dialect of North-Britain a Chaëlic, or the Caledonian tongue, emphatically. A circumstance of this nature tends more to decide which is the most antient nation, than the united [ xxii ] View Page Imagetestimonies of a whole legion of ignorant bards and senachies, who, perhaps, never dreamed of bringing the Scots from Spain to Ireland, till some one of them, more learned than the rest, discovered, that the Romans called the first Iberia, and the latter Hibernia. On such a slight foundation were probably built those romantic fictions, concerning the Milesians of Ireland.
From internal proofs it sufficiently appears, that the poems published under the name of Ossian, are not of Irish composition. The favourite chimæra, that Ireland is the mother-country of the Scots, is totally subverted and ruined. The fictions, concerning the antiquities of that country, which were forming for ages, and growing, as they came down, on the hands of successive senachies and fileas, are found, at last, to be the spurious brood of modern and ignorant ages. To those who know how tenacious the Irish are, of their pretended Iberian descent, this alone is proof sufficient, that poems, so subversive of their system, could never be produced by an Hibernian bard.—But when we look to the language, it is so different from the Irish dialect, that it would be as ridiculous to think, that Milton’s Paradise Lost could be wrote by a Scotch peasant, as to suppose, that the poems ascribed to Ossian were writ in Ireland.
The pretensions of Ireland to Ossian proceed from another quarter. There are handed down, in that country, traditional poems, concerning the Fiona, or the heroes of Fion Mac Comnal. This Fion, say the Irish annalists, was general of the militia of Ireland, in the reign of Cormac, in the third century. Where Keating and O’Flaherty learned, that Ireland had an embodied militia so early, is not easy for me to determine. Their information certainly did not [ xxiii ] View Page Imagecome from the Irish poems, concerning Fion. I have just now, in my hands, all that remain, of those compositions; but, unluckily for the antiquities of Ireland, they appear to be the work of a very modern period. Every stanza, nay almost every line, affords striking proofs, that they cannot be three centuries old. Their allusions to the manners and customs of the fifteenth century, are so many, that it is matter of wonder to me, how any one could dream of their antiquity. They are entirely writ in that romantic taste, which prevailed two ages ago.—Giants, enchanted castles, dwarfs, palfreys, witches and magicians form the whole circle of the poet’s invention. The celebrated Fion could scarcely move from one hillock to another, without encountering a giant, or being entangled in the circles of a magician. Witches, on broomsticks, were continually hovering round him, like crows; and he had freed enchanted virgins in every valley in Ireland. In short, Fion, great as he was, had but a bad sort of life of it.—Not only had he to engage all the mischiefs in his own country, foreign armies invaded him, assisted by magicians and witches, and headed by kings, as tall as the main-mast of a first rate.—It must be owned, however, that Fion was not inferior to them in height. A chos air Cromleach, druim-ard,Chos eile air Crom-meal dubh,Thoga Fion le lamh mhoirAn d’uisge o Lubhair na fruth. "Fion, says the Irish bard, sometimes placed one foot on the mountain Cromleach, his other foot on the hill of Crommal, and, in that position, washed his hands, in the river Lubar, which ran thro’ the intermediate valley.” The property of such a monster as this Fion, [ xxiv ] View Page ImageI should never have disputed with any nation. But the bard himself, in the poem, from which the above quotation is taken, cedes him to Scotland.Fion o Albin, siol nan laoich.Fion from Albion, race of heroes! Were it allowable to contradict the authority of a bard, at this distance of time, I should have given, as my opinion, that this enormous Fion was of the race of the Hibernian giants, of Ruanus, or some other celebrated name, rather than a native of Caledonia, whose inhabitants, now at least, are not remarkable for their stature.
If Fion was so remarkable for his stature, his heroes had also other extraordinary properties. In weight all the sons of strangers yielded to the celebrated Ton-iosal; and for hardness of skull, and, perhaps, for thickness too, the valiant Oscar stood unrivalled and alone. Ossian himself had many singular and less delicate qualifications, than playing on the harp; and the brave Cuchullin was of so diminutive a size, as to be taken for a child of two years of age, by the gigantic Swaran. To illustrate this subject, I shall here lay before the reader, the history of some of the Irish poems, concerning Fion Mac Comnal. A translation of these pieces, if well executed, might afford satisfaction to the public. But this ought to be the work of a native of Ireland. To draw forth, from obscurity, the poems of my own country, has afforded ample employment to me; besides, I am too diffident of my own abilities, to undertake such a work. A gentleman in Dublin accused me to the public, of committing blunders and absurdities, in translating the language of my [ xxv ] View Page Imageown country, and that before any translation of mine appearedDisplay note. How the gentleman came to see my blunders before I committed them, is not easy to determine; if he did not conclude, that, as a Scotsman, and, of course, descended of the Milesian race, I might have committed some of those oversights, which, perhaps very unjustly, are said to be peculiar to them.
From the whole tenor of the Irish poems, concerning the Fiona, it appears, that Fion Mac Comnal flourished in the reign of Cormac, which is placed, by the universal consent of the senachies, in the third century. They even fix the death of Fingal in the year 286, yet his son Ossian is made cotemporary with St. Patrick, who preached the gospel in Ireland about the middle of the fifth age. Ossian, tho’, at that time, he must have been two hundred and fifty years of age, had a daughter young enough to become wife to the saint. On account of this family connection, Patrick of the Psalms, for so the apostle of Ireland is emphatically called in the poems, took great delight in the company of Ossian, and in hearing [ xxvi ] View Page Imagethe great actions of his family. The saint sometimes threw off the austerity of his prosession, drunk freely, and had his soul properly warmed with wine, in order to hear, with becoming enthusiasm, the poems of his father-in-law. One of the poems begins with this piece of useful information. Lo don rabh Padric na mhúr,Gun Sailm air uidh, ach a gól,Ghluais é thigh Ossian mhic Fhion,O san leis bu bhinn a ghloir. The title of this poem is, Teantach mor na Fiona. It appears to have been founded on the same story with the battle of Lora, one of the poems of the genuine Ossian. The circumstances and catastrophe in both are much the same; but the Irish Οssian discovers the age in which he lived, by an unlucky anachronism. After describing the total route of Erragon, he very gravely concludes with this remarkable anecdote, that none of the foe escaped, but a few, who were allowed to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This circumstance fixes the date of the composition of the piece some centuries after the famous croisade; for, it is evident, that the poet thought the time of the croisade so antient, that he confounds it with the age of Fingal.—Erragon, in the course of this poem, is often called,Riogh Lochlin an do shloigh, King of Denmark of two nations, which alludes to the union of the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, a circumstance which brings down the date of the piece to [ xxvii ] View Page Imagean æra, not far remote. Modern, however, as this pretended Ossian was, it is certain, he lived before the Irish had dreamed of appropriating Fion, or Fingal, to themselves. He concludes the poem, with this reflection:Na fagha se comhthróm nan n’ arm,Eragon Mac Annir nan lánn glas’San n’ Albin ni n' abairtair TriathAgus ghlaoite an n’ Fhiona as. “Had Erragon, son of Annir of gleaming swords, avoided the equal contest of arms (single combat) no chief should have afterwards been numbered in Albion, and the heroes of Fion should no more be named.”
The next poem that falls under our observation is Cath-cabhra, or, The death of Oscar. This piece is founded on the same story which we have in the first book of Temora. So little thought the author of Cath-cabhra of making Oscar his countryman, that, in the course of two hundred lines, of which the poem consists, he puts the following expression thrice in the mouth of the hero: Albin an sa d’ roina m’ arach.——Albion where I was born and bred. The poem contains almost all the incidents in the first book of Temora. In one circumstance the bard differs materially from Ossian. Oscar, after he was mortally wounded by Cairbar, was carried by his people to a neighbouring hill, which commanded a prospect of [ xxviii ] View Page Imagethe sea. A fleet appeared at a distance, and the hero exclaims with joy, Loingeas mo shean-athair at’ án’S iad a tiächd le cabhair chugain,O Albin na n’ ioma stuagh."It is the fleet of my grandfather, coming with aid to our field, from Albion of many waves!”——The testimony of this bard is sufficient to confute the idle fictions of Keating and O’Flaherty; for, tho’ he is far from being antient, it is probable, he flourished a full century before these historians.—He appears, however, to have been a much better christian than chronologer; for Fion, tho’ he is placed two centuries before St. Patrick, very devoutly recommends the soul of his grandson to his Redeemer.
Duan a Gharibh Mac-Starn is another Irish poem in high repute. The grandeur of its images, and its propriety of sentiment, might have induced me to give a translation of it, had not I some expectations of seeing it in the collection of the Irish Ossian’s poems, promised, more than a year since, to the public. The author descends sometimes from the region of the sublime to low and indecent description; the last of which, the Irish translator, no doubt, will choose to leave in the obscurity of the original.—In this piece Cuchullin is used with very little ceremony, for he is oft called, the dog of Tara, in the county of Meath. This severe title of the redoubtable Cuchullin, the most renowned of Irish champions, proceeded from the poet’s ignorance of etymology. Cu, voice, or commander, signifies also a dog. The poet chose the last, as the most noble appellation for his hero.[ xxix ] View Page Image
The subject of the poem is the same with that of the epic poem of Fingal. Garibh Mac-Starn is the same with Ossian’s Swaran, the son of Starno. His single combats with, and his victory over all the heroes of Ireland, excepting the celebrated dog of Tara' i. e. Cuchullin, afford matter for two hundred lines of tolerable poetry. Garibh's progress in search of Cuchullin, and his intrigue with the gigantic Emir-bragal, that hero’s wife, enables the poet to extend his piece to four hundred lines. This author, it is true, makes Cuchullin a native of Ireland; the gigantic Emir-bragal he calls, the guiding star of the women of Ireland. The property of this enormous lady I shall not dispute with him, or any other. But, as he speaks with great tenderness of the daughters of the convent, and throws out some hints against the English nation, it is probable he lived in too modern a period to be intimately acquainted with the genealogy of Cuchullin.
Another Irish Ossian (for there were many, as appears from their difference in language and sentiment) speaks very dogmatically of Fion Mac Comnal, as an Irishman. Little can be said for the judgment of this poet, and less for his delicacy of sentiment. The history of one of his episodes may, at once, stand as a specimen of his want of both. Ireland, in the days of Fion, happened to be threatned with an invasion, by three great potentates, the kings of Lochlin, Sweden, and France. It is needless to insist upon the impropriety of a French invasion of Ireland; it is sufficient for me to be faithful to the language of my author. Fion, upon receiving intelligence of the intended invasion, sent Ca-olt, Ossian, and Oscar, to watch the bay, in which, it was apprehended, the enemy was to land. Oscar was the worst choice of a scout that could be made, for, brave as he was, he had the bad property of falling very often asleep on his post, nor was it possible to awake [ xxx ] View Page Imagehim, without cutting off one of his fingers, or dashing a large stone against his head. When the enemy appeared, Oscar, very unfortunately, was asleep. Ossian and Ca-olt consulted about the method of wakening him, and they, at last, fixed on the stone, as the less dangerous expedient.Gun thog Caoilte a chlach, nach gán,Agus a n’ aighai’ chiean gun bhuail;Tri mil an tulloch gun chri’, &c.“Ca-olt took up a heavy stone, and struck it against the hero’s head. The hill shook for three miles, as the stone rebounded and rolled away.” Oscar rose in wrath, and his father gravely desired him to spend his rage on his enemies, which he did to so good purpose, that he singly routed a whole wing of their army. The confederate kings advanced, notwithstanding, till they came to a narrow pass, possessed by the celebrated Ton-iosal. This name is very significant of the singular property of the hero who bore it. Ton-iosal, tho’ brave, was so heavy and unwieldy, that, when he sat down, it took the whole force of an hundred men to set him upright on his feet again. Luckily for the preservation of Ireland, the hero happened to be standing when the enemy appeared, and he gave so good an account of them, that Fion, upon his arrival, found little to do, but to divide the spoil among his soldiers.
All these extraordinary heroes, Fion, Ossian, Oscar and Ca-olt, says the poet, wereSiol Erin na gorm lánn.The sons of Erin of blue steel. [ xxxi ] View Page ImageNeither shall I much dispute the matter with him: He has my consent also to appropriate to Ireland the celebrated Ton-iosal. I shall only say, that they are different persons from those of the same name, in the Scotch poems; and that, tho’ the stupenduous valour of the first is so remarkable, they have not been equally lucky with the latter, in their poet. It is somewhat extraordinary, that Fion, who lived some ages before St. Patrick, swears like a very good christian:Air an Dia do chum gach case.By God, who shaped every case.It is worthy of being remarked, that, in the line quoted, Ossian, who lived in St. Patrick’s days, seems to have understood something of the English, a language not then subsisting. A person, more sanguine for the honour of his country than I am, might argue, from this circumstance, that this pretendedly Irish Ossian was a native of Scotland; for my countrymen are universally allowed to have an exclusive right to the second-sight.
From the instances given, the reader may form a compleat idea of the Irish compositions concerning the Fiona. The greatest part of them make the heroes of Fion,Siol Albin a n’nioma caoile.The race of Albion of many firths.The rest make them natives of Ireland. But, the truth is, that their authority is of little consequence on either side. From the instances I have given, they appear to have been the work of a very [ xxxii ] View Page Imagemodern period. The pious ejaculations they contain, their allusions to the manners of the times, fix them to the fifteenth century. Had even the authors of these pieces avoided ail allusions to their own times, it is impossible that the poems could pass for ancient, in the eyes of any person tolerably conversant with the Irish tongue. The idiom is so corrupted and so many words borrowed from the English, that that language must have made considerable progress in Ireland before the poems were writ.
It remains now to shew, how the Irish bards begun to appropriate Ossian and his heroes to their own country. After the English conquest, many of the natives of Ireland, averse to foreign yoke, either actually were in a state of hostility with the conquerors, or at least, paid little regard to their government. The Scots, in those ages, were often in open war, and never in cordial friendship with the English. The similarity of manners and language, the tradions concerning their common origin, and above all, their having to do with the same enemy, created a free and friendly intercourse between the Scotch and Irish nations. As the custom of retaining bards and senachies was common to both; so each, no doubt, had formed a system of history, it matters not how much soever fabalous, concerning their respective origin. It was the natural policy of the times, to reconcile the traditions of both nations together, and, if possible, to deduce them from the same original stock.
The Saxon manners and language had, at that time, made great progress in the south of Scotland. The ancient language, and the traditional history of the nation, became confined entirely to the inhabitants of the Highlands, then fallen, from several concurring circumstances, into the last degree of ignorance and barbarism. The Irish, who, [ xxxiii ] View Page Imagefor some ages before the conquest, had possessed a competent share of that kind of learning, which then prevailed in Europe, found it no difficult matter to impose their own fictions on the ignorant Highland senachies. By flattering the vanity of the Highlanders, with their long list of Heremonian kings and heroes, they, without contradiction, assumed to themselves the character of being the mother-nation of the Scots of Britain. At this time, certainly, was established that Hibernian system of the original of the Scots, which afterwards, for want of any other, was universally received. The Scots, of the low-country, who, by losing the language of their ancestors, lost, together with it, their national traditions, received, implicitly, the history of their country, from Irish refugees, or from Highland senachies, persuaded over into the Hibernian system.
These circumstances, are far from being ideal. We have remaining many particular traditions, which bear testimony to a fact, of itself abundantly probable. What makes the matter incontestible is, that the antient traditional accounts of the genuine origin of the Scots, have been handed down without interruption. Tho’ a few ignorant senachies might be persuaded out of their own opinion, by the smoothness of an Irish tale, it was impossible to eradicate, from among the bulk of the people, their own national traditions. These traditions afterwards so much prevailed, that the Highlanders continue totally unacquainted with the pretended Hibernian extract of the Scots nation. Ignorant chronicle writers, strangers to the antient language of their country, preserved only from falling to the ground, so improbable a story.
It was, during the period I have mentioned, that the Irish became acquainted with, and carried into their country, the compositions of Ossian. The scene of many of the pieces being in Ireland, suggested first to them a hint, of making both heroes and poet natives [ xxxiv ] View Page Imageof that Island. In order to do this effectually, they found it necessary, to reject the genuine poems, as every line was pregnant with proofs of their Scotch original, and to dress up a fable, on the same subject, in their own language. So ill qualified, however, were their bards to effectuate this change, that amidst all their desires to make the Fiona Irishmen, they every now and then call Siol Albin. It was, probably, after a succession of some generations, that the bards had effrontery enough to establish an Irish genealogy for Fion, and deduce him from the Milesian race of kings. In some of the oldest Irish poems, on the subject, the great-grand-father of Fion is made a Scandinavian; and his heroes are often called Siol Lochlin na beum; i. e. the race of Lochlin of wounds. The only poem that runs up the family of Fion to Nuades Niveus, king of Ireland, is evidently not above a hundred and fifty years old; for, if I mistake not, it mentions the Earl of Tyrone, so famous in Elizabeth’s time.
This subject, perhaps, is pursued further than it deserves; but, a discussion of the pretensions of Ireland to Ossian, was become in some measure necessary. If the Irish poems, concerning the Fiona, should appear ridiculous, it is but justice to observe, that they are scarcely more so than the poems of other nations, at that period. On other subjects, the bards of Ireland have displayed a genius worthy of any age or nation. It was, alone, in matters of antiquity, that they were monstrous in their fables. Their love-sonnets, and their elegies on the death of persons worthy or renowned, abound with such beautiful simplicity of sentiment, and wild harmony of numbers, that they become more than an attonement for their errors, in every other species of poetry. But the beauty of these pieces, depend so much on a certain curiosa felicitas of expression in the original, that they must appear much to disadvantage in another language.