Kathryn Temple


In the spring of 1802, the painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy de Trioson first exhibited his Ossian and His Warriors Receiving the Dead Heroes of the French Army to a French audience. While the work was of interest to the French for its allegorical content and its mix of classical and romantic styles, its provocative subject would have been most compelling to the English. The content of the painting was drawn from one of the great debates over literary property in eighteenth-century Britain, the debate between those Scots who believed that James Macpherson's mid-century "translations" of works attributed to the legendary bard Ossian were authentic, and the English, led by Samuel Johnson, who considered them forgeries.

The controversy was well known. Ossian's popularizer, James Macpherson, born in Highland Scotland in 1738, received his education in the Lowlands from men like Thomas Blackwell, whose work on Homer was a major influence. In 1758 he wrote and published a long but unsuccessful poem, The Highlander. After the failure of this, his only "legitimate" poetry, he aroused the interest of Scottish scholars with what he claimed were fragments of ancient Scottish verse. Their interest led in 1760 to his first successful publication, entitled Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language. As a result, his Edinburgh supporters raised a subscription to finance Macpherson's travels to rural Scotland so he could research additional Gaelic works, and, in the years between 1762 and 1765, he published a number of poems which he claimed were genuine ancient Scottish epics. Acclaimed by Europeans and Scots alike as great epic works, Fingal, Temora, and The Works of Ossian were immensely popular. Internationally known, they inspired not only Girodet's painting but many others, and served as the basis for at least two operas, Les Bardes by Lesueur and Uthal by Mehul. But the Ossian works exerted a local influence as well. They transformed the image of Highland Scotland in the minds of both Lowland Scots and the English, persuading many that the Highlands were typified not by dreary, arid landscapes and an illiterate population, but by a primitive, sublime grandeur from which both Lowlanders and the English had much to learn.