A DISSERTATION CONCERNING THE POEMS OF OSSIAN.
THE history of those nations who originally possessed the north of Europe, is less known than their manners. Destitute of the use of letters, they them. selves had not the means of transmitting their great actions to remote posterity. Foreign writers saw them only at a distance, and described them as they found them. The vanity of the Romans induced them to consider the nations beyond the pale of their empire as barbarians; and, consequently, their history unworthy of being investigated. Their manners and singular character were matters of curiosity, as they committed them to record. Some men otherwise of great merit, among ourselves, give into confined ideas on this subject. Having early imbibed their idea of exalted manners from the Greek and Roman writers, they scarcely ever afterward have the fortitude to allow any dignity of character to any nation destitute of the use of letters.
Without derogating from the fame of Greece and Rome, we may consider antiquity beyond the pale of their empire worthy of some attention. The nobler passions of the mind never shoot forth more free and unrestrained than in the times we call barbarous. That irregular manner of life, and those manly pursuits, from which barbarity takes it name, are highly favorable to a strength of mind unknown in polished times. In advanced society, the characters of men are more uniform and disguised. The human passions lie in some degree concealed behind forms and artificial manners; and the powers of the soul, without an opportunity of exerting them, lose their vigor. The times of regular government, and polished manners, are therefore to be wished for by the feeble and weak in mind. An unsettled state, and those convulsions which attend it, is the proper field for an exalted character, and the exertion of great parts. Merit there rises always superior; no fortuitous event can raise the timid and mean into power. To those who look upon antiquity in this light, it is an agreeable prospect; and they alone can have real pleasure in tracing nations to their source. The establishment of the Celtic states, in the north of Europe, is beyond the reach of written annals. The traditions and songs to which they trusted their history, 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 knowledge of their own origin. If tradition could be depended upon, it is only among a people, from all time, free from 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 and more fertile parts of, the kingdom. Their language is pure and original, and their manners are those of an ancient 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 from 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 entirely turned on the antiquity of their nation, and the exploits of their forefathers. It is no wonder, therefore, that there are more remains among them, than among any other people in Europe. Traditions, however, concerning remote periods are only to be regarded, in so far as they coincide with contemporary writers of undoubted credit and veracity.
No writers began their accounts for a more early period than the historians of the Scots nation. Without records, or even tradition itself, they gave a long list of ancient 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 ancient language of their nation, they contented themselves with copying from one another, and retailing the same fictions in a new color and dress.
John Fordun was the first who collected those fragments of the Scots 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. Sometime 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 error 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, though they sometimes varied from him in their relations of particular transactions and the order of succession of their kings. 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 vigor of his style, 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 migrations of the Scots into Britain.
That this island was peopled from Gaul admits of no doubt. Whether colonies came afterward 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 Gauls who possessed themselves originally of Britain. It is compounded of two Celtic words, Cael signifying Celts, or Gauls, and Dun or Don, a hill; so that Caeldon, or Caledonians, is as much as to say, the "Celts of the hill country." The Highlanders, to this day, call themselves Cael, and their language Caelic, or Galic, and their country Caeldock, which the Romans softened into Caledonia. This, of itself, is sufficient to demonstrate that they are the genuine descendants of the ancient 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 Cael, 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 of 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 later end of the third, and beginning of the fourth century, we find the Scots in the north. Porphirius 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 descendants of the ancient 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 entirely 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 uncontrolled 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 neighbors, 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 this 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." As 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 Scots writers, who seem to think it more for the honor 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 that those that remained were so completely 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 favors 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.
The name of Picts is said to have been given by the Romans to the Caledonians who possessed the east coast of Scotland from their painting their bodies. The story is silly, and the argument absurd. But let us revere antiquity in her very follies. 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, affirm some antiquaries, 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, at length, a matter that admits of no doubt. The vicinity of the two islands; the exact correspondence of the ancient inhabitants of both, in point of manners and language, are sufficient proofs, even if we had not the testimonies of authors of undoubted veracity 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 Cael, 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 Christian æra.
The poem of Temora throws considerable light on this subject. The accounts given in it agree so well with what the ancients 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. 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 Cael, 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 Cael, who possessed Ulster.
Conlama had been betrothed, some time before, to Turloch, a chief of their 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 Cael 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 vigor and success; but the Firbolg appear to have been rather repelled than subdued. In succeeding reigns, 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.
To 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 was then very young, came to the aid of Cormac, totally defeated Colculla, chief of Atha, and re-established Cormac in the sole possession of all Ireland. It was then he fell in love with, and took to wife, Roscrana, 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, defeated his adherents, and murdered him in the palace of Ternora. Cairbar, lord of 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, though certainly heightened and embellished by poetry, seem, notwithstanding, to have their foundation in true history.
Temora contains not only the history of the first migration of the Caledonians into Ireland; it also preserves some important facts 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 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 Cael, or Caledonians, settled in Ulster. One important fact may, be gathered from this history, that the Irish had no king before the latter end of the first century. Fingal lived, it is supposed, 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, To establish this fact, is to lay, at once, aside the pretended antiquities of the Scots and Irish, and to get quit of the long list of kings which the latter give us for a millenium 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 later 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 ancient 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, strangely mixed with anachronisms and inconsistencies. Such being the opinion of Ware, who had collected, with uncommon industry and zeal, all the real and pretundedly ancient 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 too late, the genuine and antiquities of Ireland from the hands of these idle fabulists.
By comparing the history in these poems with the legends of the Scots and Irish writers, and by afterward 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 favors the hypothesis laid down by contemporary writers of undoubted veracity, and, as it were, finishes which they only drew the outlines, it ought, in the judgment of sober reason, to be preferred to accounts framed in dark and distant periods, with little judgement, and upon no authority.
Concerning the period of more than a century which intervenes between Fingal and the reign of Fergus, the sons 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 son was Arcath, the father of Fergus, properly called the first king of Scots, as it was in his time the Cael, who possessed the western coast of Scotland, began to be distinguished by foreigners by the name of Scots. From thenceforward, 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 Fingal. 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 neighbors. 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 primeval dignity of sentiment. The middle state is the region of complete 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 favorable opportunity, 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, though 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. Though 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 through unfrequented wilds in search of subsistence 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 that 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 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 Scots 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; insomuch, 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 ancient Caledonians, till, at last, the latter were entirely relegated to the 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. The small number, as well as the presence of their prince, prevented those divisions which, afterward, 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 regulus, who either was, or, in the succession of a few generations, was regarded as chief of their blood. The nature of the country favored an institution of this sort. A few valleys, divided from one another by extensive heaths and impassable mountains, form the face of the Highlands. In those valleys the chiefs fixed their residence. Round them, and almost within sight of their dwellings, were the habitations of their relations and dependants.
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 lawgiver 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, though absolute and decisive, partook more of the authority of a father than of the rigor of a judge. Though the whole territory of the tribe was considered as the property of the thief, 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 expense. 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 by 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 Fingal and his chiefs were the most renowned names in tradition, the bards took care to place them in the genealogy of every great family. They became famous among the people, and an object of fiction and poetry to the bard.
The bards 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 inaccuracy would disgust in a translation. It was chiefly for this reason that I have rejected wholly the works of the bards in my publications. Ossian acted in a more extensive sphere, and his ideas ought to be more noble and universal; neither gives he, I presume, so many of their peculiarities, which are only understood in a certain period or country. The other bards have their beauties, but not in this species of composition. Their rhymes, only calculated to kindle a martial spirit among the vulgar, afford very little pleasure to genuine taste. This observation only regards their poems of the heroic kind; in every inferior species of poetry they are more successful. They express the tender melancholy of desponding love with 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 gave us the genuine language of the heart, without any of those affected ornaments of phraseology, which, though intended to beautify sentiments, divest 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 pleasure and satisfaction.
It was the locality of their description and sentiment that, probably, has kept them in the obscurity of an almost lost language. The ideas of an unpolished period are so contrary to the present advanced state of society, that more than a common mediocrity of taste is required to relish them as they deserve. Those who alone are capable of transferring ancient poetry into a modern language, might be better employed in giving originals of their own, were it not for that wretched envy and meanness which affects to despise contemporary genius. My first publication was merely accidental; had I then met with less approbation my after pursuits would have been more profitable; at least, I might have continued to be stupid without being branded with dulness.
These poems may furnish light to antiquaries, as well as some pleasure to the lovers of poetry. The first population of Ireland, its first kings, and several circumstances, which regard its connection of old with the south and north of Britain, am presented 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, who originally inhabited that island. In a preceding part of this dissertation I have shown how superior the probability of this system is to the undigested fictions of the Irish bards, and the more recent and regular legends of both Irish and Scottish historians. I mean not to give offence to the abettors of the high antiquities of the two nations, though I have all along expressed my doubts concerning the veracity and abilities of those who deliver down their ancient 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 that of the Scots, inconsiderable as it may appear in other respects, even according to my system; so that it is altogether needless to fix its origin a fictitious millenium before.
Since the first publication of these poems, many insinuations have been made, and doubts arisen, concerning their authenticity. Whether these suspicions are suggested by prejudice, or are only the effects of malice, I neither know nor care. Those who have doubted my veracity have paid a compliment to my genius; and were even the allegation true, my self-denial might have atoned for my fault. Without vanity I say it, I think I could write tolerable poetry, and I assume my antagonists, that I should not translate what I could not imitate.
As prejudice is the effect of ignorance, I am not surprised at its being general. An age that produces few marks of genius ought to be sparing of admiration. The truth is, the bulk of mankind have ever been led by reputation more than taste, in articles of literature. If all the Romans who admired Virgil understood his beauties, he would have scarce deserved to have come down to us through so many centuries. Unless genius were in fashion, Homer himself might have written in vain. He that wishes to come with weight on the superficial, must skim the surface, in their own shallow way. Were my aim to gain the many, I would write a madrigal sooner than an heroic poem. Laberius himself would be always sure of more followers than Sophocles.
Some who doubt the authenticity of this work, with peculiar acuteness appropriate them to the Irish nation. Though it is not easy to conceive how these poems can belong to Ireland and to me at once, I shall examine the subject without farther animadversion on the blunder.
Of all the nations descended from the ancient 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 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, I have in another work amply discussed. The first circumstance that induced me to disregard the vulgarly. received opinion of the Hibernian extraction of the Scottish nation was my observations on their ancient language. The 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 written 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 Gaelic of North Britain. An Irishman, on the other hand, without the aid of study, can never understand a composition in the Gaelic tongue. This affords a proof that the Scotch Gaelic is the most original, and, consequently, the language of a more ancient 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 Caelic Eirinarch, i. e. Caledonian Irish, when, on the contrary, they call the dialect of North Britain a Chaelic, or the Caledonian tongue, emphatically. As circumstance of this nature tends more to decide which is the most ancient nation than the united testimonies 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 the 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 favorite chimera, that Ireland is the mother-country of the Scots, is totally subverted and ruined. The fictions concerning the antiquities of that country, which were formed 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 Scottish 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 Mae 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 so easy for me to determine. Their information certainly did not come 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 a 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, passed a disagreeable life. 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 mainmast of a first-rate. It must be owned, however, that Fion was not inferior to them in height.
A chos air Cromleach, draim-ard,
Chos eile air Crom-meal dubh,
Thoga Fion le lamh mhoir
An d'uisge o Lubhair na fruth.
With one foot on Cromleach his brow,
The other on Crommal the dark
Fion took with his large hand
The water from Lubar of the streams.
Cromleach and Crommal were two mountains in the neighborhood of one another, in Ulster, and the river of Lubar ran through the intermediate valley. The property of such a monster as this Fion I 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. As for the poetry, I leave it to the reader.
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 Toniosal; 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 Cuthullin 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 Mae Comnal. A translation of these pieces, if well executed, might afford satisfaction, in an uncommon way, 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 wasted all the time I had allotted for the Muses; 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 own country, and that before any translation of mine appeared. 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 Mae 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 268, yet his son Ossian is made contemporary with St. Patrick, who preached the gospel in Ireland about the middle of the fifth age. Ossian, though 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 the great actions of his family. The saint sometimes threw off the austerity of his profession, drank freely, and had his soul properly warmed with wine, to receive with becoming enthusiasm the poems of his father-in-law. One of the poems begins with this useful piece of information:
Lo don rabh Padric us mhúr,
Gun Sailm air uidh, ach a gol,
Ghluais è thigh Ossian mhic Fhion,
O san leis 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." The circumstances and catastrophe in both are much the same: but the Irish Ossian discovers the age in which he lived by an unlucky anachronism. After describing the total rout of Erragon, he very gravely concludes with this remarkable anecdote, that none of the foe escaped, but a few, who were permitted 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 ancient, that he confounds it with the age of Fingal. Erragon, in the course of this poem, is often called,
Rhoigh Lochlin an do shloigh,
King of Denmark of two nations--
which alludes to the union of the kingdom of Norway and Denmark, a circumstance which happened under Margaret de Waldemar, in the close of the fourteenth age. 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,
Erragon Mac Annir nan lann glas
'San n'Albin ni n' abairtair Triath
Agus 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 afterward 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'arch.--
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 neighboring hill which commanded a prospect of the sea. A fleet appeared at a distance, and the hero exclaims with joy,
Loingeas mo shean-athair at' an
'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, though he is far from being ancient, 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, though 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 great repute. The grandeur of its images, and its propriety of sentiment, might have induced me to give a translation of it, had I not some expectations, which are now over, of seeing it in the collection of the Irish Ossian's Poems, promised twelve years 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 Cuthullin 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 Cuthullin, 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.
The subject of the poem is the same with that of the epic poem of Fingal. Caribh 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. Cuthullin, afford matter for two hundred lines of tolerable poetry. Cribh's progress in search of Cuthullin, 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 Cuthullin 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 Cuthullin.
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 threatened 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 to 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 very often falling asleep on his post, nor was it possible to awake him, 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 gan,
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. Toniosal, though brave, was so heavy and unwieldy, that when he sat down it took the whole force of a 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 amount 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, were
Siol Erin na gorm lánn.
The sons of Erin of blue steel.
Neither 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 Scots Poems; and that, though the stupendous valor 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 honor 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 complete 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 modern 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 all 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 the language must have made considerable progress in Ireland before the poems were written.
It remains now to show how the Irish bards began to appropriate the Scottish Ossian and his heroes, to their own country. After the English conquest, many of the natives of Ireland, averse to a foreign yoke, either actually were in a state of hostility with the conquerors, or, at least, paid little regard to 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 traditions concerning their common origin, and, above all, their having to do with the same enemy, created a free and friendly intercourse between the Scottish 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 fabulous, 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 falling, from several concurring circumstances, into the last degree of ignorance and barbarism. The Irish, who, for 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 Hermonian 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 afterward, 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 ancient traditional accounts of the genuine origin of the Scots, have been handed down without interruption. Though 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 afterward so much prevailed, that the Highlanders continue totally unacquainted with the pretended Hibernian extract of the Scotch nation. Ignorant chronicle writers, strangers to the ancient language of their country, preserved only from failing to the ground so improbable a story.
This subject, perhaps, is pursued farther than it de. serves; but a discussion of the pretensions of Ireland 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 for poetry. 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 simplicity, and a wild harmony of numbers. They became more than an atonement for their errors in every other species of poetry. But the beauty of these species depends so much on a certain curiosa filicitas of expression m the original, that they must appear much to disadvantage in another language.