James Macpherson, a Scottish author, born in Ruthven, Inverness-shire, in 1738, died at his seat of Belleville, Feb. 17, 1796. He completed his education at King's college, Aberdeen, and is supposed to have studied for the ministry. At the university he gave evidences of a taste for poetry, and in his 20th year published a poem in six cantos entitled " The Highlander." Subsequently, while a private tutor in the family of Mr. Graham of Bal-gowan, he was encouraged to publish a small volume entitled " Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland," and purporting to be a translation of genuine remains of ancient Celtic poetry. The enthusiasm with which these "Fragments" were received was universal; men of letters expressed the highest opinion of their value; and a subscription was immediately raised to enable the author to undertake a mission to the highlands and secure such remaining specimens of Celtic poetry as might yet be recovered. Macpherson accordingly made an extensive tour through the mainland and islands inhabited by the Gaelic race, and published in 1762, as the first result of his explorations, "Fingal, an ancient Epic Poem in six Books; together with several other Poems composed by Ossian, the son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic " (4to), which was succeeded in the following year by "Temora, in eight Books, with other Poems by Ossian." The reception of the first of these works was extremely flattering, and not only was it read with avidity in Great Britain, but it was translated into the principal European languages.
With the publication of "Temora," however, a change began to take place in public opinion, and a party sprung up which did not hesitate to question the authenticity of the alleged translations. Mac-pherson affected to treat such doubts with contempt. In 1764 he received the appointment of secretary to Gov. Johnstone of Pen-sacola; but after spending a short time in that colony and visiting other parts of North America, he returned in 1766 to England, and fixed his residence in London. In 1771 he published " An Introduction to the History of Great Britain " (4to), which was attacked with a severity little calculated to improve the author's irritable temper. Shortly afterward he still further endangered his literary reputation by a prose translation of the Iliad (1773), which was almost universally condemned as beneath criticism. In 1775 he produced his "History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover " (2 vols. 4to), written in the tory interest to detract from the integrity and patriotism of the men who had brought about the revolution of 1688, for the copyright of which he received £3,000; and about the same time he employed his pen in the service of the government, producing " The Rights of Great Britain asserted against the Claims of the Colonies " (1776), and " A Short History of the Opposition during the last Session of Parliament" (1779), both of which went through several editions, the latter being generally attributed to Gibbon. In reward for his services he was appointed agent to the nabob of Arcot, and was returned a member of parliament for Camelford, which he represented for upward of ten years.
Compelled by failing health to withdraw from public life, he built a handsome seat at Belleville in his native county, whither he retired a few years before his death. His remaining works relate principally to Indian affairs. At his own request he was buried in "Westminster abbey, the expense of erecting his monument being defrayed by himself. - The controversy respecting the authenticity of the alleged translations from the poems of Ossian, though now of comparatively little interest, was one of the most important in English literary history, as well on account of the eminence of those who participated in it, as of the activity and bitterness with which it was waged. Various shades of opinion, from utter disbelief in the Ossianic poems to enthusiastic adoption of every word they contained, characterized the arguments of the controversialists, the two extremes being represented by Dr. Johnson and a few others on the one side, and by Drs. Blair and Gregory, Lord Kames, and Sir John Sinclair on the other. Others again believed that the poems were to a certain extent authentic, the remainder being interpolations; while a fourth party, including David Hume, entertained strong doubts of their authenticity, but hesitated to declare them entirely spurious.
During the progress of the controversy Macpher-son maintained an obstinate silence, making no effort to rebut the charge of literary forgery brought against him, refusing to afford proofs of the authenticity of his translations, and affecting only indignation that his veracity should be called in question. When urged by the highland society of London (which, after a careful inquiry into the whole subject, had reported that no single poem, "the same in title and tenor with the poems published," could be discovered in all Scotland) to publish the originals of his Ossianic poems, he promised to employ his leisure time in arranging and printing them. At the time of his death, nevertheless, which occurred 33 years subsequent to the appearance of "Temora," they were not ready for the press, and only in 1806 were given to the world by Sir John Sinclair. But as the manuscripts were all in the handwriting of Macpherson or of his amanuenses, the proof of their authenticity was in no degree advanced; and it has been generally believed that, whatever may have been the source from which the English versions of Ossian were derived, the so-called "originals" were translated from them into Gaelic by Macpherson himself or by other persons in his employ; hence the delay in their publication.
Within a few years past the controversy has been revived in Scotland, and the authenticity of the poems has found several earnest defenders. The question has also been started whether they are of Scotch or Irish origin. The poems themselves, which, notwithstanding their false imagery, the perpetual recurrence of the same ideas, the verbiage and bombast with which they abound, contain passages conceived with true feeling and power, have fallen into comparative neglect.