Martin O'Connor: The Year of Ossian

by Martin O'Connor

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In 2018 I was surprised and delighted to be chosen as the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellow, following in the footsteps of novelist Kirsty Logan, poet Jen Hadfield, playwright Morna Young and novelist Angus Peter Campbell. The Fellowship allows one writer per year the opportunity to work with a host organisation on developing an idea, or researching new work. My host organisation was Playwrights' Studio, Scotland, in association with the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. I proposed to make a new body of work inspired by the poems of James Macpherson and his tales of Ossian.

Ossian and Macpherson

The theme of the Fellowship was Epic, and I had doubts as to whether I could make that work for me. I have never described my own work as epic (always preferring low-key descriptions such as informal, domestic, or familiar). However I did wonder about the prospect of researching epic poetry and started to hunt around for inspiration, when I came across the name Ossian. I had been making work in Scots and Gaelic for a while (as a Glaswegian Scot who never believed his Scots was Scots; and as a Gaelic learner) and so I had been asked a few times if I knew about Ossian. I probably nodded sagely and said I had while surreptitiously typing the name into my iPhone reminders. So this opportunity felt like the right time to research this part of Scottish history and explore some of the reasons why my work was already sitting in and around the themes that Macpherson had written about.

For those of you who don't know (and why should you? It's not taught in Scottish schools and research material is not readily available) here is a short sketch: in 1761 Macpherson published Fragments of Ancient Poetry  to great critical and commercial acclaim. The poems were collected from oral sources around the country and were presented as the work of a third century bard, Ossian, soon dubbed "The Homer of the North". There soon followed two other publications Fingal and Temora, and together they set the Scottish and European literary world alight. The 'Ossian effect' soon saw a rise in interest of Scottish and Highland ways of life and saw an increase in tourism and cultural interest. Mendelssohn paid a visit to Staffa, and subsequently wrote the concert overture Hebrides. Beethoven was a fan, as was Napoleon and President Jefferson. Selma, Alabama was named after a reference in Songs of Selma. And Macpherson's writing directly inspired Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (so it is not unrealistic to claim that Macpherson kicked off the Romantic movement in Europe). Soon, the name of Ossian became a byword for the most romantic of evocations. Lady Jane Wilde, announcing the birth of her second son Oscar Fingal Wilde asks "Isn't that not grand, misty and Ossian?" And even up to 1923, Ossianic characters were still featured in adverts for whisky. The impact of Ossian was immediate and permanent, even if the individual poems eventually fell out of fashion. But soon after publication, debates over Ossian's aesthetic and moral 'legitimacy' surfaced, and continued to plague the writer and the impact of the work.

An authentic hoax

There is no doubt that Macpherson began in good faith, and he travelled the Highlands and Islands to find those who could repeat lost epics from memory, and, through translation, the ancient poetry of Scotland could be rescued from oblivion. Some recited verse for him directly, some transcribed the tales of elderly storytellers, some supplied manuscripts. He collected bags of poetry and stories. But it is how he used this material and what he did with those Gaelic materials that has been the debate of scholars ever since. In the years following Macpherson's death in 1796, the Highland Society of Scotland set up a committee of investigation which concluded that, although Macpherson did not produce close translations of individual poems, he had nevertheless drawn on the traditional tales collected in his tours, using certain recognisable characters, plots or episodes. At a conference I attended as part of the research, one academic described Macpherson as 'filling in the gaps' using his own writing, and borrowing from other work (he had to depend on Ireland for the rich heritage of Celtic myths and folk tales, in the absence of our own). He developed his own very distinctive style as the medium for presenting the Gaelic material in English, which reflected his own academic interests and his desire to be taken seriously as a poet.

It is tempting to look at this work as an fine example of Scottish literary prowess and lament the fact it was dismissed, especially in times of renewed understanding of Scottish history and culture. As an artist interested in theatrical representations of Scottish culture (and a personal belief that Scotland has a distinct cultural identity) my own national vanity may be flattered by the fact that 18th century Scotland could produce a Bard, capable of making such an impression, and of giving a new tone to poetry throughout all Europe.

Ossian = Macpherson = O'Connor

Having discovered the historical context of the work, I began to have more sympathy for Macpherson, and I began to become less interested in the hoax, and the idea of authenticity, and I tried to focus on the poems and the writer instead. And when you start to understand the reasons behind his attempt to create a Scottish epic, you start to see the possibility that Macpherson was Ossian. And if you indulge me for a moment, I definitely think I was experiencing a few moments where I thought I was Macpherson.

It is largely accepted now, that the personal context Macpherson was writing in was the main influence on him wanting to write an epic. As a child he enjoyed listening to the tales of old battles, yet his home in Badenoch was next to a fortress erected for the sole purpose of keeping the Highlanders in order, and to quell any further uprising. Between the ages of 10 and 18, Macpherson lived through scenes of appalling violence and saw his home and family oppressed. A series of measures were implemented to crush the Highland way of life and render the region safe. Tartan plaid was banned and no highlander was allowed to carry arms or play bagpipes. The use of English rather than Gaelic was encouraged. And so it's in the context of this systematic cultural destruction that his efforts to collect old heroic poetry can be seen; they were an attempt to repair some of the damage to the Highlands sustained in the wake of the Jacobite Risings.

And so, here I was, just like Macpherson, collecting, adapting, transcribing and borrowing. But why was it okay for me to pay homage, or to respond in a flexible way to his work, but, in the 1700s he had to come down on one side of authenticity or another? Wasn't his attempt the same as mine? To use theatrical and poetic devices to create new work, explore the past and the present and reinterpret text and narrative in an interesting and challenging way to an audience? Yes, of course it was. However, I had to remind myself of my own romantic version of nationhood, and the dangers of creating links between history and the present that are not exactly like for like. I had to admit, that in this case, sublimity is achieved not through reason but sentiment. And so sentiment, cliché, and stereotype became the provocative devices I would use to present the new material.

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Through the Shortbread Tin: An Ossianic Journey

My work in progress was staged at the Lyceum in May 2019. I created new work based on three strands of the material - the original writings, Macpherson's biography and the idea of modern epics. I selected some elements of the original to be translated back into Gaelic, which were set to music by composer Oliver Searle and sung by a choir of Gaelic singers (Kim Carnie, Kathleen MacInnes, Mischa Macpherson and Mairi Morrison). The individual titles may give you an idea of the content: You Can't Feed a Nation on Flags, As Others See Us, The Sorrows of Young Macpherson. I will continue to develop the work throughout 2019 and 2020, with another performance of the work to be staged at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh in their events programme as part of the exhibition, Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland. The exhibition itself contains references to Macpherson and Ossian, and hopefully will introduce this much-maligned moment in Scottish literary history to a wider audience.

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All images: Alan McCredie

Written by Martin O'Connor at 00:00

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