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A Fraud at Westminster Abbey?

December 8, 2014











Most of Britain’s great writers are memorialized in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and quite a few are buried there, including Chaucer, Blake, Browning, Dickens, Tennyson and Kipling. Interred here is James Macpherson. Never heard of him? He pulled off the most successful literary scam in modern history.



James Macpherson (1736-1796) was a Scottish divinity student who claimed to have discovered ancient Gaelic poems while traveling through the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles. He showed his translations to a few scholars who encouraged him to publish them. After finding and translating more supposedly lost poems, he published Fingal in 1762, setting Europe on

fire with the epic adventures of Fingal, narrated by Fingal’s son Ossian, an old blind 3rd-century bard. In these poems, Ossian plays his harp while reciting poetry recalling the derring-do of characters like Fingal, Oscar, Fiona, and Malvina—who took care of Ossian in his old age.           


The Romantic movement was taking hold of Europe and the heroic adventures narrated by Ossian captured the imagination of those suffering from Neoclassical fatigue. Eyes turned away from culture drenched classical Greece and Rome to focus on the rugged and untamed Gaelic lands of the North. It wasn’t long before the poetry of Ossian was translated into every European language, set to music for operas, and compared to Homer and Virgil. Fingal was loosely based on an Irish hero, but Scotland and Ireland both claimed him as their own. So popular were Macpherson’s translations that generals and kings named their children after characters in these stories. Among the many admirers of the Ossian Legend were Goethe, Diderot, Walter Scott, Thomas Jefferson, and Napoleon.           


French artists were particularly intrigued with the stories of Ossian, inspired by their Emperor’s fascination with the subject. The greatest artists of the day designed compositions such as Ossian’s Dream, painted by Ingres for Napoleon’s bedroom.





The painter Girodet, in a blatant effort to please his Emperor, created the cinematic Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes. Perhaps Napoleon’s guilt at having killed so many of his countrymen was lessened by the sight of the god-like bard ushering dead Frenchmen into heaven.





Although greatly admired, one person detested these poems and doubted their authenticity, British writer, critic and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson. When asked if he believed any man today could write such poetry, Johnson famously replied, “Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children.”


Today, it’s generally believed that Macpherson based these poems on oral stories and ballads, without ever discovering ancient documents to support the existence of his characters. The catalyst for these poems’ popularity wasn’t based on the high quality of their prose, but rested on their provenance—the notion that ancient Gaelic people could have been as heroic as those depicted in classical mythology, like the Iliad. While purporting to be the translator of ancient works, today scholars believe Macpherson was a fake, authoring these stories himself.   


There are those who believe the Ossian Legend couldn’t have burned through Europe like a wildfire had Macpherson not been a skillful writer, and there are others who claim Macpherson was a fraud who perpetrated one of the greatest hoaxes in history. Although Macpherson’s poems aren’t in vogue anymore and read by precious few, his influence on the Romantic Movement is undeniable. Museums across the world show images of the bearded bard who for a time replaced the benevolent image of God the Father in Western art.





When it comes to fame, Andy Warhol suggested that the ends justify the means. Macpherson may not have been, as he claimed, the great interpreter of ancient legends, but he did manage to stretch his fame much longer than fifteen minutes. Now that you know about him, James Macpherson’s fame, or infamy, continues.






Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather! I'd never heard of any of this!
By: Mike@A Bit About Britain on December 8, 2014
He may have burned through Europe, but there were no courses on him when i was in college, which tells his time came and went. That's typical of most frauds (and some of the unluckier who are not frauds).
By: mimi on December 8, 2014
I guess even talented people sometimes need a gimmick to be popular. Interesting and enlightening as always.
By: Cranky on December 8, 2014
Love this story, it is very interesting on many fronts!
By: John on December 8, 2014
ahead of his time - discovered a niche and filled it and prospered!
By: TexWisGirl on December 8, 2014
I knew none of this- who cares if he made it up- obviously he did a bang up job seeing how popular his work was. I am sending this off to our good friends who live not far from Inverness...home for the Loch Ness monster... another Scottish Fable! Cheers!
By: Kathe W. on December 8, 2014
Ah yes, Dr. Johnson. He was a thorn in the side of many, wasn't he. I was glad that I changed my major from English to Psychology. Just the same, John Donne was a rebel!
By: Michael Manning on December 8, 2014
Fraud or not, he was successful in being read. Mr Macpherson seems to have also been successful in knowing the audience and marketing to it. As you note, he's enjoyed an extended "15 minutes." Thanks for the neat history lesson and gorgeous art.
By: Tom Cochrun on December 8, 2014
...and you managed very well to tie some history and art together. Very interesting.
By: red on December 8, 2014
I agree with Tom Cochrun. This guy was brilliant to have captured and fooled so many. He certainly brightened the lives of many with his works. I think he earned his resting spot.
By: Akansas Patti on December 8, 2014
James has given me some ideas . . . Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on December 8, 2014
Sounds as if he lived in this day and age he would be a politician.
By: Rusty on December 8, 2014
Isn't it funny that most of the time people are called "frauds" and "impostors" when they copy someone else's work. James Macpherson did exactly the opposite!
By: Pixel Peeper on December 8, 2014
And artistic fraud continues to this day.
By: Catalyst on December 8, 2014
Fascinating story -- he was obviously a man ahead of his times!
By: Tom Sightings on December 8, 2014
Well, you know that old saying, "You cannot fool Dr. Samuel Johnson all of the time."
By: Val on December 8, 2014
Fraudsters and liars are plentiful through the ages. Scholars and critics as far as I'm concerned are in many instances guilty of the same. I know not of the name (James M.) in your post and often don't know of the names of other artists you write about. Nevertheless, I do enjoy reading about these characters.
By: Daniel LaFrance on December 8, 2014
Johnson was just jealous of MacPherson's fame!
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on December 8, 2014
Never heard of him but glad to know about him. I have MacPherson ancestors and am going to see if he is in my family. thanks for the history lesson.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on December 9, 2014
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