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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: July 2009

4 - Searching for truth in the Highlands: Macpherson throws down the gauntlet


Little did I once think of seeing this region of obscurity, and little did you once expect a salutation from this Verge of European Life. I have now the pleasure of going where nobody goes, and of seeing what nobody sees. Our design is to visit several of the smaller Islands, and then pass over to the Southwest of Scotland.

Johnson to Hester Thrale, 6 September 1773

A survey of critical reaction to Ossian and its fraudulent underpinnings from the perspective of Johnson's love of truth and interest in antiquarianism provides a needed backdrop for an examination of his direct involvement in the controversy. This chapter, therefore, focuses on the first stage of his part in the business, his search for the truth about Ossian in the Highlands, and his notorious feud with Macpherson after his famous travel book appeared in 1775. Johnson “from the first” considered Ossian fraudulent and awful poetry, and it is fitting that a Scot, James Boswell, recorded Johnson's possibly earliest reaction to Macpherson and his work. On 14 July 1763 the celebrated biographer-to-be, who had originally supported Ossian fully and financially as an early subscriber and knew its author well, told his famous new friend about Macpherson's iconoclasm, “how he railed at all established systems. ‘So he would tumble in a hog-sty,’ said Johnson, ‘as long as you look at him and cry to him to come out. But let him alone, never mind him, and he'll soon give it over.’”