Ossian by James Macpherson


A tale of the times of old—the deeds of days of other years.

Who comes from the land of strangers, with his thousands around him? The sunbeam pours its bright stream before him; his hair meets the wind of his hills. His face is settled from war. He is calm as the evening beam that looks, from the cloud of the west, on Cona's silent vale. Who is it but Fingal, the king of mighty deeds! The feast is spread around; the night passed away in joy.

"Tell," said the mighty Fingal to Clessammor, "the tale of thy youthful days. Let us hear the sorrow of thy youth, and the darkness of thy days."

"It was in the days of peace," replied the great Clessammor. "I came in my bounding ship to Balclutha's walls of towers. Three days I remained in Reuthamir's halls, and saw his daughter—that beam of light. Her eyes were like the stars of night. My love for Moina was great; my heart poured forth in joy.

"The son of a stranger came—a chief who loved the white-bosomed Moina. The strength of his pride arose. We fought; he fell beneath my sword. The banks of Clutha heard his fall, a thousand spears glittered around. I fought; the strangers prevailed. I plunged into the stream of Clutha. My white sails rose over the waves, and I bounded on the dark-blue sea. Moina came to the shore, her loose hair flew on the wind, and I heard her mournful, distant cries. Often did I turn my ship, but the winds of the east prevailed. Nor Clutha ever since have I seen, nor Moina of the dark-brown hair. She fell in Balclutha, for I have seen her ghost. I knew her as she came through the dusky night, along the murmur of Lora. She was like the new moon seen through the gathered mist, when the sky pours down its flaky snow and the world is silent and dark."

"Raise, ye bards," said the mighty Fingal, "the praise of unhappy Moina."

The night passed away in song; morning returned in joy. The mountains showed their grey heads; the blue face of ocean smiled. But as the sun rose on the sea Fingal and his heroes beheld a distant fleet. Like a mist on the ocean came the strange ships, and discharged their youth upon the coast. Carthon, their chief, was among them, like the stag in the midst of the herd. He was a king of spears, and as he moved towards Selma his thousands moved behind him.

"Go, with a song of peace," said Fingal. "Go, Ullin,  to the king of spears. Tell him that the ghosts of our foes are many; but renowned are they who have feasted in my halls!"

When Ullin came to the mighty Carthon, he raised the song of peace.

"Come to the feast of Fingal, Carthon, from the rolling sea! Partake of the feast of the king, or lift the spear of war. Behold that field, O Carthon. Many a green hill rises there, with mossy stones and rustling grass. These are the tombs of Fingal's foes, the sons of the rolling sea!"

"Dost thou speak to the weak in arms," said Carthon, "bard of the woody Morven? Have not I seen the fallen Balclutha? And shall I feast with Fingal, the son of Comhal, who threw his fire in the midst of my father's hall? I was young, and knew not the cause why the virgins wept. But when the years of my youth came on, I beheld the moss of my fallen walls; my sigh arose with the morning, and my tears descended with night. Shall I not fight, I said to my soul, against the children of my foes? And I will fight, O bard! I feel the strength of my soul."

His people gathered round the hero, and drew their shining swords. The spear trembled in his hand. Bending forward, he seemed to threaten the king.

"Who of my chiefs," said Fingal, "will meet the son of the rolling sea? Many are his warriors on the coast, and strong is his ashen spear."

Cathul rose, in his strength, the son of the mighty Lormar. Three hundred youths attend the chief, the race of his native streams. Feeble was his arm against Carthon; he fell, and his heroes fled. Connal resumed the battle, but he broke his heavy spear; he lay bound on the field; Carthon pursued his people.

"Clessammor," said the king of Morven, "where is the spear of my strength? Wilt thou behold Connal bound?"

Clessammor rose in the strength of his steel, shaking his grizzly locks. He fitted the shield to his side; he rushed, in the pride of valour.

Carthon saw the hero rushing on, and loved the dreadful joy of his face; his strength, in the locks of age!

"Stately are his steps of age," he said. "Lovely the remnant of his years! Perhaps it is the husband of Moina, the father of car-borne Carthon. Often have I heard that he dwelt at the echoing stream of Lora."

Such were his words, when Clessammor came, and lifted high his spear. The youth received it on his shield, and spoke the words of peace.

"Warrior of the aged locks! Hast thou no son to raise the shield before his father to meet the arm of youth? What will be the fame of my sword shouldst thou fall?"

"It will be great, thou son of pride!" began the tall Clessammor. "I have been renowned in battle, but I never told my name to a foe. Yield to me, son of the wave; then shalt thou know that the mark of my sword is in many a field."

"I never yield, king of spears!" replied the noble pride of Carthon. "Retire among thy friends! Let younger heroes fight."

"Why dost thou wound my soul?" replied Clessammor, with a tear. "Age does not tremble on my hand; I still can lift the sword. Shall I fly in Fingal's sight, in the sight of him I love? Son of the sea, I never fled! Exalt thy pointed spear!"

They fought, like two contending winds that strive to roll the wave. Carthon bade his spear to err; he still thought that the foe was the spouse of Moina. He broke Clessammor's beamy spear in twain; he seized his shining sword. But as Carthon was binding the chief, the chief drew the dagger of his fathers. He saw the foe's uncovered side, and opened there a wound.

Fingal saw Clessammor low; he moved in the sound of  his steel. The host stood silent in his presence; they turned their eyes to the king. He came, like the sullen noise of a storm before the winds arise. Carthon stood in his place; the blood is rushing down his side; he saw the coming down of the king. Pale was his cheek; his hair flew loose, his helmet shook on high. The force of Carthon failed, but his soul was strong.

"King of Morven," Carthon said, "I fall in the midst of my course. But raise my remembrance on the banks of Lora, where my father dwelt. Perhaps the husband of Moina will mourn over his fallen Carthon."

His words reached Clessammor. He fell, in silence, on his son. The host stood darkened around; no voice is on the plain. Night came; the moon from the east looked on the mournful field; but still they stood, like a silent grove that lifts its head on Gormal, when the loud winds are laid, and dark autumn is on the plain; and then they died.

Fingal was sad for Carthon; he commanded his bards to sing the hero's praise. Ossian joined them, and this was his song: "My soul has been mournful for Carthon; he fell in the days of his youth. And thou, O Clessammor, where is thy dwelling in the wind? Has the youth forgot his wound? Flies he, on clouds, with thee? Perhaps they may come to my dreams. I think I hear a feeble voice! The beam of heaven delights to shine on the grave of Carthon. I feel it warm around.

"O thou that rollest above, round as the shield of my fathers! Whence are thy beams, O sun, thy everlasting light? Thou comest forth in thy awful beauty; the stars hide themselves in the sky; the moon, cold and pale, sinks in the western wave. But thou thyself movest alone. Who can be a companion of thy course? The oaks of the mountains fall; the mountains themselves decay with years; the ocean shrinks and grows again; the moon herself is lost in heaven; but thou art for ever the same, rejoicing in the brightness of thy course.

"When the world is dark with tempests; when thunder rolls, and lightning flies, thou lookest in thy beauty from the clouds, and laughest at the storm. But to Ossian thou lookest in vain, for he beholds thy beams no more; whether thy yellow hair flows on the eastern clouds, or thou tremblest at the gates of the west. But thou art perhaps, like me, for a season; thy years will have an end. Thou shalt sleep in thy clouds; careless of the voice of the morning. Exult thee, O sun, in the strength of thy youth! Age is dark and unlovely. It is like the glimmering light of the moon when it shines through broken clouds and the mist is on the hills; the blast of north is on the plain; the traveller shrinks in the midst of his journey."


Daughter of heaven, fair art thou! The silence of thy face is pleasant! Thou comest forth in loveliness. The stars attend thy blue course in the east. The clouds rejoice in thy presence, O moon! Look from thy gates in the sky. Burst the cloud, O wind, that the daughter of night may look forth, that the shaggy mountains may brighten, and the ocean roll its white waves in light!

Nathos is on the deep, and Althos, that beam of youth. Ardan is near his brothers. They move in the gloom of their course. The sons of Usnoth move in darkness, from the wrath of Cairbar of Erin. Who is that, dim, by their side? The night has covered her beauty! Who is it but Darthula, the first of Erin's maids? She has fled from the love of Caribar, with blue-shielded Nathos. But the winds deceive thee, O Darthula! They deny the woody Etha to thy sails. These are not the mountains of Nathos; nor is that the roar of his climbing waves. The halls of Cairbar are near; the towers of the foe lift their heads! Erin  stretches its green head into the sea. Tura's bay receives the ship. Where have ye been, ye southern winds, when the sons of my love were deceived? But ye have been sporting on plains, pursuing the thistle's beard. Oh that ye had been rustling in the sails of Nathos till the hills of Etha arose; till they arose in their clouds, and saw their returning chief!

Long hast thou been absent, Nathos—the day of thy return is past! Lovely thou wast in the eyes of Darthula. Thy soul was generous and mild, like the hour of the setting sun. But when the rage of battle rose, thou wast a sea in a storm. The clang of thy arms was terrible; the host vanished at the sound of thy coarse. It was then Darthula beheld thee from the top of her mossy tower; from the tower of Selama, where her fathers dwelt.

"Lovely art thou, O stranger!" she said, for her trembling soul arose. "Fair art thou in thy battles, friend of the fallen Cormac! Why dost thou rush on in thy valour, youth of the ruddy look? Few are thy hands in fight against the dark-browed Cairbar! Oh that I might be freed from his love—that I might rejoice in the presence of Nathos!"

Such were thy words, Darthula, in Selama's mossy towers. But now the night is around thee. The winds have deceived thy sails, Darthula! Cease a little while, O north wind! Let me hear the voice of the lovely. Thy voice is lovely, Darthula, between the rustling blasts!

"Are these the rocks of Nathos?" she said. "This the roar of his mountain streams? Comes that beam of light from Usnoth's mighty hall? The mist spreads around; the beam is feeble and distant far. But the light of Darthula's soul dwells in the chief of Etha! Son of the generous Usnoth, why that broken sigh? Are we in the land of strangers, chief of echoing Etha?"

"These are not the rocks of Nathos," he replied, "nor this the roar of his streams. We are in the land of strangers, in the land of cruel Cairbar. The winds have deceived us, Darthula. Erin lifts here her hills. Go towards the north, Althos; be thy steps, Ardan, along the coast; that the foe may not come in darkness, and our hopes of Etha fail. I will go towards that mossy tower to see who dwells about the beam."

He went. She sat alone; she heard the rolling of the wave. The big tear is in her eye. She looks for returning Nathos.

He returned, but his face was dark.

"Why art thou sad, O Nathos?" said the lovely daughter of Colla.

"We are in the land of foes," replied the hero. "The winds have deceived us, Darthula. The strength of our friends is not near, nor the mountains of Etha. Where shall I find thy peace, daughter of mighty Colla? The brothers of Nathos are brave, and his own sword has shone in fight! But what are the sons of Usnoth to the host of dark-browed Cairbar? Oh that the winds had brought thy sails, Oscar, king of men! Thou didst promise to come to the battles of fallen Cormac! Cairbar would tremble in his halls, and peace dwell round the lovely Darthula. But why dost thou fall, my soul? The sons of Usnoth may prevail!"

"And they will prevail, O Nathos!" said the rising soul of the maid. "Never shall Darthula behold the halls of gloomy Cairbar. Give me those arms of brass, that glitter to the passing meteor. I see them dimly in the dark-bosomed ship. Darthula will enter the battle of steel."

Joy rose in the face of Nathos when he heard the white-bosomed maid. He looks towards the coming of Cairbar. The wind is rustling in his hair. Darthula is silent at his side. Her look is fixed on the chief. She strives to hide the rising sigh.

Morning rose with its beams. The sons of Erin appear, like grey rocks, with all their trees; they spread along the coast. Cairbar stood in the midst. He grimly smiled when he saw the foe. Nathos rushed forward, in his strength; nor could Darthula stay behind. She came with the hero, lifting her shining spear.

"Come," said Nathos to Cairbar—"come, chief of high Temora! Let our battle be on the coast, for the white-bosomed maid. His people are not with Nathos; they are behind these rolling seas. Why dost thou bring thy thousands against the chief of Etha?"

"Youth of the heart of pride," replied Cairbar, "shall Erin's king fight with thee? Thy fathers were not among the renowned, and Cairbar does not fight with feeble men!"

The tear started from car-borne Nathos. He turned his eyes to his brothers. Their spears flew at once. Three heroes lay on earth. Then the light of their swords gleamed on high. The ranks of Erin yield, as a ridge of dark clouds before a blast of wind! Then Cairbar ordered his people, and they drew a thousand bows. A thousand arrows flew. The sons of Usnoth fell in blood. They fell like three young oaks, which stood alone on the hill. The traveller saw the lovely trees, and wondered how they grew so lonely; the blast of the desert came by night, and laid their green heads low; next day he returned, but they were withered, and the heath was bare!

Darthula stood in silent grief, and beheld their fall! Pale was her cheek. Her trembling lips broke short a half-formed word. Her breast of snow appeared. It appeared; but it was stained with blood. An arrow was fixed in her side. She fell on the fallen Nathos, like a wreath of snow! Her hair spreads wide on his face. Their blood is mixing round!

"Daughter of Colla—thou art low!" said Cairbar's hundred bards. "When wilt thou rise in thy beauty,  first of Erin's maids? Thy sleep is long in the tomb. The sun shall not come to thy bed and say, 'Awake, Darthula! Awake thou first of women! The wind of spring is abroad. The flowers shake their heads on the green hills. The winds wave their growing leaves.' Retire, O sun, the daughter of Colla is asleep! She will not come forth in her beauty. She will not move in the steps of her loveliness!"

Such was the song of the bards when they raised the tomb. I, too, sang over the grave when the king of Morven came to green Erin to fight with the car-borne Cairbar!

 No ancient or modern work in the history of literature has excited such wild admiration and such profound contempt as the "Ossian" of James Macpherson. It was Napoleon's favourite work; he carried it with him to Egypt and took it to St. Helena. Byron and Goethe and Chateaubriand were also touched to enthusiasm by it. Its author—or, as some still think, its editor—was a Scottish schoolmaster, James Macpherson, born at Ruthven, in Inverness-shire on October 27, 1736. The first part of the work, entitled "Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic, or Erse, Language," was published in 1760; "Fingal" appeared in 1762, and "Temora" in the following year. Doctor Johnson said of Macpherson: "He has found names, and stories, and phrases, nay, passages in old songs, and with them has blended his own compositions, and so made what he gives to the world as the translation of an ancient poem"; and this verdict is now confirmed by the best authorities. Nevertheless, "Ossian" is a work of considerable merit and great historic interest. It contains some fine passages of real poetry, such as the invocation to the sun with which "Carthon" concludes, and it has served to attract universal attention to the magnificent Celtic traditions of Scotland and Ireland. Macpherson died in Inverness-shire on February 17, 1796.

Arthur Mee J. A. Hammerton