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A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland [...] (Author: Thomas Campbell)

Letter 8


Having, in my last, conveyed myself to Stratford and Shakespear, let me, in this, return to Kildare and Spencer. This poet tells us, that he once meditated a treatise upon the antiquities of Ireland. Pity that he never put it in execution! Under the hands of such a master it would have grown into a piece of entertainment, a quality so rarely to be found in works of that complexion.

The opinion, however, he has given, on this particular subject, should be sufficient to excite the curiosity of an antiquarian. It has, I own, disposed me to give a more impartial hearing to whatever can be offered, in favour of the antiquities of this country, than otherwise I mould have been inclined to do. ‘All the customs, says he, of the Irish, which I have noted and compared with what I have read, would minister occasion of a most ample discourse of the original


of them, and the antiquity of that people; which in truth I think to be more ancient than most that I know of in this end the world. So that, if it were in the handling of some men of sound judgment and plentiful reading, it would be most pleasant and profitable.’

There must surely be some foundation in truth, for that high antiquity the Irish plume themselves upon; if not, would Tacitus have said, that ‘the ports and harbours of Ireland were better known by trade and commerce than those of Britain.’5 And if this same antiquity be a thing so chimerical, as some would represent it, how comes it, That when the ambassador of Henry the Fifth claimed precedence at the Council of Constance, he founded his title upon his matter's being lord of Ireland?

Orpheus tells us expressly, that the Argonauts sailed near the island Ierne; a testimony prior to any which imperial Rome can produce in favour of her antiquity. Hibernia is comparatively but a modern name. Ireland is the ancient Scotia. In later days, Caledonia, or rather Albania, which had been for many centuries ruled


by the descendants of Fergus, brother to the monarch of Ireland, began to be called Scotia minor, or nova. But this was not till the eleventh century, and Ireland retained the name of Scotia, with the addition of major, or vetus, till so late as the fifteenth. All which archbishop Usher incontestably proves, and he gives it as his opinion, that no writer, before the eleventh century, can be produced, who ever pointed out Albany by the name of Scotland.

It is near two hundred years since the learned primate gave this sort of challenge, and during that space, no writer has attempted to answer him; but on the contrary, Camden, Scaliger, Stillingfleet, Dupin, Prideaux, Rapin, Warner, Whitaker, and all other writers on the subject, except two or three of Scotland, confirm his opinion. It was an attack made upon the antiquities of his native country, which probably excited Usher to treat of them with such copious precision.

Dempster, a Scotchman, under the ambiguity of the name, had laboured to confound the matter. He sent Philip Ferrarius a collection of Scottish worthies, to enrich


the Roman martyrology. But this learned and candid Italian betimes discovered the snare, and published an advertisement prefixed to his book, wherein he warned the reader; ‘that taking other writers for his guide, he had made some of the Irish saints natives of Scotland. The cause of which, was his being deceived in the name, Ireland being in old times called Scotland, and the Irish Scots; as we learn from Orosius, Prospero, Isidore, Cogitosus, Adamnanus, Jonas the Abbot, all antient writers; together with Bede, St. Bernard, and others who have written the lives of Irish Saints. For who does not know that the Saints Brigid, Brendan, Columb-cill, Columban, Gall, Fiacre, Virgil, Kilian, Rumoldus, Dympna, Fuscus, Malachy, and others, were Irish? who, notwithstanding are called Scots, and said to be born in Scotland; of which I thought proper to admonish you, that you may be aware of certain Saint-stealers..’ By which coarse character he branded Dempster. And the only harsh expression in Usher's book, is vented against this man. Tam suspectae fidei hominem illum suisse comperimus & toties


tesseram fregisse, ut oculatos nos esse testes oporteat, & nisi quod videmus nihil ab eo acceptum credere.’’

Nicolson, whom, as the author of the Historical Libraries, we may suppose a competent judge in this affair, and as an Englishman, impartial, is so convinced of Dempster's dishonesty, that in one place, he calls him ‘the northern rover, who had kidnapped whole scores of Irish saints;’ and in another place, he takes notice of ‘the good services done this kingdom, by Thomas Dempster's robbing it of its saints, and transplanting them into his own Albanian territory. Which raised a just resentment in the antiquaries of Ireland, who forthwith betook themselves to arms, for the recovery of their stolen goods, and proved clearly that the Scots of antient times, famed for sanctity and learning, were all of them Irishmen.

But all the Scotch writers before Dempster, are so far from denying the Irish extraction of the present Scots, that they seem to glory in it. ‘It is by many arguments certain, says John Major, that we owe our origin to the Irish. This we learn


from the language, for even at this day, one half of Scotland speaks Irish; and a few years ago, a much greater proportion spoke the same language. The Scots brought their speech from Ireland into Britain, as our annals testify; the writers of which, have shewn a laudable diligence in these matters. I say, therefore, that from whomsoever the Irish draw their origin, the Scotch derive from the same; not immediately indeed, but as a grandson from a grandsire.’

King James I. in one of his speeches, boasts of the Scottish dynasty being derived from that of Ireland. ‘I have two reasons to be careful of the welfare of that people; first as king of England, by reason of the long possession the crown of England hath had of that land; and also as king of Scotland, for the antient kings of Scotland are descended of the kings of Ireland.’. Conformably to which, Slaytyr, in his Palai-Albion, compliments this monarch upon his Irish pedigree,

    1. At quoniam, Arctoo Scotico rex noster ab orbe,
      Nec minus occiduis, perhibent, Scotus ortus Hibernis,
      Qui Britonum parent sceptris; mihi pauca recensens,
      Musa age, et Ogygios Iernes reserato colonos.


From the above authorities, one would think this question was fairly decided; for, in points of antiquity, authority is the principal, if not the only argument which can be adduced. Yet, up starts another Scotchman still more hardy, who finding no authorities, either at home or abroad, to support the darling antiquity of his native country, is for annihilating all authorities against it; and vainly dares to obtrude upon us, for true history, the inverted sonnets of Hibernian bards,

    1. Whence issued forth at great M'Pherson's call,
      That old new epic pastoral Fingal.

This learned gentleman very gravely tells us, that ‘Fordun was the first who collected the fragments of Scotch history, which escaped the brutal policy of Edward I. —— that he, possessed of all the national prejudice of the age, was unwilling that his country should yield in point of antiquity to England; and that, destitute of annals in Scotland, he had recourse to Ireland, which, according to the vulgar errors of the times, was reckoned the first habitation of the Scots.— That the writers who succeeded


Fordun, implicitly followed his system; that as they had no new lights, and were,equally with him, unacquainted with the traditions of their country, their histories contain little information concerning the origin of the Scots. — That even Buchanan himself, except the elegance of his style, has very little to recommend him. It therefore appears that little can be collected from their own historians, concerning the first migration of the Scots into Britain.’

Thus you see the authority of all Scotch historians is torn up from the very root. Aristotle, they say, destroyed the works of all his predecessors to make way for his own. But in the name of wonder, where were the songs of Ossian, when Fordun's national prejudice had recourse to Ireland, to supply the want of materials in Scotland? Would not his filial zeal have gladly laid hold of them for the same purpose with our modern man of antiquity?

In the dissertations before Fingal and Temora, we are told, that ‘as the custom of retaining Bards and Senachies was common to both nations; so each, no doubt,


had formed a system of history, it matters not how much soever fabulous, concerning their respective origin.’ Now let me ask, if each had formed their systems, wherefore did Fordun adopt the Irish system? And if ‘it was the natural policy of the times, to reconcile the traditions of both nations together, and if possible to deduce them from the fame original stock;’ why does the following paragraph insinuate that the system was not concerted, but that the Scots were imposed upon?

‘For the Irish, who for some ages before the conquest by Henry II. had possessed a competent share of that kind of learning, which then prevailed in Europe, found it no difficult matter to impose their own fictions upon the ignorant Highland Senachies. By flattering the vanity of the Highlanders with their long list of Heremonian kings and heroes, they without contradiction assumed to themselves the character of being the mother-nation of the Scots of Britain. At this time, certainly was established that Hibernian system of the original of the Scots, which afterwards,


for want of any other, was universally received.’

It is here, you see, dogmatically laid down, that the Hibernian system was the fiction of the thirteenth century; and it is also admitted, that it was universally received, for this good reason, that there was none other. This ample concession really looks as if the writer had a mind to arrogate to himself the original invention of the Caledonian system; but his candour should have confessed that it was the happy thought of the last century. The whole state of the case is briefly this:

In the fourteenth century, Fordun did collect such remains of antiquity as had escaped the ravages of Edward; and it is agreed, on both sides, that scarce any escaped, except those in the monastery of Hy Columb-cil. In the fifteenth century, bishop Elphinstone, chancellor of Scotland, after making the strictest search for old records, lays so little stress upon what he found, that he fairly refers you ad antiquos Hiberniae scriptores. We have seen what the opinion of John Major was


in the beginning of the sixteenth century, towards the close of which Hector Boetius wrote his fabulous history, adhering closely to his predecessors in tracing the origin of the Scots. Buchanan follows him, rejecting his glaring incongruities, and supporting the Hibernian system by the collateral authority of foreign testimonies. To his contemporary Dempster, was reserved the innovating invention of the Caledonian system.

But Sir George M'Kenzie scorned to follow him; even he who thought it his duty, as advocate general of Scotland, to impugn certain parts of Irish history, in order to lengthen out the royal line, and to prove, for the honour of his Majesty, that his pedigree was derived from sovereign princes, rather than provincial kings. Sir George admits that the Scots of Britain came last from Ireland; and so doth Innys, whose more learned labours tend to shorten rather than lengthen the catalogue of Caledonian kings.

What then remains to support the credit of a system, exploded universally abroad, and generally at home, but the genius, style,


and learning of Mr. M———n? Which, after all, betray his distrust of it, and cannot secure him from manifest self-contradictions. First, ‘the Hibernian system is concerted between the two nations;’ next, ‘the one was imposed upon by the other,’ then it was neither concerted nor imposed, but ‘the true Caledonian system was handed down by tradition; though a few ignorant Senachies might be persuaded out of their opinion, by the smoothness of an Irish tale, it was impossible to eradicate from the bulk of the people, their own national traditions.’

He sometimes attempts to entrench himself in verbal criticism, a sort, in which, one would have thought, he would have been impregnable; but even a person who knows nothing of the Irish language, may, with very little attention, perceive the improbability of what he advances. He asserts, what is universally denied by the Irish, that they call their language Caëlic-Erinach. They say, that the Irish of both the Scotlands, the old and the new, have all along called their language Gaëlic without any addition.


Now to be convinced that this is the truth of the matter, let us only ask ourselves, to what purpose should a mark of distinction be added to the same language, though spoken by different nations? We use no addition, to discriminate the language of England, from that now commonly spoken in Ireland. No! we call both the English. And when we talk of the Latin tongue being generally spoken, at such or such a period, we do not say the Latin of France, or the Latin of Germany, but simply, and emphatically, the Latin. An epithet is indeed necessary to distinguish the people of a colony, from those of the mother-country; as to distinguish the descendents of the Saxons in England, we call them Anglo-Saxons. Accordingly we find, that in the Irish or Gaëlic, a Scotchman is called Albanach Gaël, i. e. a Scoto-Hibernian; but an Irishman is called emphatically Gaël.

Another circumstance there is, which tends to throw some light upon this matter; the songs of Ossian are as familiar to the original natives of Ireland, as


they are represented by Mr. M'—n to be in Scotland. And it is reasonable they should be so. Ossian is mentioned by Keating, Flagherty, and all the other historians of this country, as an Irish chieftain; but no notice is taken of him by any Scotch historian. Nor is there any mention made by them of Fingal, father to Ossian; yet all the Irish histories are replete with his exploits. Fin-mac-Comhal (pronounced Finmacoal) i. e. Fin the son of Comhal is the great hero, to whom, as a Hercules, the common Irish assimilate all strong and gallant men.

So much, indeed, is virtually admitted by the publisher of Fingal; and to usher his work with greater plausibility into the world, he takes notice of an advertisement, which had appeared in the Irish newspapers, notifying that a translation of the Irish Fingal would soon make its appearance, and requesting the Public, to suspend the purchase of the Scotch translation, as being full of errors, &c. A blunder was sure to be inserted, to make the thing more probable, and go down the better;


for what more natural, than for Irish sagacity to spy out the errors of a work it had not seen?

But, from all the inquiries I have made, I never could learn that such translation was ever meditated. Colonel Vallancey, who knows every Irish scholar in this kingdom, tells me, he never heard of any such work being in agitation. He says, Ossian's poems are all short ballads, not yet collected, to his knowledge, by any one. So you may guess the quarter from whence the blundering advertisement originated.

Yet it has been reported, and by great names too, that the first four books of Fingal were to be seen in the Isle of Sky, written in a fair hand on vellum, and bearing date in the year 1403. But this report proves ill authenticated. Dr. Johnson made the most diligent researches in the Isle of Sky, and elsewhere, for these supposed manuscripts; but the result of all inquiries issued in this conclusion, that there not only were no such manuscripts in existence, but that it was impossible there should be any such: for that the Erse had


never been a written language, till within a century.

In short, the forgery committed in the publications of Fingal and Temora, is so clearly detected by the sagacious and learned author of the Journey to the Western Isles, that to oppose the evidence of such fictitious works, to that of established history, would be to persist in a most audacious insult upon the understandings of mankind. There are, we know, original poems ascribed to Ossian. Mr. M——n may have taken their images and sentiments, may have adopted their manner and spirit, but he has so changed the matter and order of the narration, by putting in, and leaving out, and other metamorphosing methods, that his work may be called any thing rather than a translation.

That this is the very method, which Mr. M——n has pursued, he in some measure acknowledges; for when he recommends it to the Irish to give a translation of their Ossian's poems, ‘he hopes that the translator will chuse to leave something in the obscurity of the original.’ Now it is to


be presumed, that he has too much candor to offer that advice to another, which he would not himself follow.

It is curious enough to see so learned a man as Lord Kaims, a man too, who in other respects seems divested of prejudice, such an advocate for the authenticity of the poems of Ossian in English. But I cannot think this agreeable writer in earnest. For while he tortures his ingenuity to give them a plausibility, which contradicts all his own systematic principles, he seems almost willing to compound for them as a forgery. But the glory of the antient Caledonians is at any rate to be supported; therefore, rather than it should sink, he is even for recurring to miracle. And upon this ground, he seems ultimately to rest his cause; a ground, which I thought he never would have chosen.

The refinement of sentiment in Ossian's characters, is so subversive of all that he had been for establishing, that he is utterly at a loss to account for it. ‘Had the Caledonians,’ says he, ‘made slaves of the women, and thought as meanly of them as savages commonly do, it could never have


entered the imagination of Ossian to ascribe to them those numberless traces that exalt the female sex, and render many of them objects of pure and elevated affection. Without the aid of inspiration, such refined manners could never have been conceived by a savage.’

Now is it not a fact of notoriety, that at this very day, the Highland women are employed in the most servile offices, even in carrying out manure like beads of burden? Yet, our truly curious fact collector, after some strictures on Ruffian manners, triumphantly asks, ‘can one suppose that the ladies and gentlemen of Ossian's poems, ever amused themselves after the age of twelve, with hide and seek, questions and commands, or such like childish play.’

Is not this to furnish laughter with a sneer at Highland manners? Does not Lord Kaims, arguing for the aid of inspiration, virtually betray that system he would support? Let those celebrated epics then be at best considered, but as ingenious Centos culled from Irish Bards; garbled and transposed, curtailed and interpolated, they are certainly not originals, and consequently


they are not Ossian's. Perhaps they are better. If so, let Scotland glory in them; but, detected as they are by Dr. Johnson, betrayed by Lord Kaims, and self-condemned throughout, they must remain only a monument of the ingenuity of the Editor.
    1. Ossian sublimest, simplest bard of all,
      Let English infidels McPherson call.