The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Ossian, Orkney and Shetland, and brochs

Ossian, Orkney and Shetland, and brochs

Guest post by Brian Smith

In 1765 a farmer’s son from Inverness-shire published a comprehensive edition of The Works of Ossian, the son of Fingal, a project he had begun a few years previously. As before, he told the world that it was a translation from Gaelic poems that he had collected in the Highlands. His books were a literary sensation. Some literary folk who should have known better said that Ossian was a Scottish Homer; others that he was even better than that. Napoleon was entranced by Ossian: he was reading him on his last trip to St Helena. The young Goethe exclaimed that the alleged Gaelic author was as good as Shakespeare.

It was a fraud. James Macpherson had cobbled together the work himself, with assistance from some oral fragments and a learned friend. For the rest of his life he had to fend off requests by sceptics to see the original manuscripts. No Gaelic text of Ossian ever emerged, or could emerge, and Macpherson died a bitter old man.

Macpherson knew nothing about Orkney and Shetland, but that didn’t stop him from featuring them in The Works of Ossian. In Book One he introduces the maid of Inistore, daughter of Gorlo, king of the Orkneys, as well as ‘lovely Trenar’, brother to the king of Iniscon, ‘supposed to be one of the islands of Shetland’. Trenar dies. ‘His gray dogs are howling at home, and see his passing ghost. His bow is in the hall unstrung. No sound is in the heath of his hinds.’ That is a typical example of Macpherson’s prose.

In Book Three we begin to hear about the circle of Loda, and a certain ‘stone of power’ there. Loda was Macpherson’s version of Odin, and his circle a place of worship in Scandinavia. Almost immediately people tried to work out where it was. Visiting Orkney in 1772, the naturalist and antiquary Joseph Banks thought that he had found it. He drew a ‘plan of the circle of Loda’ in Stenness: the famous group of standing stones there. Others accepted Banks’ identication.

Another interesting place in Macpherson’s gallimaufry is Craca. In Book Three he apostrophises Fainasóllis, ‘the daughter of Craca’s king’, and in a footnote he explains: ‘What the Craca here mentioned was, is not, at this distance of time, easy to determine. The most probable opinion is, that it was one of the Shetland isles.’ Grumal, a chief of Cona, has a difficult time there. He wages war on the king of Craca, because he (Grumal) has ‘vowed to have the white-bosomed maid’.

After four days struggle the men of Craca catch Grumal. They place him ‘in the horrid circle of Brumo’ – ‘where often, they said, the ghosts of the dead howled round the stone of their fear’. Where was that horrid circle? Macpherson’s contemporary James Anderson, a brilliant political economist, thought he had found the answer. Writing about Iron Age brochs (he was a bit of a polymath), and about the broch of Mousa in particular, Anderson proposed that the horrid circle where Grumal was imprisoned was one of them.

‘In the centre of the circular area’, he said, ‘we may suppose the stone of power, as it is generally called … was placed. The great height of the walls, (some of these remaining being still forty-five feet high,) would occasion a gloomy shade, well calculated to impress the mind with a reverential awe. At night the meteors of heaven, seen obscurely through the aperture at top, aided by a powerful imagination, might occasionally represent frightful forms and living objects. The numerous holes, too, opening from the galleries inward, all round, and the many divisions between the top and bottom, might be so employed as greatly to heighten these impressions.

‘When dark, persons concealed in these, by means of lights flashing occasionally athwart in different directions, – by figures moving with dim lights, forming eyes in their dark face, – by groans, howlings, and noises, adapted to the occasion, and accompanied by such appearances as an artful priesthood might invent … the mind of an ignorant worshipper, prepossessed with false notions, might be impressed with what ideas they pleased.’

We know nothing about Orkney and Shetland in the fourth century, the period when Ossian was allegedly on the go. We may feel grateful to James Macpherson and his expositors for throwing some light on the subject – or not.

Brian Smith is Archivist at the Shetland Museum and Archives

This entry was posted in Orkney, Shetland by Mark Smith. Bookmark the permalink.

About Mark Smith

Mark Smith works at the Shetland Archives and has recently finished a PhD about Shetland’s literature. He has published fiction, poetry and criticism in various magazines and websites, including PN Review, the Herald, Gutter Magazine and Bella Caledonia, and in anthologies from Two Ravens Press and Polygon. He is a member of the New Shetlander editorial committee.

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