Nigel Leask

‘I seemed to tread on the heels of the old heroic times’: John Leyden’s Ossian Tour, 1800

In July 1800 the young Borders poet and linguist John Leyden set out on an ambitious 10-week Scottish tour, accompanying two students from Hamburg. Following the launch of the Highland Society’s Investigation into the authenticity of Ossian in 1796, the quest for Ossianic sources had become a central concern for tourists like Leyden, John Stoddart, Magregor Murray, and Thomas Garnett. This paper explores Leyden’s quest for manuscripts and ‘oral editions’ of Ossianic poems in the Gaidhealtachd, derived from collectors and labouring-class tradition bearers. Although he was somewhat hampered by a limited command of Gaelic, his painstaking record of visits to leading 18th century Ossian collectors like Dr Donald MacNicol and Dr James MacLagan are a valuable resource for modern Gaelic scholars. If Leyden set out a sceptic, influenced by his reading of Malcolm Laing’s 1800 attack on Macpherson, he returned a convert, in 1802 publishing a series of articles in The Scots Magazine defending the authenticity of Ossian. The paper concludes by connecting this Ossianic episode with his subsequent career and premature death as a colonial linguist in the East Indies.

Nigel Leask, University of Glasgow, Scotland