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ongues. The Welsh, two hundred years ago, insulted heir English neighbours for the instability of their orthography; while the Erse merely floated in the breath of the people, and could, therefore, receive little improve ment.
When a language begins to teem with books, it is tend. ing to refinement; as those who undertake to teach others must have undergone some labour in improving themselves, they set a proportionate value on their own thoughts, and wish to enforce them by efficacious expressions; speech becomes embodied and permanent; different modes and phrases are compared, and the best obtains an establishment. By degrees, one age improves upon another. Exactness is first obtained, and afterwards elegance. But diction, merely vocal, is always in its childhood. As no man leaves his eloquence behind him, the new generations have all to learn. There may possibly be books without a polished language, but there can be no polished language without books.
That the bards could not read more than the rest of their countrymen, it is reasonable to suppose ; because, if they had read, they could probably have written; and how high their compositions may reasonably be rated, an inquirer may best judge by considering what stores of imagery, what principles of ratiocination, what comprehension of knowledge, and what delicacy of elocution he has known any man attain who cannot read. The state of the bards was yet more hopeless. He that cannot read, may now converse with those that can ; but the bard was a barbarian among barbarians, who, knowing nothing himself, lived with others that knew no more.
There has lately been in the islands one of these illiterate poets, who, hearing the Bible read at church, is said to have turned the sacred history into verse. I heard part of a dialogue, composed by him, translated by a young lady in Mull, and thought it had more meaning than I expected from a man totally uneducated; but he had some opportunities of knowledge; he lived among a
learned people. After all that has been done for the instruction of the Highlanders, the antipathy between their language and literature still continues; and no man that has learned only Erse is, at this time, able to read.
The Erse has many dialects, and the words used in some islands are not always known in others.' In literate nations, though the pronunciation, and sometimes the words of common speech, may differ, as now in England, compared with the south of Scotland, yet there is a written diction, which pervades all dialects, and is understood in every province. But where the whole language is colloquial, he that has only one part, never gets the rest, as he cannot get it but by change of residence. · In an unwritten speech, nothing that is not very short is transmitted from one generation to another. Few have opportunities of hearing a long composition often enough to learn it, or have inclination to repeat it so often as is necessary to retain it; and what is once forgotten is lost for ever.
I believe, there cannot be recovered in the whole Erse language five hundred lines, of which there is any evidence, to prove them a hundred years old. Yet I hear that the father of Ossian boasts of two chests more of ancient poetry, which he suppresses, because they are too good for the English.
He that goes into the Highlands with a mind naturally acquiescent, and a credulity eager for wonders, may come back with an opinion very different from mine ; for the inhabitants, knowing the ignorance of all strangers in their language and antiquities, perhaps are scrupulous adherents to truth; yet I do not say that they deliberately speak studied falsehood, or have a settled purpose to deceive. · They have inquired and considered little, and do not always feel their own ignorance. They are not much accustomed to be interrogated by others; and seem never to have thought upon interrogating themselves; so that if they do not know what they tell to be true, they likewise do not distinctly perceive it to be false.
Mr. Boswell was very diligent in his inquiries ; and the result of his investigations was, that the answer to the second question was commonly such as nullified the answer to the first.
We were awhile told, that they had an old translation of the scriptures ; and told it till it would appear obstinacy to inquire again. Yet, by continued accumulation of questions, we found, that the translation meant, if any meaning there were, was nothing else than the Irish Bible.
We heard of manuscripts that were, or that had been in the hands of somebody's father, or grandfather ; but at last we had no reason to believe they were other than Irish. Martin mentions Irish, but never any Erse manuscripts, to be found in the islands in his time.
I suppose my opinion of the poems of Ossian is already discovered. I believe they never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. The editor, or author, never could show the original; nor can it be shown by any other. To revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt. It would be easy to show it if he had it; but whence could it be had ? It is too long to be remembered, and the language formerly had nothing written. He has doubtless inserted names that circulate in popular stories, and may have translated some wandering ballads, if any can be found ; and the names, and some of the images, being recollected, make an inaccurate auditor imagine, by the help of Caledonian bigotry, that he has formerly heard the whole.
I asked a very learned minister in Sky, who had used all arts to make me believe the genuineness of the book, whether at last he believed it himself? but he would not
He wished me to be deceived, for the honour of his country ; but would not directly and formally deceive me. Yet has this man's testimony been publickly produced, as of one that held Fingal to be the work of Ossian. It is said, that some men of integrity profess to have
heard parts of it, but they all heard them when they were boys; and it was never said that any of them could recite six lines. They remember names, and, perhaps, some proverbial sentiments; and, having no distinct ideas, coin a resemblance without an original. The persuasion of the Scots, however, is far from universal ; and in a question so capable of proof, why should doubt be suffered to comtinue? The editor has been heard to say, that part of the poem was received by him, in the Saxon character. He has then found, by some peculiar fortune, an unwritten language, written in a character which the natives probably never beheld.
I have yet supposed no imposture but in the publisher ; yet I am far from certainty, that some translations have not been lately made, that may now be obtruded as parts of the original work. Credulity on one part is a strong temptation to deceit on the other, especially to deceit of which no personal injury is the consequence, and which flatters the author with his own ingenuity. The Scots have something to plead for their easy reception of an improbable fiction: they are seduced by their fondness for their supposed ancestors. A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist, who does not love Scotland better than truth : he will always love it better than inquiry : and if falsehood flatters his vanity, will not be very diligent to detect it. Neither ought the English to be much influenced by Scotch authority; for of the past and present state of the whole Erse nation, the Lowlanders are at least as ignorant as ourselves. To be ignorant is painful; but it is dangerous to quiet our uneasiness by the delusive opiate of hasty persuasion.
But this is the age in which those who could not read, have been supposed to write; in which the giants of antiquated romance have been exhibited as realities. If we know little of the ancient Highlanders, let us not fill the vacuity with Ossian. If we have not searched the Magel. Inniok regions, let is, however, forbear to people them with Patngons.
Having waited some days at Armidel, we were flattered at last with a wind that promised to convey us w Mull. We went on board a boat that was taking in kelp, and left the isle of Sky behind us. We were doomed to experience, like others, the danger of trusting to the wind, which blew against us, in a short time, with such violence, that we, being no seasoned sailors, were willing to call it a tempest. I was sea-sick, and lay down. Mr. Boswell kept the deck. The master knew not well wbither to go; and our difficulties might, perhaps, have filled a very pathetick page, had not Mr. Maclean of Col, who, with every other qualification which insular life requires, is a very active and skilful mariner, piloted us safe into his own harbour.
In the morning we found ourselves under the isle of Col, where we landed; and passed the first day and night with captain Maclean, a gentleman who has lived some time in the East Indies, but having dethroned no nabob, is not too rich to settle in his own country.
Next day the wind was fair, and we might have had an easy passage to Mull; but having, contrarily to our own intention, landed upon a new island, we would not leave it wholly unexamined. We, therefore, suffered the vessel to depart without us, and trusted the skies for another wind.
Mr. Maclean of Col, having a very numerous family, has, for some time past, resided at Aberdeen, that he may superintend their education, and leaves the young gentleman, our friend, to govern his dominions, with the full power of a Highland chief. By the absence of the laird's family, our entertainment was made more difficult, because the house was, in a great degree, disfurnished; but young Col's kindness and activity supplied all defects, and procured us more than sufficient accommodation,
Here I first mounted a little Highland steed; and if there had been many spectators, should have been somewhat ashamed of my figure in the march. The horses of the islands, as of other barren countries, are very low: