Who was Ossian Macpherson?

When a certain flavour of fundamentalist Christian has a public and pious rant about the satanic evils of Halloween, I cannot help but feel sympathy and sadness. It isn’t fair to blame people for their ignorance, and in most cases a logical argument about the historical evolution of this and other festivals won’t do much to broaden their view. Having grown up under this ideology, I would have made the same public rants at fifteen.

The key sadness is that this is exactly the type of xenophobia and intolerance of mind which eventually escalates into crusades, racism and killings like the tragic incident in Pittsburgh this week.

Why is this worth blogging about? Well, during the course of a short social media discussion, in an effort to show that Halloween wasn’t ‘just something we imported from America in the last few years’ I found this fabulous poem published in the Hamilton Spectator on 12 November 1864, under the name Ossian Macpherson. Here is the full text of the poem:

AN AUSTRALIAN HALLOWEEN

By Ossian Macpherson.

Bright years, sad years are numbered with the past,
Since, Scotland, I beheld thy green hills last;
My hair is growing grey in manhood's prime,
With painful re-collections, not with time.
But here, once more, if not on Scottish land,
I see around a happy Scottish band.
With hills and dales, till fancy —not in vain.
Has led me back to Scotland's hills again.

Wootong,— I sought upon thy peaceful crest,
For this worn frame, a shelter and a rest.
From many a outstretched hand the welcome kind,
For ever in this heart will be enshrined;
And can I e'er forget, where'er I roam,
Whatever my lot may be, where'er my home,
The hours I passed amid the happy scene;
The mirthful crowd I joined at Halloween.

Tis not for me, too humble is my verse,
The varied fairy mysteries to rehearse;
The varied trials spread before my view,
Each one to seek if some one else was true.
But when I saw the bonny lassies there,
Each for the apple ducking wait her share,
Such laughing faces, rarely to be seen,
Hech! how it thrilled my heart! at Wootong Halloween.

'Tis not for me, else may be I might sing.
Who made the batter, and who found the ring ;
Who found the apples, and whose nuts were cracked,
Who might have stole to where the hay was stacked.
All these and more, perhaps I might unfold.
But they by Scotia's bard have all been told;
Enough for me — the hours were bright and green,
I passed that night at Wootong Halloween.

The poet tried his nuts, with anxious gaze,
And picturing one form amid the blaze;
Perhaps he thought the emblem might be true,
Alas, — his nuts were cracked ere half burnt through.
And when blindfold, before each fairy plate.
He wished— his fond desire— for gentle mate,
His hand thrice grasped the platter that was clean!
No wife for him at Wootong Halloween.

Bard of all coming time, immortal Burns,
When with each coming year that night returns;
That night that thro' all Scotland far and wide,
The midnight fairies still are wont to glide, —
With what bright fire thy spirit would have glowed,
What strains of rapture would have from thee flowed,
Couldst thous have dreamt there ever would have been
Another Scotland here and Halloween.

Thou didst not dream, when burst to life thy strains.
Never to die while Scottish life remains,
That in this land to white men then unknown,
Peopled by hideous barbarism alone,
Thou didst not reck there e'er would come the day
That, distant o'er tie ocean far away.
There, on a lovely hill top, would be seen.
The glorious revelry of Halloween.

Oh! that thy spirit would upon me rest,
And for one lonely moment till my breast;
'Twould be ere from this friendly root I part,
To speak the thanks, warm from the poet's heart
Wootong, farewell! I yet may see the day,
When back my happier footsteps yet may stray,
And treasured up in memory, I ween
'Twill be again to join in Halloween.

Konongwootong, Nov. 1, 1864.

I made a recording of this poem set to my own tune here.

So many questions arise from this find! Who was Ossian Macpherson? What was he doing in a tiny town in the middle of Victoria in 1864? Was there really a Halloween celebration or is this imaginative reverie?

To the first question, Ossian Macpherson, is almost certainly a pseudonym. James Macpherson (1736-1796) was a relatively famous Scottish writer, poet and politician who claimed to have discovered and translated a set of ancient epic poems by the (mythical?) bard Ossian. James was instrumental in the highland clearings and the veracity of his work on the Ossian poems is questioned by scholars. ‘Ossian Macpherson’ would have been a fitting pen name for any aspiring Scottish poet travelling in Australia in the 1860s.

To the second question, we first need to answer “where in the world is Konongwootong?”. I initially assumed this would have been a mining town named by Chinese immigrant miners, but it is a native phrase describing a creek in grassy land. Konongwootong is a place of sadness as the Whyte brothers who owned the pastoral run killed between 55 and 60 men, women and children of the Konongwootong gunditj clan there in April 1840 after they had taken 40 sheep. There is a memorial here. So it is likely that ‘Ossian Macpherson’ was either visiting or working in the Konongwootong on the pastoral property.

A search on Trove shows that the latest poem, A Modest Minister, published in the Hamilton Spectator, March 1874 was a biting piece of political satire directed at a local Minister (political or church?), whose name probably rhymed with Cozey, regarding the way in which he acquired his land. This shows our author remained in the area for at least another ten years and was not afraid to ruffle feathers.

A John A. Macpherson was running for the seat of Dundas in the 1871 election and appears in several Trove articles relating to property issues in the region, his fellow candidates were James Gardner and David Gaunson, possibly one of them was ‘Cozey’.

The first poem that appears by Ossian Macpherson was published on 23 December 1857 in the Kyneton Observer:

THOUGHTS ON SIGHTING BALLARAT.

Slaking my thirst beside this cooling rill,
Uncertain what my future lot may be ;
Driven about, the sport of fortune's will
Footsore, I've wandered Ballarat to thee.
My breast is fill'd with many an anxious thought.
A stranger—in this giant infant land;
A wanderer—in these fields with riches fraught
Seeking a crust amid a varied band.
Shall I succeed?

Oh! do not droop, my heart,
Tho'all looks dark—yet fate is sometimes kind;
Do not sink now—all wearied as thou art,
For little mayst thou reck what lurks behind -
Yon sun now hid behind the blacken'd cloud,
Methinks ev'n now its voice is speaking loud,
And bids me yet a little longer wait.

For I have traversed many a spot on earth,
And climb'd full many a dreary hill in life ;
Thought that my star was darken'd at my birth,
Foreboding nought but endless care and strife
But hope is strong—and though the past has been
A chain of trials, I would fain forget;
That star would yet shine brightly and serene
And I will not despair—not yet—not yet.

OSSIAN MACPHERSON,

Ballarat.

So this John Alexander MacPherson, who arrived in Ballarat around 1857 seems to be a very strong candidate for Ossian Macpherson. John was born in 1833, so would have been just 24 when writing his first poem. Strangely, the Wikipedia page for John makes no mention of his likely ventures as a brilliant poet. John ended up being the Premier of Victoria for just over a year, Sep 1869-April 1870 and died in England at the age of 60 in 1894.

There are around 90 other poems penned by ‘Ossian Macpherson’, many of which look like they have never been published outside the newpaper they appeared in.

Happy Samhain/Halloween to all, I suspect there will be more to this story!

UPDATE: Since writing this post, you will see in the comments that I have been contacted by a relative of Ossian Macpherson. It looks like the John Alexander link was not to be. I have started publishing the poems of Ossian Macpherson (now under the right name) on AllPoetry.com, you can read all the poems here.

About Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly is a singer/songwriter from Yass in Australia.
This entry was posted in Ballad Analysis, Blog Post, Folk Music, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Who was Ossian Macpherson?

  1. Daniel Kelly says:

    Found this slightly more detailed biography of John Alexander MacPherson, written by historian Dorothy Fitzpatrick, though it does not mention the poems.
    http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macpherson-john-alexander-4135

  2. Daniel Kelly says:

    An excellent summary of the Macpherson family, including a brush with bushrangers. Printed in the Port Adelaide News in 1927: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/102495169

  3. Matthew Preston says:

    Ossian Macpherson was a real person. He was the brother of my 3rd great grandfather Oscar John Macpherson. Please contact me if you would like more info.

    Born: November 09, 1820 , Middlesex London
    Death: April 08, 1875 (54) Cadden’s Flat, Harrow, Victoria, Australia

    Matt

    • Daniel Kelly says:

      Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for getting in contact, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be any relatives of Ossian or John Alexander alive who knew anything about them. Does your family hold any original manuscripts? If all of the poems that appeared in the Victorian papers were by your relative, then this should be simple. My other feeling, because of the very political/local nature of some poems around the 1874 election, was that maybe other writers might have used Ossian’s name to push their own message. In any case, I’ve made a allpoetry.com entry for Ossian’s works and have been slowly correcting them in the trove archive. I will update it to properly reflect the details you provided.
      https://allpoetry.com/John-Alexander-MacPherson

    • Daniel Kelly says:

      Hi Matthew,

      Not sure if you will see this, but I found a book self-published by Ossian about his time in Madeira around 1847. Must have been before moving to Australia.

      https://archive.org/details/dreamerpoeminthr00macprich/page/n155

  4. Shed Finds says:

    I have a studio photograph taken on Melbourne and inked on the reverse is ‘J O McPherson son of J McPherson Chief Secretary and Minister of Lands of Colony of Victoria.

    • Daniel Kelly says:

      It is quite likely that James Alexander was Minister of Lands before he was premier and may well have had a son with the J O initials, have you provided it to the Victorian state library or trove?

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