Home Who was the Ancient Scottish Warrior Fingal?
PDF Print E-mail

go Raibh an ársa na hAlban Laoch Fhine Gaidheal?

Who was the Ancient Scottish Warrior Fingal?

Ossian's CaveThe introduction to Donald J. Macdonald's history of Clan Donald quotes from The Works of Ossian about Fingal's battles with the Lochlainn (Norse).  Donald J. Macdonald also suggests the Black & Red Books of Clanranald verify the Works of Ossian's authenticity.  I recently discovered an online copy of the original 1765 Works of Ossian, son of Fingal by James MacPherson.

Ancient Highland Documents

MacPherson said he compiled the Poems of Ossian from oral legends and manuscripts gathered throughout the Scottish Highlands.   This was during the enforcement of the British Act of Proscription that made virtually everything of Highland culture illegal and punishable by "transportation".  Transportation was a "politically correct" government term for physically being taken from your home and banished from your homeland to one of the British colonies.  Copies of MacPherson's work inspired world leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson, Sir Walter Scott, and composer Felix Mendelsohn, but most British authorities condemned it as a fraud.  The 1871  British Academy Literary Review concluded that the Works of Ossian were a masterful poetic work of obvious antiquity, but not authored by the ancient Irish poet Oisin mac Fionn mhic Cumhall as MacPherson claimed.Dean of Lismore's book After reading the original Works of Ossian, son of Fingal I came to the same conclusion.

What It Is About

MacPherson's work is about an ancient Scottish warrior named Fingal who was not the same person as the ancient Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhall (pronounced MacCool).  Fionn mac Cumhall united several clans' warriors in 3rd century Ulster, Ireland to battle foreign invaders.  The only recorded foreign invaders of Ireland in the 3rd century were Romans who sent legions into Ireland & Scotland from conquered South Britain.  But in MacPherson's "Ossian" the greatest warrior of all Irish mythology  Cú chulainn called upon Fingal to drive the Lochlainn (Gaelic term for Norse) from "Innisfail & Morven". The Annals of the Four Masters first mention of heathen "devastation of all the islands of Britain" was not until 794 A.D.   The Annals of Ulster say the first invasion of Ireland by the Norse was not until 840 A.D. and conflict with the Lochlainn continued into the 13th century.  The Highland legends MacPherson compiled as "The Works of Ossian, The Son of Fingal" took place at least 500 years after the days of Fionn mac Cumhall and 800 years after Cú chulainn.

MacPherson's Explanation

Cu chulainn & Fionn mac Cumhaill both lived in Ulster Ireland, but they lived hundreds of years apart and hundreds of years before the Norse raids.   MacPherson offers the following explanation in his introduction to Ossian"These fables, however ridiculous, had their abettors;  posterity either implicitly believed them, or through a vanity natural to mankind, pretended that they did. They loved to place the founders of their families in days of fable, when poetry, without fear of contradiction, could give what characters she pleased of her heroes. It is to this vanity that we owe the preservation of what remain of the Works of Ossian."The Book of the Dean of LismoreThe British Academy Literary Review noted that Fingal battled the Lochlainn whose fleet was commanded by Swaran (Sweno was a 12th century Norse prince who was slain battling the Gaels).  As recorded in Ossian, Fingal, the King of Morven whose mighty fleet "appeared as a forest of trees in the clouds" was unlike the earlier Celtic champions. The 1871  Academy concluded, "Nevertheless, it would be absurd to suppose that the poems in question, ancient as they undoubtedly are, can be received as genuine compositions of either Ossian or Finn.  All that can be positively asserted respecting their age is that they are certainly older than the year 1100."

Poems of OssianSo who was He?

So who was this great warrior Fingal about whom MacPherson gathered oral and Gaelic manuscripts throughout the Highlands of Scotland?  Were there any Celtic champions, who lived closer to the 11th century, who drove raiding Lochlainn from "Innesfail & Morven"?  Could the multi - generation gap between Cuchulainn and Fingal be a symbolic call from the greatest Celtic warrior to this new champion to defend Celtic honor?  The answers to these questions may be found by determining  where were the Celtic lands mentioned in MacPherson's Ossian that were occupied by the Lochlainn.

Where Did This Take Place?

The lands spoken of in The Works of Ossian are rendered Innesfail and MorvenInnesfail is Gaelic for "island of destiny" (a Gaelic reference to an ancient prophecy that the Gael who migrated from Eurasia would eventually settle Eire or Ireland).   But other ancient Scottish Gaelic manuscripts referred to the Hebridean Isles as Innes Fadda (Gaelic meaning long string of isles).  Page 57 of The Clan Donald Vol. I refers to the islands that Somhairlidh (Somerled) bequeathed Dubhgall (Dugall) as Innes Fadda.  The footnote corrects Donald Gregory's History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland for including the isle of Coll, but agrees that the Hebrides were called Innes Fadda.

The Works of Ossian is at best, a poor translation from Gaelic to English.  It is replete with translation errors of the same magnitude as mistranslating Innes Fadda as Innesfail. And there is an even closer mistranslation of Morven for Morvern.  Morvern is Gaelic for "big gap" or "sea gap" and was part of ancient Celtic Kingdom of Dalriada.   Morvern later became the lands of the MacIains of Ardnamurchan branch of Clan Donald.  One line from Ossian refers to "The streams of Cona answer to the voice of Ossian." Cona is the original Gaelic name of the river Coe, of Glencoe, Scotland and Ossian's cave is in Glencoe! James MacPherson was translating Scots Gaelic documents from the Highlands.  Why was he trying so desperately to make these Highland legends appear Irish?  Perhaps it was his design to preserve Highland history by cloaking it as Irish prehistory.

Aileach entering Ossian's caveThere is only one Celtic hero who led the native Celtic clans in a successful campaign to drive the Vikings from the lands of Morvern and then the Hebridean Islands (Innes Fadda).  He lived in Morvern, and descended from Kings of Morvern who traced their ancestry back to the Ard Righ of Eire.  He possessed a fleet of 160 war ships whose unfurled sails upon hundreds of masts would have indeed appeared as a forest of trees in the clouds.   The Highland tradition was that  Somhairlidh slew the Norse prince Sweno and married the Princess of Mann whom Sweno had courted.  Ironically,  the Orkneyinga Saga claims the Orkney Viking Swein killed the husband of Ragnhilde, princess of Mann in 1159, but the most documented event in Somhairlidh's life was his death at Renfrew Scotland (battling Scots, not Swein) in 1164. His descendants ruled Morvern, Glencoe and Innes Fadda and were referred to as Finghal  (Gaelic = fair Gael or Gàidhlig) in their own recorded legends. The founder of Clan Donald, as well as Clan Dougal was a Celtic hero by the name of Somhairlidh mac Gillebride mhic Gilledomnán, known today as Somerled.

Fingall Was Likely Somhairlidh

original 1765 editionThe many similarities of Somhairlidh's life to the legend of Fionn mac Cumhall are significant.  The rise of both  champions began with very similar accounts of the omen of the salmon of knowledge which led to their uniting the Celtic clans to defeat invaders.  MacPherson's Fingal sought to regain his rightful place to rule Morven & Innesfail.   Somhairlidh faught to reclaim his inherent right to rule Morvern & Innes Fadda. The Leabher Dearg (Gaelic Red Book of Clanranald) according to W. F. Skene, Esq. F.S.A. Scot, this was undoubtedly an Ossianic manuscript referred to by James MacPherson.  Skene reported to the British Academy Literary Review that the Leabher Dearg defined "Fingal" as "fair haired", "fin" meaning "fair haired" and "gil" being used to add magnitude (adjective) as in "extremely fair haired".  He said the ancient Gaelic manuscripts referred to the Lords of the Isles as Righ Fionghall (kings of the extremely fair haired) and the Macdonalds as Clan Cholla. "Mr. Skene then read a translation of a part of the manuscript giving a curious account of the expulsion of the Danes from the West coast of Scotland." The British Academy of Literary Review found the account of Somhairlidh "curious" because British history had totally ignored Somhairlidh's expulsion of the Danes or Vikings giving full credit for this to Scotland's King Alexander III at the Battle of Largs which was more than a century after Somhairlidh had established his Celtic Kingdom of Argyle and the Isles. But Scottish history fails to relate how Somhairlidh died defending his kingdom during a retaliatory attack against the Kingdom of Scotland after Scotland had tried twice to conquer them. Instead of relating what happened in its true context every history of Scotland merely relates that "Somerled died invading Scotland ".  Now that the true importance of Somhairlidh in the history of Argyle & the Western Isles has come to light British Academia has countered by claiming Somhairlidh was not of native Celtic (Gaelic) lineage, but was a Norse Viking!

The 1896 authors of Clan Donald Vol.I, p. 54 summarized the chapter on Somhairle (Somerled) with:  "Somerled was probably the greatest hero that the (Gaelic) race has produced.  It may seem strange that no Gaelic bard has sung of his exploits, but in his day and long afterwards, Gaelic singers were more taken up with the mythical heroes of the Feinn than with the genuine warriors of their native land."

Modern critics have verified MacPherson's claim that he Fingalgathered his source material from oral legends and Gaelic manuscripts from the Highlands of Scotland. MacPherson's "error" seems to have been to equate Fingal with Fionn mac Cumhaill and Ossian with Oisin mac Fionn mhic Cumhaill.  Or was it an error?  By publishing a collection of Highland legends under the auspices they were ancient Irish legends MacPherson succeeded in preserving and publishing Highland legends that stirred Celtic blood all over the world and inspired countless numbers during an era when anything of Highland culture was illegal and enforced by the Daunting (mass expulsions) of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland.   MacPherson, himself gave us the key to understanding his method in the introduction of his work, They loved to place the founders of their families in days of fable, when poetry, without fear of contradiction, could give what characters she pleased of her heroes.

Thank you James MacPherson for preserving our Clan's heritage through the "Gàidhlig Dark Ages" of the 17th, 18th, & 19th centuries. Thank you for preserving the legends of "The Greatest Hero That the Celtic Race has Produced, Somhairlidh mac Gillebride mhic Gilledomnán.