James Macpherson lived from 27 October 1736 to 17 February 1796. He was a poet best known as the translator (though many believe he was actually the author) of the Ossian cycle of poems. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Macpherson was born at Ruthven near Kingussie in Badenoch. In 1753 he became a student at King's College, Aberdeen, two years later moving to Marischal College, Aberdeen. He then spent a year in Edinburgh before returning to Badenoch to take up a post as a schoolteacher.
In 1760, Macpherson published the English language Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland. He claimed to have unearthed a wealth of potential sources of ancient Gaelic documents and poetry, and later that year supporters provided him with the funds necessary to undertake an extended visit to Wester Ross, Skye, North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula. Another trip took in Mull and Argyll. In 1761 he announced that documents he had gathered on his travels included an epic poem about the mythological Irish character Fingal, written by Ossian, who was believed to be Oisín, the son of Fingal. In December 1761 Macpherson published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language. A second book, Temora followed in 1763, and in 1765 he published a collected edition, The Works of Ossian.
The publication of these magnificent poems influenced generations of Scottish authors, and profoundly affected the Scottish sense of identity. On the continent, Ossian's poetry led to the development of the Romantic movement in literature, and authors like Goethe were greatly influenced by it. Although some raised doubts immediately, it only gradually emerged that Ossian probably never existed, and that Macpherson probably wrote much or most of the poetry himself: which, of course, does nothing to detract from its literary merit, just its historical interest.
In 1764, Macpherson became secretary to the colonial governor of West Florida. On his return to Britain in 1766 he wrote a number of well regarded historical works and held a series of Government posts. In 1780 he became Member of Parliament for Camelford in Cornwall, a position he continued to hold until his death in 1796. In later life he purchased an estate in the Highlands.