Sunday, April 23, 2006

Counsel for the Defence

Alexander McCall Smith, the justly celebrated Scottish Law Professor and author of the wonderful series about the 'Ladies No 1 Detective Agency' series set in Botswana, is turning his talented eye for solving mysteries to a bemusing episode in Scotland’s 18th century history, namely the James Macpherson literary fraud of the so-called ‘Ossian’ poems, allegedly composed by a third century Highland epic poet.

I would not dream of interpreting the details of the fraud before seeing McCall Smith’s BBC 4 programme, soon to be released. News of this event – it is sure to be an event of pleasing proportion – is reported by Karin Goodwin in today’s Sunday Times (Scotland edition, 23 April).

Typically McCall Smith appears to be taking a side of Macpherson in the role of a plea in mitigation by defence counsel. McCall Smith is unimaginable in the role of a prosecutor, except perhaps in the prosecution of a really horrible person., and even then he’d more comfortable leading the mitigation plea.

Macpherson caused quite a stir at the time he revealed his translation of Ossian. Adam Smith discussed him, so did other writers in the Scottish Enlightenment. The irrepressible James Boswell, biographer of Johnston, comments on him in his Edinburgh Journals.

There seems to be a spate of books and tv programmes about Scotland in the 18th century en route to Scotland’s media. We await to see Andrew Marr and his forthcoming programme in the same tv series (no doubt to appear as a DVD).

[I should declare an interest in that I knew Alexander ('Sandy') McCall Smith briefly during my early days as a university lecturer in the 1970s, being friendly with one of his friends, Peter Cheine.]


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