Ossian, Sonority and the Celtic Twilight in Geddes' Circle
by Norman Shaw

In this paper I shall be looking in particular at works by two key members of Geddes' circle; namely the painter John Duncan and the writer William Sharp, a.k.a. 'Fiona Macleod'. The movement that these artists represent; gathered around Geddes, is often referred to as the 'Celtic Twilight'. Their aesthetics depend largely on ancient Gaelic tales and myths; and their revival and re-appropriation was a fundamental preoccupation for Geddes and the artists associated with him - in particular the myths of Ossian, to which I shall now turn.

Macpherson's Ossian

James Macpherson's The Works of Ossian was originally published in 1765, and then republished in 1896 by Geddes, on the centenary of Macpherson's death. Macpherson's Ossian claimed to be a retelling of mythical events from Scotland's pre-Christian, prehistoric past as told by the blind bard Ossian; featuring Fingal, Cuchullain, Oscar and other mythical figures from celtic prehistory. The tales, Macpherson claimed, were gleaned from journeys to Ireland and the north-west Highlands of Scotland. The Ossianic tales were hailed by Europeans as a Celtic equivalent of the Homeric myths and thus became extremely popular in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - read by Napoleon and depicted by painters such as Girodet, Runge and Ingres. Ossian was also enthusiastically appropriated by Blake for the epic style of his great mythic cycles, as well as his representation of the idea of 'the north' as a place of 'un-nam'd forms' and spiritual purity. At the time of its publication, the mythical landscape of Ossian was projected on to a Scottish Highland landscape that was still suffering the aftershocks of the Clearances, which had happened only two decades previously; a depopulated landscape that craved a new mythopoeic identity. Disregarding debates about its authenticity, Macpherson's Ossian owes its popularity to a fusion of the new aesthetic of the sublime with contemporaneous notions of myth and geography.

The Sonorous

Ossian is crucially placed in a sonic world; many of the descriptions in the text rely on sonic dynamics and metaphors:

'Beside a stream of roaring foam his cave is in a rock. One tree bends above it; and the rushing winds echo against its sides'

Macpherson strives to reproduce what I will call a sonorous landscape which runs parallel to the narrative; maintaining a vagueness that permeates the text. The sonorous, I suggest, is a device that references the sonic, yet which strives to realize what is beyond the audible or visible.

Ossian is written in a repetitive, chant-like manner; constructing a convoluted 'wall of words' like the mountainous landscape it strives to depict; designed to be read aloud in keeping with the ancient oral tradition from which it is derived. It is a relentless torrent of repetitious sub-plots and micro-narratives; its protagonists are trans-historical emanations from the corporeal landscape; underground interdimensional heroes. In this way, the structure of Ossian can be read as rhizomatic in the Deleuzian sense (a rhizome is an organism that thrives underground as a root system; like bulbs or mushrooms, appearing at arbitrary points on the surface). Deleuze favoured 'the rhizome in opposition to the tree, a rhizome-thought instead of an arboreal thought.' If we take the tree to be a symbol of Enlightenment thought-forms; then the rhizome is a fitting analogue for Ossian's post-Enlightenment/proto-Romantic structure. Macpherson uncovers new connections; linking for instance the underground systems of an ancient oral tradition with contemporary notions of the sublime landscape above the ground.
Rhizomatics also relate strongly to my concept of the sonorous as a disruptive force; confounding linearity. Deleuze and Guattari apply their concept to music; claiming that 'musical form, right down to its ruptures and proliferations, is comparable to a weed, a rhizome.'

Gaston Bachelard understands this appeal to landscape mnemonics and mythopoeia through the sonorous; and not necessarily in the strictly 'sonic' meaning of the word. This employment of the sonorous, as we shall see later, also echoes Geddes' idea of synergy as an harmonious whole. Bachelard invokes Minkowski, who writes:

"For my part, I believe that this is precisely where we should see the world come alive and, independent of any instrument, of any physical properties, fill up with penetrating deep waves which, although not sonorous in the sensory meaning of the word, are not, for this reason, less harmonious, resonant, melodic and capable of determining the whole tonality of life…"

As a 'presentation of the unpresentable', the sonorous also relies on a kind of obscurity, an echo of absence; an emphasis on the spectral and the ghostly. Often criticized by modernists for this twilit vagueness, the Ossianic Highlands actually benefit from this obscurity. In his key eighteenth-century work on the sublime, Edmund Burke classed 'obscurity' as an important aid to evoking the sublime and the infinite; together with vacuity, darkness, solitude and silence.
Crucially for Macpherson, obscurity and the emphasis on darkness awakens Burke to prehistory and paganism; unknown origins, and as Burke states: 'some sort of approach towards infinity which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds' .

Alexander Runciman's drawing of Ossian Singing from 1770 depicts the bard sitting under a windswept tree. The belief that Ossian was blind; reciting his poetry against the music from his clarsach; or celtic harp; highlights this foregrounding of sound elements over the other senses. The image demonstrates the importance of sonic phenomena as an integrating force; seeing humanity and nature contained within the same whirling mass. The oral nature of the Gaelic Ossianic tradition means that every re-telling re-appropriates the sonic template; thus being both trans-temporal and spatial.

The Scottish Highlands were now regarded as a visualization of the sublime, thanks to Macpherson's Ossian. Human mythopoeic narrative was implicated in the shapes of mountains and forests; in elemental experience. Ossian also set up discords within the Highland landscape by allowing narrative to dissolve into a sonorous space; revealing new borders between the 'real' (ie: named) and 'imagined' landscape. Runciman's Fingal and Conban-Cargla from 1772 consequently shows the figures continuous with the trees, rocks and clouds.

Sonic phenomena can function as metaphysical apparatus, as a means of realizing absence. In an essay entitled Acoustic Space; Humphrey Carpenter and Marshall MacLuhan stress the 'magical' importance of acoustic phenomena, appealing to the prehistoric oral culture to which Ossian belongs, and which Macpherson's Ossian evokes; highlighting its 'magical' power to 'make present the absent thing':

'Poets have long used the word as incantation, evoking the visual image by magical acoustic stress. Preliterate man was conscious of this power of the auditory to make present the absent thing. Writing annulled this magic because it was a rival magical means of making present the absent sound.'

The sonorous aspects of Ossian, although written, serve to materialize an entropic, absent, and necessarily vague landscape through dissonant droning and vague reverberations.

John Duncan and William Sharp

Geddes had formed the Patrick Geddes Colleagues and Company in 1895, commencing with the publication of The Evergreen periodical. He used the painter John Duncan as the chief illustrative artist, and the writer William Sharp as managing director and a major contributor to the text - it was this group who republished Macpherson's Ossian; reintroducing it to a new audience within a new synergistic framework. However, Sharp left the company after two years due to the international success of works by his alter-ego 'Fiona Macleod'.

Sharp wrote that this 'new Scoto-Celtic movement was 'fundamentally the outcome of Ossian' - he wrote the introduction to Geddes' new edition. In his concern with origins, Geddes drew on the Ossianic aesthetic; hijacking vital yet misappropriated ideas and re-applying them, claiming that 'These things are not ancient and dead, but modern and increasing.' That the Ossianic aesthetic has also been appropriated by J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and numerous other 'fantasy' authors, not to mention current trends in Celtic shamanism and 'folk' movements reinforces this view of these things being 'modern and increasing'.

As we shall see; both William Sharp (as Fiona Macleod) and John Duncan continued to exploit the Ossianic as a source for their material. They explore the same post-Ossianic world in parallel, and can be usefully examined together.


John Duncan's St Bride from 1913 illustrates the inter-dimensional nature of these artists' vision; where the landscape is impregnated with 'decorative' celtic motifs whose flatness literally induces a new plane in the painting. This harmonious synthesis of heterogenous modes of representation through a kind of collaging can be seen as a visualisation of Geddes' idea of synergy as a parallelism of different disciplines.
Duncan applies this 'collage' aesthetic to a 'native' tradition which is becoming fragmented and multi-layered as antiquarianism and archaeology gain ground.

Bride, or Briget - as both pagan goddess and Christian saint - personifies the mingling or continuance of Celtic pre-Christian ideas with Christian belief. Fiona Macleod's St. Briget of the Shores was published in the 1896 edition of The Hills of Dream, providing a textual background for the interplay of styles and symbolism evident in Duncan's painting of 1913. Macleod also told one version of the Bride story in the Autumn edition of The Evergreen. St Bride is the supposed foster mother of Christ, transported by angels to Bethlehem on the eve of his birth. But the legend of St Bride, Macleod claims;

"goes further back than the days of the monkish chroniclers who first attempted to put the disguise of verbal Christian raiment on the most widely-loved and revered beings of the ancient Gaelic pantheon. Long before the maiden Brigida… made her fame as a 'daughter of God'… the Gaels worshipped a Brighde or Bride, goddess of women, of fire, of poetry… one whom the Druids held in honour as a torch bearer of the eternal light, a Daughter of the Morning"

Robert Graves connects Bride with the Triple Goddess; the earth-goddess herself ; while Sir James Frazer called St. Bridgit 'an old heathen goddess of fertility, disguised in a threadbare Christian cloak'

The pan-cultural vision of John Duncan, then; finds grounding in the emerging global mysticism realized by Fiona Macleod through delicate distinctions between history and myth.
Geddes also happily flits between history and myth as mutually informative narratives. In the murals for Ramsay Gardens in Edinburgh that Geddes commissioned to John Duncan, Geddes stresses a parallelism between Scotland's scientific tradition and its mythic tradition by having Duncan represent The Awakening of Cuchullin or The Taking of Excalibur within the same narrative as, for instance The Calling of St Mungo or Michael Scot; medieval "translator of Aristotle and enquirer into scientific matters." Duncan frequently paints in tempera - including in large scale work like The Riders of the Sidhe (1911) and St Bride (1913). The flatness of this media allows Duncan a more 'decorative' aesthetic where spatial representation is necessarily ambiguous. In a similar way to Ossian his figures become landscape elements; pre-Christian and Christian personifications of the mythopoeic landscape.
The central female figure in Duncan's Anima Celtica image published in The Evergreen in 1895 has been tentatively identified by Murdo Macdonald as Bride also; this time surrounded by Ossianic figures such as Cuchullain, Finn, and Ossian himself. The flatness and quasi-collaged nature of many of Duncan's designs, together with their trans-historical subject-matter indicate the layered; non-linear worlds they represent; where the Geddesian In-world collides with the Out-world.

The Fairies

John Duncan's The Riders of the Sidhe from 1911 depicts the Sidhe, or the Celtic Fairies, a divine race who inhabit the Otherworld of the dead; perceived only in visionary states of mind and usually at liminal places such as stone circles, sacred groves, wells and 'fairy hills' or 'fairy glens'.
In the introduction to her drama The Immortal Hour; Fiona Macleod emphasises that the Sidhe, or 'Hidden People… were great and potent, not small and insignificant beings'; as Duncan's portrayal of them reinforces. Macleod's re-telling of the ancient poem The March of the Faërie Host which she includes in her anthology of celtic poetry Lyra Celtica almost reads as a description of Duncan's painting:

'…Sons of kings and queens are one and all.
On all their heads are
Beautiful golden-yellow manes:

With smooth, comely bodies,
With bright blue-starred eyes,
With pure crystal teeth,
With thin red lips…'

The Sidhe are 'setting out on the eve of Beltane… bearing symbols as follows: the tree of life and of knowledge, the cup of the heart of abundance and healing, the sword of the will on the active side, and the crystal of the will on its passive side;' symbols which Lindsay Errington perceives as 'betraying in their type of symbolism the still lingering influence of Patrick Geddes.'
Experiences of the Sidhe are usually accompanied by sonorous phenomena; Duncan claimed to have heard 'fairy music' whilst painting; and seems naturally inclined towards trance-like states; as John Kemplay writes in his book on Duncan:
'he saw with the "inner eye" of his imagination forms more beautiful than any he had ever seen with the "outer eye". But these were not forms alone; they were "living people with quick eyes and strange solemn gestures who move as if in some ritual."

This absorption into the 'In-world', however, would be interrupted by the responsibilities of the 'Out-world'; as Duncan writes from the Hebridean Isle of Barra:

'I have two young people with me who won't let me lapse into the long trance that otherwise would completely absorb me… Perhaps it is best so, this celtic'glamour' and 'twilight' is a dangerous dope.'

Fiona Macleod typically refers to the sonorous aspect of this state of altered consciousness:

'I have heard… I have dreamed… I, too, have heard,
Have sung… that song: O lordly ones that dwell
In secret places in the hollow hills…'

WY Evans-Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries was first published the same year as Duncan painted The Riders of the Sidhe. This classic study of the reality of fairy sightings reflects an interest in the mythopoeic landscape; an aspect of the living folk tradition from which Ossian was drawn. The majority of its numerous accounts of encounters with fairies feature particular sounds or music in their description. Evans-Wentz's book is also comparable to Macpherson's Ossian in that its contents were drawn from actual accounts taken on trips to the Celtic north-western shores of Europe, and finds mythical creatures implicit in the corporeal landscape. Geddes' In-world manifest in the Out-world…

Bride II

A later painting of Bride by Duncan; The Coming of Bride from c.1918 portrays her in her guise as pagan goddess of the earth.
Macleod also links Bride with sonic phenomena:

"They refer to one whom the bards and singers revered as mistress of their craft, she whose breath was a flame, and that flame song… whom every poet, from the humblest wandering singer to Oisin of the Songs, from Oisin of the Songs to Angus Òg on the rainbow or to Midir of the Under-world, blessed, because of the flame she put in the heart of poets as well as the red life she put in the flame that springs from wood and peat."

Bride is thus mistress of the sonorous. Macleod links aural experience with the metaphysical through its personification in Bride.

The importance of sound and music within Geddes' revivalist program is demonstrated by him commissioning Duncan to paint a series of murals of the history of pipe music - and the presence of Pan in the design betrays its links to the pagan past. Macleod's By the Yellow Moonrock employs a 'fëy' piper in its evocation of megalithic mnemonics. Interestingly, the piper appears on 'the Day of Bride.'

Geddes uses sonic metaphors such as harmony and discord to describe his idea of revival through Synergy:

'The sorely needed knowldege, both of the natural and the social order, is approaching maturity; the long delayed renaissance of art has begun, and the prolonged discord of these is changing into harmony; so with these for guidance men shall no longer grind on in slavery to a false image of their lower selves, miscalled self-interest, but at length as freemen, live in Sympathy and labour in the Synergy of the Race."

In Pharais, Macleod demonstrates the folk song's sonic evocation of primeval Highland landscape and collective pre-literate memory, summoning the infant Ossian as a gauge:

"The song was old: older than the oldest things, save the summits of the mountains, the granite isles, and the brooding pain of the sea. Long ago it had been sung by wild Celtic voices, before ever spoken word was writ in letters - before that again, mayhap, and caught perhaps from a wailing Pictish mother - so ancient was the moving old-world strain, so antique the words of the lullaby that was dim with age when it soothed to sleep the child Ossian, son of Fingal."

An early poem by Macleod indicates the centrality of sonorous themes to her work, where landscape sonics parallel the sonics of the soul. This echoes Geddes' synergistic application of harmony and discord as environmental and social registers, and anticipates the work of acoustic ecologists like L Murray Schafer, who claims that every place has a 'keynote sound' that reflects the 'sonic health' of that place. Fiona Macleod writes:

There is in everything an undertone…
Those clear in soul are also clear in sight,
And recognise in a white cascade's flash,
The roar of mountain torrents, and the wail
Of multitudinous waves on barren sands…
A something deeper than mere audible
And visible sensations…
We all are wind-harps casemented on Earth,
And every breath of God that falls may fetch
Some dimmest echo of a faint refrain
From even the worst strung of all of us."

Yeats described his acquaintance William Sharp, as one 'through whom the fluidic world seemed to flow, disturbing all.' Sharp; through his pseudonym Fiona Macleod, appropriates the sonorous aspects of Macpherson's Ossian in his fictional works such as Pharais, The Mountain Lovers; The Dominion of Dreams and Where the Forest Murmurs to create a kind of hallucinatory neo-Celtic dreamworld set in the North-west Highlands.

Typically, Macleod uses sonics to represent spaces of loss and an absent absolute, and in many ways, Macleod's sonorous aesthetic has strong resonances with Lyotard's notion of 'negative presentation':

"The absolute is never there, never given in a presentation, but it is always 'present' as a call to think beyond the 'there.' Ungraspable, but unforgettable. Never restored, never abandoned. This mode of 'presence' of the absolute is the grounds for the 'negative presentation'…"

This further echoes Carpenter and McLuhan's idea of 'making present the absent thing'. Sharp's biographer Flavia Alaya reinforces this idea, referring to his use of chant-like repetition:

'The use of 'chant' is itself intimately connected with the pervasive tendency of the Celts, as Sharp often described them, to see 'the thing beyond the thing,' to view surface phenomena as signs and symbols, a tendency which was quite legitimately extended to language.'

Geddes refers to this world beyond appearances which 'has never been seen with bodily eye' as the In-world in his essay The World Without and the World Within from 1905. A concluding quote from this essay by Geddes not only anticipates quantum theory by suggesting that mind and matter are one, but also implicitly invokes our blind bard Ossian who saw without his bodily eye into the fragmentary, sonorous world of the imagination for which John Duncan and Fiona Macleod's Ossianic Otherworld is at least an analogue:

'Next the In-world. This has never been seen with bodily eye, yet is no imaginary world for all that. In a very true and thorough sense it is more familiar, more real than the other; for all we know, or can ever know of the Out-world, or of each other, is in our minds. " I think, therefore I am," said a great philosopher long ago; while another is famous for having puzzled people by seeming to deny that there was any matter at all. But when you think a little, you see something of what he meant---that all we know of matter is in mind.'