The Ossian Hall
By 1769 the interior of Penicuik House had been largely completed – in lavish style – with finishing details including Dutch white chimney tiles and copies of antique Roman statues, commissioned from a sculptor in Rome by John Baxter the Younger on Sir James’s behalf. But it was The Ossian Hall which was the true pièce de resistance.
Sir James commissioned influential Scottish artist, Alexander Runciman (1736-1785), to decorate the ceiling of the grand saloon not, as might have been expected, with themes derived from Classical antiquity – as indeed was the original intention – but rather with themes from the recently published Poems of Ossian (1765) by the Scottish poet James Macpherson.
Macpherson claimed to have collected the tales in their original Scots Gaelic by ‘word-of-mouth’ and the work was hugely influential in the development of Romanticism, the concept of the ‘noble savage’ and the Gaelic revival so Sir James’s decision to dedicate the ceiling of the grandest room in Penicuik House to Ossianic themes reveals much about his position at the vanguard of developing national and international culture.
However, the authenticity of James Macpherson’s seminal work was called into question and a heated debate over provenance and originality raged well into the 20th century, long after Runciman’s magnificent ceiling, one of Scotland’s greatest lost artworks, was destroyed by the fire of 1899.