King James VI of Scotland (1567-1625). Portrait attributed to John de Critz (1531-1642), circa 1605. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Castalian Band was a group of Scottish poets, or makars, which flourished between the 1580s and early 1590s in the court of James VI


The Band was consciously modeled on the French example of the Pléiade. Its name is derived from the classical term Castalian Spring, a symbol for poetic inspiration. The name was what the King used to refer to the group, as in lines from one of his own poems:

Quhat drowsie sleepe doth syle[1] your eyes allace
Ye sacred brethren of Castalian band.[2]

The Castalian Band was effectively a select circle of favorite poets and musicians of James VI, and thus a reflection of the young king's personal and literary tastes. Their works were principally written in Middle Scots.

Music also played an important part in performances; some members of the Castalian Band are known to have been musicians and many of the works were set as song.

James was more than simply the patron of the group; as a prolific poet himself, and through his own writing on poetry, the young Scottish king was not only the de facto head and director, but a practising member of the Castalian Band.

"Brethren" of the Castalian BandEdit

Castalian Band

Castalian Band

Poets known to have been associated with the group include:

Membership was fluid[3] and some figures, such as Montgomerie, were already established poets. French influences were particularly important for the King. James himself made translations of work by the Gascon soldier-poet du Bartas, and du Bartas in return translated James's own Lepanto. Du Bartas himself visited the Scottish Court on a diplomatic mission in 1587 during which time James unsuccessfully attempted to persuade him to stay.[4]

Other Castalian makars produced translation as well as original works. William Fowler, whose original poetry includes the sonnet sequence The Taratula of Love,[5] made translations from Petrarch,[6] while John Stewart produced an abridged translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.[7] Many Scots translations made by Castalians predated first translations of the same works in England.

Chief among the Castalians was arguably the soldier, courtier and makar Alexander Montgomerie.[8] He was the reputed leader of the inner circle after victory over Patrick Hume in The Flyting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart (c.1583).[9] His many works include public poems such as The Navigatioun, a long allegory, The Cherry and the Slae, some devotional poems and a large number of personal court lyrics sometimes modelled on poets such as Ronsard. Sonnets on various themes include an autobiographical sequence that deftly charts frustration with "the law's delay".[10] Even when Montgomerie came to be politically excluded from the court sometime in the mid 1590s, he appears to have remained a favourite of the King.[11]

The group also attracted figures from furth of Scotland. The brothers Thomas and Robert Hudson from the North of England, were appointed as by James not only as poets but as court musicians helping to lead the musical "revival" he regarded as going hand-in-hand with his literary programme.[12] Like other "brethren" of the band, Thomas produced translation as well as original work. Under James' patronage he was another translator of du Bartas.[13]

Names that may have been on the fringes of the Castalian Band include:

Alexander and Ayton later represented a more anglicised stream of Scottish writing distinct from the principles of the Castalians. They came to prominence more properly after the Union of the Crowns.[14] Ayton was one of the first Scottish poets to have written explicitly in English, while Alexander wrote rhymed tragedies in a genre sometimes referred to as closet drama[15] and assisted the King in his metrical translations of the Psalms of David.

Verse dramaEdit

Although there is no direct record of Scottish court drama when the Castalians were active, one verse play in Scots does intriguingly survive from the period, an eminently performable comedy of love, Philotus,[16] which is known today only from an anonymous edition published in London in 1603.[17] Its well-developed structure and language as theatre may suggest that our picture of literary activity in the Scottish court of James is not complete. The exact identity of the dramatist is open to speculation.

Reulis and CautelisEdit

King James VI's conscious desire to determine continuity in the Scottish literary tradition is evident from his prose treatise, the Reulis and Cautelis (Rules and Cautions), 1585, a treatise on Scots prosody written when he was 19. Casting himself, accurately, as an apprentice in the art of poetry, his intent was to describe the tradition and set general aesthetic and linguistic standards for Scots poetic composition. As he was well aware, his own ancestor, James I, was a principal figure in that tradition. Some of the specific tenets of the royal treatise were not always observed by the Castalians,[18] but its focus on language was a defining aspect for the group. James wrote elsewhere that it "best became a king" to "make famous his own tongue", and the Reulis and Cautelis seems principally designed to serve that aspiration.[19] Yet James at the same time conscious of his increasingly likely future accession to the English throne also gave his publisher, Robert Waldegrave, permission to anglicise his Scots manuscripts when going to press for consumption in England.[20]

Critical reputationEdit

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For various reasons, the existence of the Castalians has tended to be passed over in general literary histories. For one, Scottish Jacobean writers have largely been overshadowed by the contemporaneous literary scene in London in the age of Shakespeare. Appreciation also has been coloured by the arguable historical view that their work marked a decline and end to the tradition of the makars.[21] The modernist Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid, one of their detractors, dismissed their legacy in his terms as royalist and episcopalian, and described their work as "circumscribed in outlook".[22]

More recent critics and scholars have attempted to seek a more favourable appreciation of their work.[23] The full range of their prolific output has never properly been represented in modern publication and much in their writing, situated in a continuous tradition from the period of earlier writers such as Dunbar, prefigures the metaphysical poets in England. Not only are the Castalians of interest in their own right as the last court poets in a purely Scottish context, but at their best, and especially when their language is correctly appraised, their proficient use of sometimes highly mannered verse forms to express complex ideas and personal emotion can stand with later popular works of figures such as Donne, Herrick, and Marvell.

See alsoEdit


  • Cairns Craig, general editor (1988). The History of Scottish Literature, Volume I, Origins to 1660. Aberdeen University Press. ISBN 0080377254
  • RDS Jack (1985). Alexander Montgomerie. Scottish Academic Press. ISBN 0707303672


  1. conceal
  2. The Poems of King James VI of Scotland (edited by James Craigie). Scottish Text Society, 1955.
  3. See RDS Jack, Poetry under James VI, in Cairns Craig (1988). 125. Jack emphasises how James, as both patron and head, could effectively determine who was "in" or "out" of the inner circle, but this has to be counterbalanced with the fact that the young King did also recognise himself as, to an extent, in tutelage to poetic superiors.
  4. Encyclopedia of literary translation into English, Volume 1, Olive Classe, editor. p.383. King James translated his L'Uranie.
  5. See Elizabeth Elliot for an online evaluation of Fowler's sonnets.
  6. His versions of Petrarch's Petrarch, Trionfi, published 1587.
  7. published 1590.
  8. The King referred to him as "beloved Sanders, maistre of our art". See for instance RDS. Jack Alexander Montgomerie, p.1.
  9. Flyting was a fearless poetic contest with a considerable tradition as court entertainment in Scotland.
  10. In the early 1590s Montgomerie was fighting to reclaim his pension, lost during a period of political imprisonment in England.
  11. RDS Jack Alexander Montgomerie. Scottish Academic Press. Edinburgh, 1985. p.2. Evidence comes in a poem by James, c.1598, which contains both an epitaph for Montgomerie and a complaint at the silence of the other "sacred bretheren" on the subject of the erstwhile "prince of poёts".
  12. See RDS Jack, Poetry under James VI, in Cairns Craig (1988). p. 130.
  13. Thomas Hudson translated du Bartas' Judith. The King contributed a laudatory sonnet to its publication in 1584.
  14. RDS Jack, in Cairns Craig (1988). p.126.
  15. Alexander's dramas include his Croesus, Darius, The Alexandrean, and Julius Caesar and were published in the years after 1604.
  16. The first ever known full production of the text was mounted by Biggar Theatre Workshop in September 1997 under the direction of Ann Matheson. See Theatre in Scots p.4
  17. Association of Scottish Literary Studies, Edwin Morgan, ScotLit 20, Spring 1999
  18. RDS Jack observes that even James contradicted his own advice in some matters. Craig (ed), History of Scottish Literature, Volume 1, p.127.
  19. In Basilicon Doron. See N Rhodes, J Richards, J Marshall (eds). King James VI and I: selected writings. Ashgate, Aldershot. 2003. p.2
  20. N Rhodes, J Richards, J Marshall (eds). King James VI and I: selected writings. Ashgate, Aldershot. 2003. p.2
  21. RDS Jack, Poetry under James VI, in Cairns Craig (1988). p. 137.
  22. Hugh MacDiarmid, Lucky Poet. London, 1936. p. 206
  23. Scottish Literature: '1600 and all that' RDS Jack, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies website

External linksEdit


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