A makar is a term from Scottish literature for a poet or bard, often thought of as royal court poet, although the term can be more generally applied. The word functions in a manner similar to the Greek term (poiētēs) which means both maker and poet. It especially highlights the role of the poet as someone skilled in the crafting or making of controlled, formal poetry with intricate or involved diction and effects. The term is normally applied to poets writing in Scots although it need not be exclusive to Scottish writers. William Dunbar for instance referred to the English poets Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower as makars.
In literary history, the term The Makars is specifically used to refer to a number of poets of fifteenth and sixteenth century Scotland, in particular Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, who wrote a diverse genre of works in Middle Scots in the period of the northern renaissance, a time of transition between medieval and renaissance sensibilities in the kingdom. Qualities in verse especially prized by many of these writers included the combination of skilful artifice with natural diction, concision and "quickness" of expression. One word that expresses these qualites in combination is the Scots term glegness. Some of the Makars, such as Dunbar, also featured an increasing incorporation of Latinate terms into Scots prosody, or aureation, heightening the creative tensions between the ornate and the natural in poetic diction.
The Middle Scots plural is makaris.
The work of the Makars of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was in part marked out by an adoption in vernacular languages of the new and greater variety in metrics and prosody current across Europe after the influence of such figures as Dante and Petrarch and similar to the route which Chaucer followed in England. Their work is usually distinguished from the work of earlier Scottish writers such as Barbour and Wyntoun who wrote romance and chronicle verse in octosyllabic couplets and it also perhaps marked something of a departure from the medieval alliterative or troubador traditions; but one characteristic of poetry by the Makars is that features from all of these various traditions, such as strong alliteration and swift narration, continued to be a distinctive influence.
The first of the Makars proper in this sense, although perhaps the least Scots due to his education predominantly in captivity at the English court in London, is generally taken to be James I (1394-1437) the likely author of the Kingis Quair. Apart from other principal figures already named, writing by makars such as Richard Holland, Blind Hary and Walter Kennedy also survives along with evidence that suggests the existence of a substantial body of lost work. The quality of extant work generally, both minor and major, demonstrates a thriving poetic tradition in Scotland throughout the period. Henryson, who is generally seen today as one of the foremost makars, is not known to have been a court poet, but the Royal Palace of Dunfermline, the city in which he was based, was one of the residences of the Stewart court.
A high point in cultural patronage was the Renaissance Court of James IV (1488-1513) now principally associated in literary terms with William Dunbar. The pinnacle in writing from this time was in fact Douglas's Eneados (1513), the first full and faithful translation of an important work of classical antiquity into any Anglic language. Douglas is one of the first authors to explicitly identify his language as Scottis. This was also the period when use of Scots in poetry was at its most richly and successfully aureate. Dunbar's Lament for the Makaris (c.1505) contains a leet of makars, not exclusively Scottish, some of whom are now only known through his mention, further indicative of the wider extent to the tradition.
The new plane of achievement set by Douglas in epic and translation was not followed up in the subsequent century, but later makars, such as David Lyndsay, still drew strongly on the work of fifteenth and early sixteenth century exponents. This influence can be traced right through to Alexander Scott and the various members of the Castalian Band in the Scottish court of James VI (1567-1603) which included Alexander Montgomerie and, once again, the king himself. The king composed a treatise, the Reulis and Cautelis (1584), which proposed a formalisation of Scottish prosody and consciously strove to identify what was distinctive in the Scots tradition. The removal of the Court to London under James after 1603 is usually regarded as marking the eclipse of the distinctively Scottish tradition of poetry initiated by the Makars, but figures such as William Drummond might loosely be seen as forming a continuation into the seventeenth century.
The Makars have often been referred to by literary critics as Scots Chaucerians although the term is not helpful. Chaucer was certainly an important influence, but the makars drew strongly on a native tradition predating Chaucer, exemplified by Barbour, as well as the courtly literature of France.
In the more general application of the term which is current today the word can be applied to poets of the Scots revival in the eighteenth century, such as Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson.
In 2002 the City of Edinburgh, Scotland's capital, instituted a post of makar, known as the Edinburgh Makar. Each term lasts for three years and the first two incumbents were Stewart Conn (2002) and Valerie Gillies (2005). The current incumbent (starting June 2008) is Ron Butlin.
Other cities to create Makar posts include Glasgow (Liz Lochhead), Stirling (Magi Gibson) and Aberdeen (Sheena Blackhall).
A position of national laureate, entitled The Scots Makar, was established in 2004 by the Scottish Parliament. The first appointment was made directly by the Parliament in that year when Edwin Morgan received the honour to become Scotland's first ever official national poet.
In recent times, other examples of poets that have seemed to particularly exemplify the traditions of the makars have included Robert Garioch, Sydney Goodsir Smith, George Campbell Hay and Norman MacCaig among many others.
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