Modern, minimalist Emacs for macOS ⌘
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Castlemacs: modern, minimalist Emacs for macOS ⌘


Quick Start | Changelog


  • Compatibility with common macOS keybindings
  • Ergonomic keybindings that follow simple, sensible rules
  • Easy windows management and movement
  • Easy movement between points in the file and between files
  • Multiple cursors, project manager, Git front end, file tree, terminal
  • Handy spellchecker, built-in thesaurus and word definition lookup
  • A handful of tiny, useful helper functions

Quick Start

brew install gnutls the_silver_searcher aspell
mv ~/.emacs.d ~/.emacs.d.bak
git clone ~/.emacs.d

Note to Mojave users

In macOS Mojave Emacs build might fail due to some changes in Xcode command line tools. Xcode command line tools must be pointed to the release version of Xcode 10 instead of the beta version. Use xcode-select to accomplish this.

Table of Contents


Emacs is an extensible, customizable text editor a framework for creating any text editor you want. The goal of Castlemacs is to build a simple, modern and minimalist Emacs setup tailored to macOS while following these

Core principles

  1. Be beginner-friendly. Anyone should be able to start using Castlemacs just like they can start using VS Code, Sublime, etc.
  2. Respect macOS. Common system-wide keybindings work as you expect.
  3. Respect Emacs. Never break vanilla Emacs compatibility. Always provide a way to go “full Emacs” if user so desires.
  4. No layers of complexity. No custom configuration layers, no DSL, nothing new. Simple init.el, packages installed and configured via use-package.
  5. Go minimal when possible. For example, use lightweight avy instead of full-featured Helm.


Is Castlemacs compatible with non-macOS systems? Yes! Nothing binds Castlemacs to macOS except for some conventions. As long as you have some key on your keyboard that can play a role of Super (e.g. windows key), you’re good to go.

I don’t know Emacs. Can I use Castlemacs or is it hard?. You don’t need to know Emacs, but it will help. The goal of this project is to make a setup that is suitable for absolute beginners.

Is this similar to Spacemacs? No. Spacemacs is a big, custom distribution with additional layers on top of Emacs. Castlemacs is simply a pre-configured Emacs. You don’t need to learn anything new if you know your way around Emacs.

Will Castlemacs support <something>? Probably, unless it goes against the Core Principles. Feel free to open an issue.

Does this setup work well in the terminal? It works, but it is not built for terminal use, since one of the Core Principles is to behave like a native macOS application.

Why is it called Castlemacs? See Why this name?

Where do I store my private config? You can store your regular private config in private.el. This file will not be changed in Castlemacs, so you don’t have worry about conflicts.


Install Emacs

Install Emacs via brew. This will build Emacs from source. It might take some time and can possibly fail.

brew tap railwaycat/emacsmacport
brew install emacs-mac --with-natural-title-bar
ln -s /usr/local/opt/emacs-mac/ /Applications

Why not “official” build?

A canonical version of Emacs for macOS can be found at However, this version has a number of disadvantages:

  • Due to some build options related to graphics, certain extensions like Powerline produce incorrect colors (RGB space issue)
  • No emoji support (if you’re into this kind of stuff)
  • No sub-pixel smooth scrolling
  • No native support for org-protocol

Install dependencies

Castlemacs relies on The Silver Searcher to quickly search within a project. Install it:

brew install the_silver_searcher

Castlemacs requires aspell, a Free and Open Source spell checker. Install it:

brew install aspell

We also need `gnutls` — GNU Transport Layer Security (TLS) Library:

brew install gnutls

Install Castlemacs

Backup current Emacs config (if exists), then clone Castlemacs from Github:

mv ~/.emacs.d ~/.emacs.d.bak
git clone ~/.emacs.d

Launch Emacs and wait for several minutes. On the first launch it will download and install packages. When it’s done and the status line in the bottom stops outputting text, restart Emacs.

Don’t worry about warning messages on the first launch, they will go away after first restart.

Setup keyboard

I highly recommend changing Caps Lock to Control by going to System Preferences → Keyboard → Modifier Keys. This way you will have a more comfortable Control under your left pinky.

If you use Japanese Magic Keyboard, then you don’t have to do anything, since control is in a good place already.


Modifier keys

Castlemacs takes advantage of two facts:

  1. Command key is used in macOS for all major system shortcuts, so users have muscle memory;
  2. Emacs recognizes a Super key, but almost never uses it by default.

So, Command key becomes Super

NameOn Mac keyboardEmacs key
SuperCommand ⌘s
MetaLeft Alt ⌥M
ControlControl ⌃C

In this document we’ll refer to keys with their common macOS names: Cmd, Alt, Ctrl.


Basic combinations with Command work as expected.

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
EscapeCancel current actionC-g
Cmd-sSave fileC-x C-s
Cmd-Shift-sSave file asC-x C-w
Cmd-oOpen fileC-x C-f
Cmd-aSelect whole bufferC-x h
Cmd-qQuit EmacsC-x C-c
Cmd-Shift-pOpen command paletteM-x
Ctrl-x cOpen private config fileN/A
Ctrl-x COpen init config fileN/A


Basic movement

Buttons I, J, K, L form a natural alternative to arrow keys. You can move around by holding Cmd while using these keys, without leaving the home row (press Cmd with your right thumb).

(See for some background and motivation.)

BindingDescriptionEmacs defaultAlternative
Cmd-iGo upC-pArrow UP
Cmd-kGo downC-nArrow DOWN
Cmd-jGo leftC-bArrow LEFT
Cmd-lGo rightC-fArrow RIGHT

Moving text

Hold Alt to move current line up or down. This is sometimes called “bubbling”.

Alt-UPMove line up
Alt-DOWNMove line down

Simple jumping within text

Cmd or Fn with arrows work just like everywhere else in macOS. Holding Shift selects the region under movement.

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Cmd-LEFTBeginning of line†C-a
Cmd-RIGHTEnd of lineC-e
Cmd-UPBeginning of bufferM-<
Cmd-DOWNEnd of bufferM->
Fn-UPPage upC-v
Fn-DOWNPage downM-v
Fn-Alt-UPPage up other windowC-M-v
Fn-Alt-DOWNPage down other windowC-M-S-v

† “Beginning of line” is a smart command. It moves cursor to the first non-whitespace character. Press it again, and it moves cursor to the real beginning of line. You can keep pressing it to jump cursor between those two positions.

Smart jumping within buffer and between buffers

Many commands in Emacs write the current position into a mark ring. For example, if you were editing line 6, then performed a search with Cmd+f, did something and want to come back, press Cmd+,= to go back to line 6. =Cmd+. to go forward.

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Cmd-⸴Go to prev. markC-u SPC
Cmd-.Go to next markN/A
Cmd-<Go to prev. bufferC-x LEFT
Cmd->Go to next bufferC-x RIGHT

Holding Shift ‘lifts’ the meaning of this movement, and instead of jumping to a previous/next position in the current buffer, it jumps to a previous/next buffer in current window.

Search and replace

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Cmd-fSearch in fileC-s
Cmd-rVisual replaceN/A
Cmd-Alt-fVisual replaceN/A



Words and lines

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Cmd-RETNew line belowN/A
Cmd-Shift-RETNew line aboveN/A
Cmd-/Comment lineC-x C-;
Cmd-jJoin with next line or join all lines in regionN/A
Alt-uUpcase current word or regionM-u (same)
Alt-lDowncase current word or regionM-l (same)
Alt-cCapitalize wordM-c (same)

Deleting text

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Alt-BACKSPACEDelete word backwardsN/A
Alt-Shift-BACKSPACEDelete word forwardsM-d
Cmd-BACKSPACEDelete current lineN/A
Ctrl-kDelete to end of lineCtrl-k
Ctrl-dDelete characterCtrl-d

Multiple cursors

Cmd-dSelect next occurrence†
Cmd-Shift-dSelect all occurrences
Alt-Cmd-dAdd cursor to each line in region

† When no text is selected, Cmd-d adds new cursor to the next line.

While multiple cursors are active:

C-g or ESCQuit multiple cursors mode
Ctrl-’Hide/show lines where cursors are active
Ctrl-v and Alt-vScroll the screen to center on each cursor

Learn about all features of multiple cursors at


Emacs is pretty good at indenting stuff automatically. Pressing TAB on a line or region will indent it as needed. Castlemacs assumes that we never use tabs, only spaces, and use 2 spaces by default in most languages.

TABIndent current line or region correctly
C-x TABRigidly change indentation of line or region


Command with apostrophe expands selection. Holding shift contracts it.

Cmd-’Expand region
Cmd-Shift-’Contract region

Window Management

Note that in Emacs-talk, a pane is called a window.

Splitting windows

These bindings are based on default Emacs conventions, but save you one keypress. Also, Cmd-w closes current window just like a browser tab.

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Cmd-1Kill other windowsC-x 1
Cmd-2Split horizontallyC-x 2
Cmd-3Split verticallyC-x 3
Cmd-0Kill current windowC-x 0
Cmd-wKill current windowC-x 0

Moving between windows

Move left and right just like in iTerm. Hold shift to make it up and down.

Cmd-[Move leftCtrl-Cmd-LEFT
Cmd-]Move rightCtrl-Cmd-RIGHT
Cmd-Shift-[Move upCtrl-Cmd-UP
Cmd-Shift-]Move downCtrl-Cmd-DOWN

Restoring window configuration

This is winner-mode. It captures the current window configuration and allows you to restore it after it gets changed by some Emacs action.

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Cmd-Alt-[Restore previous configurationC-c LEFT
Cmd-Alt-]Go to next configuration (undo restore)C-c RIGHT

Project Management

Castlemacs uses Projectile for project management. There are a lot of features, and most of them are discoverable from the so-called “command map”.

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Ctrl-Cmd-pOpen projectile command mapC-c p
Ctrl-Cmd-p pSwitch projectC-c p p
Cmd-pFind file in projectC-c p f
Cmd-Shift-fSearch in projectC-c p s s

Note that ‘Emacs default’ doesn’t make much sense in this context, since Projectile is not part of Emacs. I try to provide commonly used combinations for these cases: C-c p is what Projectile’s author suggests, for example, and many configs follow this suggestion.

While in search mode:

Ctrl-Alt-mPreview current file
Ctrl-Alt-nNext file and preview
Ctrl-Alt-pPrevious file and preview
ESCQuit search


Git gutter

Changes to the current file are shown in the gutter on left side. You can change the appearance of those symbols: search for git-gutter section in init.el. To see a list of all available colors run Alt-x counsel-colors-emacs. See Git-gutter docs for more info.



Castlemacs uses Magit, a wonderful package that aspires to be a complete Git porcelain.

Cmd-gMagit status

From this status window you can do everything. Here are the basic commands available within Magit status window:

sStage current file or chunk
cOpen commit window
FOpen pull window
POpen push window

There are cheat sheets available within Magit. Refer to Magit User Manuals for more info.

Terminal (shell)

There is a toggleable popup shell which is actually a full blown terminal emulator (ansi-term). It uses your system default shell and loads the appropriate environment.

Cmd-=Toggle shell

File tree and open buffers

Cmd-bSwitch to another buffer or open recent file
Cmd-Shift-b-=Toggle filetree


Languages and modes

Emacs supports many programming languages by default. Castlemacs adds support for YAML, Markdown, Web mode (HTML, CSS, PHP, templating, etc), Emmet.

Feel free to add more features by sending a PR or opening an issue.

Code completion

Code completion popup shows up immediately when possible. When popup is active:

EnterSelect current candidate
Alt-DIGITQuickly complete with one of first 10
TABComplete common part
F1Show documentation for selected candidate
Ctrl-wShow source for selected candidate

Note that not all backends support the last two commands.

This feature is provided by Company mode package. Learn more about Company mode at


Ctrl-Enter or Ctrl-jExpand Emmet

Learn more about emmet mode.

Spellchecking, thesaurus, definition


Spellchecking requires an external command to be available. See Install dependencies.

BindingDescriptionEmacs default
Cmd-\Correct current word via popupN/A
Cmd-Ctlr-\Correct current word via listM-$

The last three lines in the popup allow to add current word to your personal dictionary or accept it as correct for current session (as long as Emacs is open) or current buffer.

When correcting via list, you can press i to quickly add the word to your personal dictionary.

Note that personal dictionary is located at ~/.aspell.LANG.pws by default.


You can quickly search for synonyms. This requires an internet connection since the package uses as backend.

Cmd-Shift-\Search for synonyms of current word

Select a synonym and press Enter to replace word.


Word definition

This requires an internet connection.

Alt-\Define current word


Org mode

Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system. Learn more about Org at (Caution! This is a black hole!)

Castlemacs provides some nice defaults:

  • Visually indent sections
  • Tab in source blocks acts like in corresponding major mode
  • Code highlighting works in code blocks
  • When TODO changes state, history goes to logbook
  • When TODO becomes DONE, current time and date are recorded
  • Shift selection with arrows work (unless you’re in a spot where Org mode’s default actions kick in)

Put your org files in ~/org. If you use Dropbox or similar cloud provider, I suggest storing your actual org folder there, and providing a symlink like so:

ln -s ~/Dropbox/Org ~/org

Org agenda looks inside all the files in ~/org

Why this name?

Castlemacs takes advantage of the heavily used Command key on macOS. The Command key icon ⌘ is a ‘looped square’: it’s known as the place of interest sign when used on information signs, a practice which started in Finland in the 1950s, spreading to the other Nordic countries in the 1960s.

The symbol is derived from a shape of a castle. Here, for example, is the Borgholm Castle in Sweden: