#FolkloreThursday, Brownies, Celtic folklore, Encyclopaedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology, Faerie, Faeries, folklore, folklore creatures, Legends and Ghosts, Myths, Origin of the Fae, Scottish folklore, Supernatural North East: Folklore, The Adventures of Saphira the Faery Dog, The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, Thomas Keightley
Who wouldn’t want a Faery-creature to work for them? I’m sure a Grogoch out in the garden would prove useful once spring returns and even a Domovoi would be a great help in the house. But what if one creature could do it all?
The Brownie is said to finish all tasks left undone in the dark of night…
A household spirit in the folklore of Scotland and northern England, generally described as a shaggy-haired little man about 1 meter tall, sometimes dressed in shabby brown clothes and sometimes naked. Hairy Meg is an example of a female brownie, but in most accounts they are male.
Brownies attached themselves to a particular household or farm. They came out at night to complete tasks left unfinished by servants or farm labourers, tending to livestock, threshing grain, reaping crops, cleaning the house and barns, churning butter, and taking care of numerous other chores. In return, housewives left our treats, placing a bowl of cream, or a tidbit of freshly baked bread or cake where the brownie was likely to find it by chance. It was important not to offer a brownie direct payment for his services, as this invariably led to his departure.
Criticising a brownie’s work was a sure way to cause offence and turn him from an industrious helper into a troublesome, mischievous boggart.”
There are many local tales of this mischievous, sometimes malevolent, brownie, either in the guise of a household spirit who steals food from the table and torments the family or as a tricksy field-dweller.”
“Meg Mullach (Hairy Meg)
…describing her as an excellent housekeeper who kept the castle meticulously spick and span and served meals as if by magic, with dishes floating through the air and landing perfectly on the table. She was said to be able to foretell the future.
…in some accounts she is said to have hairy hands with which she snatches away children.”
All this this comes from The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper. There’s a lot more on the folklore of these creatures to be read in the book.
THE Nis, Kobold, or Goblin, appears in Scotland under the name of Brownie. [a] Brownie is a personage of small stature, wrinkled visage, covered with short curly brown hair, and wearing a brown mantle and hood. His residence is the hollow of the old tree, a ruined castle, or the abode of man, He is attached to particular families, with whom he has been known to reside, even for centuries, threshing the corn, cleaning the house, and doing everything done by his northern and English brethren. He is, to a certain degree, disinterested; like many great personages, he is shocked at anything approaching to the name of a bribe or douceur, yet, like them, allows his scruples to be overcome if the thing be done in a genteel, delicate, and secret way. Thus, offer Brownie a piece of bread, a cup of drink, or a new coat and hood, and he flouted at it, and perhaps, in his huff, quitted the place for ever; but leave a nice bowl of cream, and some fresh honeycomb, in a snug private corner, and they soon disappeared, though Brownie, it was to be supposed, never knew anything of them.
A good woman had just made a web of linsey-woolsey, and, prompted by her good nature, had manufactured from it a snug mantle and hood for her little Brownie. Not content with laying the gift in one of his favourite spots, she indiscreetly called to tell him it was there. This was too direct, and Brownie quitted the place, crying,
A new mantle and a new hood; Poor Brownie! ye ‘ll ne’er do mair gude!
- THE BROWNIES OF SCOTLAND AND ENGLAND
Brownies are small, usually helpful spirits originating in Scotland and northern England. They are generally male and reside in the house carrying out useful household tasks such as churning butter or polishing floors. Brownies are either clad in rags or naked, and some folktales say that if you offer clothes to a brownie they will leave your home, either because they now have nice new clothes or because they are affronted by the gift.
Be warned, however: Brownies are quick to anger, and if you irritate a brownie you may live to regret it, as these once-helpful household friends can turn into boggarts. Boggarts are brownies gone bad – they break things, throw things, and are generally terrible house guests.
Brownies in Faerie Lore
Brownies are a kind of faerie. They’re in the category of Hob, a “house spirit” in the U.K. (Possible connection with Hobbits?)
A Hob may be a word that evolved from the English given name of Robin, related to Robin Goodfellow, another name for a Brownie in southern England.
Hobs appear to be related to the Swedish Tomte or Tomtars, with a history similar to Ireland’s Tuatha De Danann. In both cases, these faeries retired to the “hollow hills” or Brughs: Hollow faerie mounds in which several families live (or lived).
A Hobgoblin is a cousin of the Brownie, and — perhaps because he’s more of a practical joker — the Hobgoblin is sometimes considered a poltergeist rather than a faerie.
Dobby in the Harry Potter stories seemed to be related to hobgoblins; a Dobie is another term for a brownie, in some areas, or it can mean a ghostly entity in other areas.
Brownies are usually:
- Solitary faeries, seen alone or in very small groups.
- Male (but some are married, and that’s usually the only time a female Brownie is seen).
- 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall, but some are described as being six or seven inches tall.
- Naked and very hairy, or dressed in brown clothing, with shaggy brown hair.
- Associated with a pond, pool or stream. (Brownies may have webbed fingers, making swimming easier.)
Brownies may become attached to a family or one member of the family. Brownies usually prefer rural homes and farms, where they may work at night, farming or cleaning.
Brownies are most prevalent in northern England and in Scotland.
Favorite Brownie foods include a bowl of cream or rich, whole milk; cakes with honey; and corn muffins, possibly served with honey.
However, you must be very clear when you set out the treats for the Brownie: This is not a payment for his (or her) work. In most cases, if you try to pay a Brownie, he’ll leave. He doesn’t work for payment.
In contrast, areas such as Lincolnshire have Brownies that like to be paid, and specifically with clothing. On New Year’s Eve, Brownies in Lincolnshire have each been paid with a traditional white linen smock.
Other Brownies will leave if you try to give them any kind of clothing. This raises the question: Do they resent the payment, or does the gift of clothing set them free, as with Harry Potter’s Dobby?
Brownies are creatures found in the folklore of Scotland and England. Although Brownies appear in Highland lore, they are more commonly found in the Lowlands and Northern England. They fall within the category of a domestic tutelary spirit.
Tutelary spirits are guardians, and they can be found in many world traditions protecting people, property, or even as a patron deity of a city. Brownies fall into the category that protects property.
Although Brownies and other house elves were known as good spirits, they could also be quite troublesome if not treated properly.
Most folktales simply describe Brownies packing up and leaving, taking their luck and good fortune with them, when they have been offended by someone on the property.
Although this doesn’t sound especially malevolent, it had dire consequences for the household. A once prosperous farm could quickly sink into despair without the luck that brownies carry as well as the extra help these little worker elves performed.
The Boggart is considered to be a like a Brownie, but an especially mischievous one.
It can sometimes function like the typical helpful Brownie, but it often displays characteristics of a poltergeist. The Boggart may work hard doing household chores only occasionally playing pranks on the family who lives there. But if he is angered, the Boggart is particularly vicious in his response, even being known to completely destroy the entire farm.
So, what is the protocol to keep your own Brownie happy? There are some rules of thumb that tend to show up often in the folklore:
- Brownies and other house elves tend to enjoy a neat and tidy house. They will help you with chores, but they will be annoyed if the household is not clean.
- Never spy on a Brownie. There are many tales of people who hid themselves in the room where they expected the Brownie to be busy working that evening just to get a glimpse. Usually this is not done with bad intentions, simply out of curiosity. But, the Brownie nearly always discovers the human and leaves the premises in a huff, never to return.
- Just as in Harry Potter, giving your house-elf a set of clothes is his license to take off. J.K. Rowling did not come up with that on her own, it is heavily documented in the folklore. However, the house-elves of folk tradition are not slaves like the ones in the Harry Potter series. They can come and go as they please. A gift of clothes is not necessarily a nullification of contractual slavery, as Rowling depicts, but simply a great insult.
- Feed your Brownie well and often. One reason Brownies are frequently angered in the folk tales is when the family they serve forgets to feed them, or feeds them milk that has gone sour. Nothing makes a Brownie more annoyed than sour milk!
- Have pets and be good to them. Brownies are often depicted as having friendships with domestic animals. One particular story described the Brownie being bonded to a horse rather than to a property or family. When the horse was sold, the Brownie went with him. The Brownie blessed whomever was good to the horse and cursed those who were cruel to her.
Anyone who studies historical fairy belief already knows to tread carefully when dealing with wights. The notion of the pretty, tiny, whimsical little fairy is a very recent invention. Our ancestors knew well that elves and fairies possessed the ability to grant great gifts or cause great harm.
Brownies are especially depicted as benign helper spirits. And, according to the lore, they absolutely are. But, they are also sensitive creatures who display strong emotion. Crossing a Brownie could be the worst mistake you ever make.
Long ago, brownies were considered to be household gods, known as cofgodas in Old England. As a matter of fact, brownies are related to the household spirits of the hob species, under the leprechaun order. They work diligently for farmers and also within houses.
Brownies work only after dark and stop when the sun rises. According to folklorist, John Gregorson Campbell, English brownies live inside homes, while most Scottish brownies reside in waterways, such as streams and behind waterfalls. The Scottish brownies prefer farming over household chores. In exchange for their tireless labor, they expect gifts of food, such as porridge and honey. If they are treated well and given a small dish of cream, they will enthusiastically perform whatever work the peasants are too tired to complete. They don’t consider their gifts as payment, but simply tokens of appreciation.
Brownies are introverts, preferring alone time. During the months preceding the harvest seasons they avoid contact with others. After the harvest, they socialize in the stables, barns and fields. Even though brownies rarely associate with humans, they are always polite when entering the house in the night. Humans trust the wisdom and judgment of the brownies.
While brownies are peaceable creatures, they are easily offended. Never criticize their work. Leaving too much food out for them is considered an insult. When they become displeased with their homeowners, they transform into mischievous boggarts. Their alter-ego plays tricks by causing milk to sour, injuring pets, pulling blankets off sleeping children and giving people the chills by placing their clammy hands on their cheeks. They despise laziness and will torment anyone who doesn’t put in their fair share of help around the house. When homeowners overtly misuse them, they relocate to a different home.
If a brownie becomes too much of a nuisance to bother with, there are ways to clear the house and property of them. The most common method is to give them a new outfit. Not just the sock, as depicted by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series, but the whole ensemble will motivate the creature to leave on his own free will. According to the Grimm fairytale, The Elves and the Shoemaker, brownies vanish the instant they put on new clothes given to them by their homeowners. The most difficult brownies are stubborn and practically nothing will prompt their leaving.
According to legend, which later became the fable, The Farmer and the Devil, in the Lincolnshire countryside of England in a village called, Mumby, a farmer angered a boggart by plowing his field. This particular boggart was stout and hairy and smelled horribly. After arguing about the farmer invading the boggart’s land, they agreed to farm together and split the profits yielded from the crop. The farmer tricked the boggart by claiming the revenue earned from the top half of the crop when they grew barley and the bottom half when they grew potatoes. Both times the boggart was left with nothing. He eventually left the farmer alone.
During the 2000s, the novels, Spiderwick by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, and Fablehaven, book 2, by Brandon Mull introduce combative brownies. The brownies tend to live isolated and dislike the quest they participate in with humans.
Despite their more recent transition to being portrayed as aging grumps, back in the day, brownies held power within their households. Peasants and farm owners didn’t have enough hours in each day to perform all the tasks necessary to survive the harsh conditions that existed before modern conveniences. They appreciated their household brownies and keeping the little creatures happy was a natural part of their daily rituals.
The Brownie is also known by various names in its different forms around the globe:
Bendith Y Mamau, Bockle, Bodach, Boggart, Brounie, Bookha, Broonie, Brouny, Browny, Budagh, Bwbachod, Bwca, Chin-Chin, Kobakama, Choa Phum Phi, Dobbie, Domonvoi, Fenodoree, Goblin, Good Folk, Heinzelmännchen, Hobgoblin, Hob, House Brownie, Killmoulis, Kobold, Little Man, Nis, Pixie, Psgie, Shellycoat, Tighe, Tomtgubbe, Tomtra, Urisk, Yumboes.
A species of domestic fairy o house-spirit from Scottish fairy lore, the brownie is short of stature, only standing about three feet tall. If clothed at all, these brown face and shaggy headed fairies wears ragged brown clothing. Brownies tend to become attached to one member of a family; generally nocturnal, they finish housework left undone by the servants. Care should be taken not to criticize their work or they may become offended; at least they could turn mischievous and at worst they could become and injurious boggart.
In Scotland the brownies are said to live in the hollow of trees or abandoned houses so long as they are near the family they adopt. According to Highland lore the way to banish a troublesome brownie is to leave a small green hooded-cloak for it by the kitchen fire. The brownie will find the clothing and wear it with great delight but will leave the household, never to be seen again.”
– Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane.
Scottish and British folklore figure.
The specialized brownie called the gruagach in the Hebrides indeed seems to have been divine at some point, for until recently milk offerings were poured over its sacred stones to convince the gruagach to guard the herds.
Most observers claimed the brownie as a stout hairy man, while others said that although short, the brownie was not necessarily rotund, and his hair was fair and flowing. In either case, he usually wore ragged brown clothes.
The brownie specialized in doing barn work at night: threshing, tidying, currying horses, and the like. Outdoor work was not beyond his domain, for he would also help with sheepherding, mowing, and running errands. Obviously, a household with a brownie was a happy one; the brownie was not always invisible but could serve as a confidante and adviser if necessary.”
– The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan.
(also known as Dobies or Broonies)
Distinguished from other fairy-folk by their brown skin (hence the name Broonie or Brownie), these mischievous creatures were from the less malevolent walk of life within Goblindom, which is probably just as well due to the number of tales surrounding them. Household Brownies were described as very short hairy men with no noses (just nostrils), who wore either nothing at all or simple sackcloths, and helped around the house at night when the human household had retired to their beds.
Brownies asked for nothing in return for their services, barring a good wholesome ration of food. Like the rest of Goblindom, even these helpful folk seemed to have been short on the temper gene, and would take offence if their work was criticised or the food for them was of poor quality: do that enough, and it was said that the friendly helpful Brownie may end up turning into a Boggart.”
Boggarts were said to be the result of Brownies that had uttered the phrase “Don’t make me angry – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” and had been ignored. The normal innocuous Brownie, angered or abused, would grow a long ugly sharp nose, his teeth would grow to points, and his fingernails would lengthen to talons.
Unlike Brownies, Boggarts were also very difficult to get rid of until the creature grew bored of his tormenting antics and left of his own accord.”
– Supernatural North East: Folklore, Myths, Legends and Ghosts by Tony Liddell.
I collected everything I’ve found about Brownies on a new Pinterest board if you’d like to take a look.
I use Brownies in my writing.
Brownies are the servants of the High Fae (from any Court).
They’re androgynous. They’re the size of a two litre coke bottle. They’re obsessed with technology. They’re excellent cooks. They’re obsessed with cleaning and cleanliness. They don’t like it when others try to do their duties.
I’m still finding out more about them each time I use them in my writing, so I’ll probably update that part in time.
But for now, check them out in The Adventures of Saphira the Faery Dog. They might play a minor role, but they do make sure that life in the castle runs smoothly.
“The Brownies tearfully threw flowers on the path Eolande would walk to her groom.
Eolande came out of the castle, walking on the path the Brownies had so carefully covered with flowers. She wore the sapphire dress. With a few changes. Long, sweeping sleeves of silver-white silk and panels of the same hidden in the folds of the blue which could only be seen as she walked, made Saphira feel close to tears. Her hair hung loose with a crown of flowers – real and gemstone – which stopped the wind from messing up her hair.
Will-‘o-the-wisps chirped around her. Brownies with tears falling and giggling pixies danced around her. Other Fae, in uncomfortable human form, played various musical instruments that brought tears to the eyes of the guests.
An old man, everyone only knew him as the librarian, led the ceremony.” – Saphira and the Accidental Lovers, The Tales of Saphira the Faery Dog, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading the series. Comments can be left here or on Wattpad – I always appreciate feedback. What do you think about Brownies? Do you think they’ll make excellent servants?