A to Z Challenge Folklore

Brownies: The Invisible Nocturnal Servants #AtoZChallenge #folklore

B is for Brownie.

Learn more here.

Who wouldn’t want a faery creature to work for them? We’ll be looking at various household faeries this month, but the Brownie must be the most versatile of them all.

The Brownie is said to finish all tasks left undone in the dark of night…

Folklore

The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley [1870]

THE BROWNIE

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!

brownies in the orchard
Brownies in the orchard. Image credit.

Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas [1901]

THE SCOTTISH BROWNIE.

THE Scottish Brownie formed a class of beings distinct in habit and disposition from the freakish and mischievous elves. He was meagre, shaggy, and wild in his appearance.

In the daytime he lurked in remote recesses of the old houses which he delighted to haunt; and in the night sedulously employed himself in discharging any laborious task which he thought might be acceptable to the family to whose service he had devoted himself. But the Brownie does not drudge from the hope of recompense. On the contrary, so delicate is his attachment that the offer of reward, but particularly of food, infallibly occasions his disappearance for ever. It is told of a Brownie, who haunted a Border family now extinct, that the lady having fallen unexpectedly in labour, and the servant, who was ordered to ride to Jedburgh for the sage-femme, showing no great alertness in setting out, the familiar spirit slipt on the great-coat of the lingering domestic, rode to the town on the laird’s best horse, and returned with the midwife en croupe. During the short space of his absence, the Tweed, which they must necessarily ford, rose to a dangerous height. Brownie, who transported his charge with all rapidity, was not to be stopped by this obstacle. He plunged in with the terrified old lady, and landed her in safety where her services were wanted. Having put the horse into the stable (where it was afterwards found in a woful plight), he proceeded to the room of the servant whose duty he had discharged, and, finding him just in the act of drawing on his boots, administered to him a most merciless drubbing with his own horsewhip. Such an important service excited the gratitude of the laird, who, understanding that Brownie had been heard to express a wish to have a green coat, ordered a vestment of that colour to be made and left in his haunts. Brownie took away the green coat, but was never seen more. We may suppose that, tired of his domestic drudgery, he went in his new livery to join the fairies.

brownies reading a book
Brownies reading a book. Image credit.

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Brownie

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.

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.

*More can be read in the book.

Swarm of brownies. Image credit.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

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.

*More can be read in the book.

brownies
Brownies. Image credit.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

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.

*More can be read in the book.

brownie
Brownie. Image credit.

Supernatural North East: Folklore, Myths, Legends and Ghosts by Tony Liddell.

Brownies

(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

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.

*More can be read in the book.

Love this illustration! Image credit.

Further Reading:

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

Who wouldn’t want someone around to finish their work in the darkness of night? Mm, perhaps I’m the only one who would want some extra help around the house…

Brownies are small, helpful fae who live in the house and carry out useful household tasks left undone at night like churning butter, polishing furniture or doing the laundry. They originally came from Scotland and northern England, but can be found under various names across the world. Brownies are usually clothed in rags or are stark naked and will leave your home if you dare offer them clothes. They can bond with either a person, an animal or the property itself and will be offended by any who treats it badly. Brownies like honey and cream – so leave some on your kitchen counter for it to find as a treat and not as payment. They are easily angered and then turn into Boggarts: destructive versions of themselves who delight in breaking things.

brownie sweeping
Brownie sweeping with handmade broom. Image credit.

Brownies in Modern Culture

House Elves in Harry Potter

House-elf (sometimes also referred to as just Elves) is a magical being which is immensely devoted and loyal to the one designated as their master.

House-elves serve wizards and witches and are usually found under the employment of old wizarding families taking residence in elaborate establishments, like mansions, and must do everything that their masters command unless they are freed. A house-elf can only be freed when their master presents them with clothes.

dobby house elf
Dobby the house elf. Image credit.

Brownies in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Brownies

Brownies are the servants of the High Fae (from any Court).
They’re androgynous. They’re the size of a two litre soft drink bottle. Brownies wear whatever their masters require them to – whether it be the fashion of the time or servant garb from medieval times. They’re obsessed with technology and like the kitchens they work in to be stocked with the best and newest gadgets. They’re excellent cooks. Brownies are tireless helpers to those they deem worthy. They’re obsessed with cleaning and cleanliness. They don’t like it when others try to do their duties.

brownies Afrikaans English
brownies sketch by Ronel
once book extract
Get it here.

What do you think about Brownies? Do you think they’ll make excellent servants? Where did you hear about this creature for the first time? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to this fae.

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22 thoughts on “Brownies: The Invisible Nocturnal Servants #AtoZChallenge #folklore”

  1. Dear Ronel, what a wonderful comprehensive article on brownies, love these little men. Am sending this to my daughter who is constantly reading stories with little people in them. Recently watched a Russian children’s film calmly My cat, my mischievous elfe and me, about a house elfe or brownie, precious, would recommend it, recent. Have an inspired A to Z, enjoy your theme, so see you soon. Take care, stay safe.

  2. I first heard about Brownies because I was one (small Girl Guides) and so we learned all about the helpful spirits of the house. I loved Brownies, but really didn’t like being a Guide when older – our Brown Owl and Tawny Owl were fun leaders, but our Guide leaders were a bit meh. 💖 Great topic choice for today – very discerning 😂
    Tasha 💖
    Virginia’s Parlour – The Manor (Adult concepts – nothing explicit in posts)
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Vampire Drabbles

  3. Hi Ronel! Wow, this is an extensive description of the brownie! Yes, I’ve long thought that they were the inspiration for house-elves in Harry Potter. Ms Rowling is a very knowledgeable lady; some things she invented but for others she used folklore. Also, “The Cobbler and the Elves” in which the elves/brownies go away when given clothes.

    Another thing that has occurred to me is that girls in the scouting movement are – here, at least – Brownies before they become Guides. Whoever came up with that must have had some old-fashioned ideas about the role of women…

  4. Like Tasha, I learnt about Brownies when I was a member of the young girl guides club as a child. I liked the bright yellow uniform and the brown sash with all my badges. I seem to remember that we had a huge papermache toadstool that we used to dance around and sing! Bizarre but fun.

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