Brownies, the mischievous and dangerous creatures of Scottish folklore, have been captivating the imagination of people for centuries. With roots as humble household spirits and a reputation as unpredictable creatures, the story of brownies is a journey through the fascinating world of Scottish folklore.
From their origins to their legends, the tale of brownies is one filled with mystery and intrigue, and it continues to endure to this day. Where did these stories come from, and what exactly is it that we are dealing with here?
What are Brownies and Where do they Come From?
A Brownie is a household spirit, or a hobgoblin, or else a type of fairy from Scottish folklore. People believed that every manor house had one and, in the kitchen, people would leave an empty seat next to the fire which was left unoccupied for that house’s Brownie.
Brownies were believed to be shy creatures that would hide away in the unused corners of the house, only coming out at night. At night they would roam the house while the owners slept, performing any necessary housework that was left to be completed.
The Brownie of legend started as a tutelary spirit, similar to the Lares of ancient Roman folklore. These were a kind of guardian/ protector spirit that were tied to a particular place or person. While the Lares of Roman tradition were protective spirits of deceased ancestors, Brownies were protective spirits of homes.
Early folklore surrounding brownies had them associated with the dead, with some legends tying them to deceased servants. The cult of deceased ancestors in ancient times centered around the hearth which is where offerings are traditionally left for the brownie.
Over time the brownie formed its own folklore, moving away from that of the Lare. While the Lare is usually tied to one place or household, the brownies are capable of leaving the house and moving to a new one if they are dissatisfied.
What Do They Look Like?
Brownies are usually depicted as being male although examples of female brownies such as Meg Mullach (aka Hairy Meg) do exist. brownies are usually described as being ugly, frightening, or unsettling by those who claim to have seen them.
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Their name comes from the fact that they are usually described as being brown or dark-skinned and completely covered in dark brown hair. Older traditions had brownies being roughly the same size as humans or even larger. However, as time went on and they became more associated with fairies they were increasingly described as “small, wizened, and shaggy”.
By the 19th century, brownies were almost universally described as being short, hairy, wrinkled, and rotund. They’re usually found either naked or wearing rags. Other physical descriptions depend on where in Scotland or England they hail from.
The brownies of the Scottish Lowlands for example are said to lack a nose, instead having one single hold in the center of their face. Conversely, the brownies of Aberdeenshire have a nose but no fingers or toes (which you’d think would make housework a real chore).
Finally, it is commonly said that brownies can turn invisible completely or take the form of animals. They are also apparently masters at sneaking and hiding.
Are They to be Trusted?
For the most part, folklore states that brownies are benevolent spirits that can be trusted, to a point. For the most part, they live to serve the household they live in, happy to do house and farm chores at night.
In exchange, brownies expect recompense in the form of offerings of food. Homeowners should leave an offering of milk or cream next to the hearth each night in a show of gratitude. Brownies are also said to be fans of foods like porridge. They are Scottish, after all.
Brownies are easily offended, however. If they feel the food is an act of payment, rather than gratitude, they are likely to be displeased. This may lead to the brownie leaving the home for good or acting out against the homeowners.
Likewise, if a homeowner does not supply thanks to the brownie, it is likely to act out. An unhappy brownie may show its displeasure in a variety of ways. They may decide to wreck the house, travelling from room to room breaking things and making a mess, or may even physically attack the owners while they sleep.
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Some of the folklore also says that brownies have a tricky sense of humor. They enjoy playing tricks and owners and lazy servants, moving things around at night to confuse them or making noises to scare them.
The best way to safely get rid of a brownie is to gift it human clothing. Most folklore suggests that after being given clothing a brownie will leave for good although the reason changes between tales. It may be because the brownie feels its work is complete because it feels too grand to work now it has human clothes, or because it feels offended by the gesture.
What Stories Are Associated with Them?
Stories about brownies were once widespread with many households claiming to have one. Stories about them tend to be cautionary tales. They usually start with the brownie behaving until the household owners do something to displease it.
One of the most famous stories about brownies in Scotland is that of the “Brounie of Bealach-nam-Brog”. According to the tale, a farmer in the Scottish Highlands had a brownie living in his home, but he did not offer the creature any gifts or food. In retaliation, the brownie caused all sorts of mischief, such as stealing food, breaking objects, and even injuring the farmer.
Another story tells of a Scottish farmer who angered a brownie by accidentally stepping on its shadow. In retaliation, the brownie caused so much chaos and destruction in the farmer’s home that he was forced to flee and seek refuge elsewhere.
Brownies were also known to take a disliking to anyone they considered lazy or cruel. Several tales feature brownies outright attacking household servants who they felt were lazy. If a servant awoke with bite marks it was thought, they had been attacked in their sleep by brownies (although rats seem more likely).
In conclusion, the world of brownies is a fascinating one that has captivated the imagination of people for centuries. Whether they’re helpful spirits loyal to their households, or unpredictable creatures that love to play tricks, it’s hard not to love them.
Brownies have left a lasting impact on Scottish folklore and despite the passage of time, the legacy of brownies continues to endure. If they sound more than a little familiar, it should come as no surprise that the brownie was J.K Rowling’s chief inspiration for Dobby the house elf.
Top Image: Brownies would appear after the family had gone to bed and tidy the house, but they could also be mischievous. Source: Alice B Woodward / Public Domain.