Brownies are supernatural beings, dwarf-like in stature but powerfully built, that can be found on the moors or with a particular family. Brownies are vitally important to the Celtic folklore and the Scottish people, and also relevant in English folklore.
Harmless but often mischievous, they tend to amuse themselves by hurling stones at homes and engaging in other ghostly behavior. Although they are by nature troublemakers, their presence is a sign of good fortune and their withdrawal is an omen for something worse to come.
Most instances refer to them as brown in complexion and attire, hence the name. They appear to be human in most aspects except the face, having large brown eyes and large ears. These little beings possess superhuman strength and the ability to predict the future, but contrary to other members of the faerie community, they do not have wings, nor have they noses, just two nostrils.
Accounts from British records in regard to brownies vary only slightly in reference to the brownies of Scotland. In both cases, the origins of these little fellows follow that of the larger European fairy tradition, tying them to domestic tasks.
There are numerous tales that narrate of occasions when a brownie has attached itself to a family, by making its presence known through the secret completion of household tasks. In this regard brownies are the most industrious of the household faerie, sowing, reaping, grinding grain, cleaning houses and barns, churning butter, and performing almost any tedious job left undone by the masters of the house by bedtime. In return, a brownie is entitled to a bowl of the best cream and fresh baked cake or bread, which must be left within their reach at nighttime. To offer a brownie any form of payment other than this, especially to take pity and give them new clothes, is an insult, and they will vanish immediately.
Brownies do not like any kind of meanness, lying or sneaking. There are many stories which tell of how brownies punish servants who are going behind their employer’s back or otherwise misbehaving and not taking the maintenance of the household seriously.
Families that know they have a brownie are proud and protective, as they bring good fortune to a household. Outside a household, however, a brownie should be viewed with caution, as they are prone to mischief when annoyed. Nonetheless, outside the bounds of a house, brownies can sometimes build strong relationships with specific people, most often by acting as matchmakers to young ladies or rescuers to men awaiting the gallows.
Some people believe that angering a brownie turns it violent and destructive. Such accounts are associated with rise in paranoia regarding fairies –and brownies in particular— at the start of the Witch Trials of Scotland in 1597.
Accordingly, church records indicate that around 1600, priests started exorcising brownies from locations across Scotland, only to have them lash back through curses. For example, an anonymous writer of the 17th century claims that a brownie, which had once been a value to the community, was expelled through exorcism only to return to inflict painful and long lasting curses on the residents of the village.
-Koval, R., 2007. Fairies of Early Modern England and Scotland: Familiar Spirits or Ghosts?, Aquinas College, Undergraduate Seminar Witchcraft Papers.
- Dearing, S., Eberle, W., Koval, R., Seites, D., Sexton, B., Weed, T. and Woodbridge, T. (Eds.) 2007. When Druids and Mystics Ruled Harshly Over the Superstitious Peasants, Aquinas College, Undergraduate Seminar Witchcraft Papers.