Brownie (folklore)

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Illustration of a brownie by Arthur Rackham.jpg
Illustration of a brownie sweeping with a handmade broom by Arthur Rackham
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Fairy
Household spirit
Other name(s) Brounie
Country Scotland and Northern England
Habitat Within the home

A brownie (Lowland Scots), also known as a brùnaidh, ùruisg, or gruagach (Scottish Gaelic), is a mythical household spirit from English and Scottish folklore. Brownies are especially popular in the North. In this region, brownies are commonly conflated with hobs. A brownie is the Scottish and Northern English counterpart of the Scandinavian tomte, the Slavic domovoi and the German Heinzelmännchen.


In folklore, a brownie resembles the hob, similar to a hobgoblin. Thomas Keightley describes the brownie as "a personage of small stature, wrinkled visage, covered with short curly brown hair, and wearing a brown mantle and hood".[1]

Brownies are said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around the house, like getting rid of spiders. However, they do not like to be seen and will only work at night, traditionally in exchange for small gifts of food. Among food, they especially enjoy porridge, honey, butter, and cream. They usually abandon the house if their gifts are called payments, or if the owners of the house misuse them. Brownies make their homes in an unused part of the house, often in attics and holes in walls.

Every manor house had its ùruisg, and in the kitchen, close by the fire was a seat, which was left unoccupied for him. One house on the banks of the River Tay was even until the beginning of the twentieth century believed to have been haunted by such a sprite, and one room in the house was for centuries called "Seòmar Bhrùnaidh" (Brownie’s room).

In 1703, John Brand wrote in his description of Shetland that:

Not above forty or fifty years ago, every family had a brownie, or evil spirit, so called, which served them, to which they gave a sacrifice for his service; as when they churned their milk, they took a part thereof, and sprinkled every corner of the house with it, for Brownie’s use; likewise, when they brewed, they had a stone which they called "Brownie’s stane", wherein there was a little hole into which they poured some wort for a sacrifice to Brownie. They also had some stacks of corn, which they called Brownie’s Stacks, which, though they were not bound with straw ropes, or in any way fenced as other stacks used to be, yet the greatest storm of wind was not able to blow away straw off them.

Brownies seldom spoke with humans, but they held frequent and affectionate conversations with one another. They had general assemblies as well, usually held on a remote, rocky shore. In a certain district of the Scottish Highlands, "Peallaidh an Spùit" (Peallaidh of the Spout), "Stochdail a’ Chùirt", and "Brùnaidh an Easain" (Brownie of the little waterfall) were names of note at those congresses. According to Scottish toponymist William J. Watson, every stream in Breadalbane had an ùruisg once, and their king was Peallaidh. (Peallaidh's name is preserved in "Obair Pheallaidh", known in English as "Aberfeldy".) It may be the case, that ùruisg was conflated with some water sprite, or that ùruisg were originally water sprites conflated with brownies.

Another name by which the domestic spirit was known in some parts of Scotland was Shellycoat, of which the origin is uncertain.[1]

Regional variants[edit]

Folklorist John Gregorson Campbell distinguishes between the English brownie, which lived in houses, and the Scottish ùruisg or urisk, which lived outside in streams and waterfalls and was less likely to offer domestic help.[2] The ùruisg enjoyed solitude at certain seasons of the year. Around the end of the harvest, he became more sociable, and hovered around farmyards, stables and cattle-houses. He particularly enjoyed dairy products, and tended to intrude on milkmaids, who made regular libations of milk or cream to charm him off, or to gain his favour. He was usually seen only by those who possessed second sight, though there were instances when he made himself visible to ordinary people as well. He is said to have been jolly and personable, with flowing yellow hair, wearing a broad blue bonnet and carrying a long walking staff.

Anglo-Scottish border folklore also included a figure, "Billy Blind" or "Billy Blin", much like the brownie, but mentioned only in ballads.[3] A hob came from the Scottish Borders and north of England, while the lubber fiend, lob or lob lie-by-the-fire was a variant from England.

The Kilmoulis is a similar creature that is often said to inhabit mills. The Killmoulis's physical appearance is said to differ greatly from that of the brownie due to the fact that the Killmoulis is said to have a tremendous nose that covers most of its face and is said to possess no mouth.[4]

The fenodyree is a household spirit featured in folklore from the Isle of Man with similar attributes to the brownie. The fenodyree, however, is somewhat different from the brownie because it is usually described as being covered from head-to-toe in thick, woolly hair.[5]

Jack o' the bowl is a household spirit from Swiss folklore that is very similar to the brownie.

Modern culture[edit]

  • The 19th century saw the growth and profusion of children's literature, which often incorporated fantasy. Juliana Horatia Ewing incorporated folklore into her 1871 work of short stories The Brownies and other Tales with brownies and lob-lie-the-fire.[6] George MacDonald incorporated features of Scottish brownie lore in his 19th century works The Princess and the Goblin and Sir Gibbie—his brownies have no fingers on their hands.[6]
  • Brownies appeared in the 1988 film Willow (their names are Franjean and Rool).
  • The Cleveland Browns, a team in the National Football League, feature a brownie as one of their mascots and alternate logos.
  • The St. Louis Browns, a Major League Baseball team that moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Baltimore Orioles, adopted a brownie as their logo from 1952–1953.
  • A differently portrayed brownie (a cat-like creature with two to four arms, who enjoys mushrooms) was in the book Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke.
  • The basis of the House-elves in the popular book and movie series Harry Potter is derived from folklore on Brownies.[7] "Dobby" is used both for the house elf and as a name for brownies in Yorkshire, and "Mr Dobbs" in Sussex.[8]
  • In the popular children's book series, The Spiderwick Chronicles, there is a brownie named Thimbletack who dwells within the Spiderwick mansion and who transforms into a boggart when angered.
  • Big Ears is a character from Noddy series books by Enid Blyton and is described as a brownie.
  • Louisa May Alcott's book Lulu's Library includes the Brownies in the story Lilybell and Thistledown, alias the Fairy Sleeping Beauty. The Brownies are shown as mostly benevolent figures who are still not above severely punishing those who break their rules.
  • In Dust of My Wings (Dante's Circle, #1) by Carrie Ann Ryan, the main female character, Lily Banner is revealed to be a brownie, a supernatural creature with golden skin.
  • The Bruce Coville book Diary of a Mad Brownie is about a brownie named Angus who leaves the Enchanted Realm and moves in with a modern family.
  • In the book Chime by Franny Billingsley, a previous companion of the narrator and main character Briony Larkin was a brownie, who was banished from her home. It had a distinct "mint and apple" scent.
  • In the Merry Gentry book series by Laurell K. Hamilton, Merry's Gran is a Brownie. She's never quite enough (less than) to make a fey happy as her spouse or child. She runs a Bed and Breakfast away from both the Unseelie and Seelie courts.
  • “Tandy’s Story”[9] by Theodore Sturgeon is a science fiction interpretation of brownie folklore.
  • In Clifford D. Simak's 1967 science fiction novel The Werewolf Principle a peaceful alien species has relocated to a future Earth's forests and assumed the name (and certain aspects of the role) of the mythical brownies.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Keightley, Thomas. "The Brownie", The Fairy Mythology, London, H. G. Bohn, 1870
  2. ^ Campbell, John Gregorson (1900), Superstitions Of The Highlands And Islands Of Scotland, James MacLehose and Sons, p. 194 
  3. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1977) [1976]. An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. Middlesex, United Kingdom: Penguin. p. 23. ISBN 0-14-004753-0. 
  4. ^ Briggs (1976), pp. 246-47.
  5. ^ Briggs (1976), pp. 170-72.
  6. ^ a b Briggs, Katharine M. (1972). "Folklore in Nineteenth-Century English LiteratureFolklore in Nineteenth-Century English Literature". Folklore. 83 (3): 194–209. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1972.9716469. JSTOR 1259545. 
  7. ^ Emick, Jennifer (2010). The Everything Celtic Wisdom Book: Find inspiration through ancient traditions, rituals, and spirituality. Adams Media. p. 143. ISBN 1440521700. 
  8. ^ Llewellyn, Chandra Alexandre; Barbara Ardinger; Blake Octavio Blair; Deborah Blake, Boudic (2012). Llewellyn's 2013 Magical Almanac: Practical Magic for Everyday Living. Llewellyn Worldwide. p. 77. ISBN 0738715158. 
  9. ^ Sturgeon, Theodore (1961). Tandy’s Story. 
  10. ^ Amy A. Collins. "'Brownies' scouted future for Port Arthur founder, spoke in nighttime visitations". Beaumont Enterprise. 
  11. ^ Chris Roberson. "Arthur Edward Stilwell and the Brownies". The Myriad Worlds of Chris Roberson. 
  • This article incorporates text from "Dwelly's [Scottish] Gaelic Dictionary" (1911). (Ùruisg) with corrections and additions.

External links[edit]