A representation of a brownie
|First reported||In folklore|
|Country||Scotland and Northern England|
|Habitat||Within the home|
A brownie/brounie or urisk (Lowland Scots) or brùnaidh, ùruisg, or gruagach (Scottish Gaelic) is a legendary creature popular in folklore around Scotland and England (especially the north, though more commonly hobs have this role). It 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".
Brownies are said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around the house. 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 and honey. 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).
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.
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. 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. 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.
Jack o' the bowl is a Swiss folkloric fairy.
The 19th century saw the growth and profusion of children's literature, and 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. 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.
Brownies appeared in the 1988 film Willow.
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. "Dobby" is used both for the house elf and as a name for brownies in Yorkshire, and "Mr Dobbs" in Sussex.
The popular book series The Spiderwick Chronicles contained a Brownie named Thimbletack, who would transform into a Boggart when angry.
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.
- Keightley, Thomas. "The Brownie", The Fairy Mythology, London, H. G. Bohn, 1870
- Campbell, John Gregorson (1900), Superstitions Of The Highlands And Islands Of Scotland, James MacLehose and Sons, p. 194
- Briggs, Katharine (1977) . An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. Middlesex, United Kingdom: Penguin. p. 23. ISBN 0-14-004753-0.
- Briggs (1976), pp. 246-47.
- Briggs (1976), pp. 170-72.
- 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.
- Emick, Jennifer (2010). The Everything Celtic Wisdom Book: Find inspiration through ancient traditions, rituals, and spirituality. Adams Media. p. 143. ISBN 1440521700.
- 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.
- This article incorporates text from "Dwelly's [Scottish] Gaelic Dictionary" (1911). (Ùruisg) with corrections and additions.
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