Brownies: 10 Fascinating Facts from Scottish Folklore

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Brownies, also known as a brùnaidh or gruagach, are household spirits from Scottish folklore. CALLUM CAMPBELL tells us some interesting facts about them…

Brownies, Scottish Folklore

Brownies are helpful house spirits that are most commonly found in Scotland but can also be found in the other sections of the British Isles. Folklore is wrapped around these beings like cling film around a sandwich so let’s look at 10 of the most interesting morsels of lore we can glean from the extensive accounts of these productive spirits. 

Brownies have many rules and customs and can become very easily offended and angry if they perceive an infraction upon these rules. 

They will become upset and annoyed at the slightest insult so you must be very careful with your words when talking to or about them. Most importantly do not criticise their work, even constructive criticism will not go down well, take their work for granted or patronise a Brownie.  A custom they hold in high import is the gifts that the head of the house bestows upon brownies. These gifts must be given every night before bed and all that is required is porridge, or cream, and honey. Anything more or anything less may cause them to leave and a gift of clothing is such an insult that they will certainly move on. 

If any of these rules are broken, start praying that the Brownie will be merciful. 

Despite the fact they are only three feet tall, a Brownie possesses inhuman strength and will be happy to use it if you break their rules. The best case scenario is that the Brownie quietly leaves but if has got into a rage it will start to vandalise the house and all the hard work it has completed as a punishment for it’s offence. 

A Brownie will instill a healthy work ethic in lax individuals.

A Brownie will work with an iron will and capable hands but should any inhabitants of the house it focuses it’s labour on be lazy or slovenly it will set about them with a passion, constantly giving them pinches and strikes and a barrage of practical jokes in an effort to force them to pull their weight. 

Brownies appear across the globe in different forms.

Although Brownies are native to the British Isles, there are legends of small, humanoid spirits that do household chores all over the world. For example Domovoi, in the Slavic regions, and Kobold, in Germany. 

Brownies would often have tweaks to their appearance depending on the region they inhabited. 

A Brownies base appearance is that of a 3 feet tall humanoid with a misshapen face, hair all over its body and a deformed structure. They are described as ugly and unnatural and while members of a home appreciated the great effort their brownie put in they would often find it repulsive and crude. While they keep this appearance from region to region they often have minor differences to their looks, Aberdeenshire Brownies often have no digits whereas Lowland Brownies have no nose, just a large nostril in the center of their face.

Brownies are extremely loyal.

Brownies will go to great lengths for their masters, as evidenced by this tale showing the loyalty a brownie has for his master’s wife. Having just entered labour she requested the serving boy sprint to fetch the midwife from the nearest town however the servant boy was idle and did not fancy trampling along in the dreadful storm that was thundering down so he hid away, out of human sight but not the house Brownie’s. Enraged at the boy’s callousness at the time of his employers’ need he set out upon a horse at full pelter, slipping helter skelter, cautiously aware if he fell he’d hit his head a belter.

When he reached the midwife’s door he pounded upon it with small but heavy fists until she rushed out and mounted the steed. Their voyage back was risky however as the burn was bursting at its seams and no man could have crossed but the Brownie was no man. He flung the midwife, horse and himself across then tossed the bewildered woman back on the steed and continued on his path. Reaching his home he ushered the midwife into his employers room then delivered a rollocking to the lazy servant.

If a Brownie is constantly being insulted and offended they may turn into a Boggart. 

These beings look like Brownies but are a hindrance rather than a help. They will torment animals, sour milk, hide possessions and commit other annoyances. Boggarts that live outdoors are much more vicious than domestic Boggarts and scorn petty tricks in favour of manslaughter and kidnapping. 

Here are some tips to make it more likely a Brownie will take residence in your home. 

Although there is no definite way to get a Brownie, there are some ways to make your home more desirable for one.  It helps greatly if your home is in the countryside and has lots of small cupboards and alcoves for a Brownie to take shelter in. Your family and staff must be industrious and hardworking folk who are in need of a helping hand and must not be rude or abrasive. Most importantly you must live in the British Isles, preferably Scotland.

Brownies have a multitude of different names, each name portrays a slightly different type of Brownie. 

Bwbach is a Welsh Brownie, Fenodryee is a Manx brownie and is considered to be particularly unintelligent, Hob is a Brownie associated with Yorkshire and Lancashire and enjoys sitting at the hearth. There are these and many more.

Brownies are widely considered to be the inspiration of house elves in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. 

They are both similar with short stature, a role that involves doing chores and an aversion to gifts of clothes; however house elves suffer much physical and emotional abuse from their masters and if a man raised his fist to strike a Brownie he would be on the floor, crying his eyes out. 


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