brownie


brownie
   Now the standard term for a helpful household *fairy anywhere in Britain, but when first recorded in the early 16th century a dialect word limited to Lowland Scotland and the English Border counties; many of the early descriptions are Scottish. Corresponding beings in areas further south were called * hobs, * pucks, or * pixies. King James VI and I defines the brownie in his Daemonologie as a devil 'who appeared like a rough man' and 'haunted divers houses, without doing any evill, but doing as it were necessarie turnes up and down the house'; foolish people thought their homes prospered if they had one.
   A vicar of Beetham (Westmorland), making notes on local lore in 1777, stated firmly 'A Browny is not a Fairey, but a tawney colour'd Being which will do a great deal of work for a Family, if used well.' Sir Walter Scott agreed: 'The Brownie formed a class of beings distinct in habit and disposition from the freakish and mischievous elves' (Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3), 41). In modern scholarly terminology, the category of 'household spirit' to which the brownie belongs is regarded as a subdivision within the fairy species, but one which has very distinctive features of its own. Such beings live alongside humans in their own homes and farms, bringing them luck and helping them in various ways, and there is only one per house; in contrast, other types of fairy are more remote, often dangerous, and often thought of as living in groups.
   Beliefs and tales about brownies are everywhere similar. They work by night, doing housework and farm tasks, and their presence ensures prosperity. As a reward, a bowl of cream or porridge, or a small cake, is regularly set out for them, often on the hearth. They punish lazy and slovenly servants by upsetting and breaking things, pinching them as they sleep, and so on; they may also rummage about noisily and create untidiness out of pure fun. Brownies should not be spied on while working, criticized, or laughed at, or they will take offence and either leave for ever (taking the luck of the house with them) or turn into angry and troublesome *boggarts. Occasionally, a brownie is given an individual name; such was the Tawny Boy at Overthwaite (Westmorland) around 1650, and the *Cauld Lad at Hilton (Northumberland).
   The most striking tale concerns the gift of new clothes. The first English mention of this comes in Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), book 4, chapter 10:
   In deede your grandams' maides were woont to set a boll of milke before him and his cousine Robin Good-fellow, for grinding of malt or mustard, and sweeping the house at midnight; and you have also heard that he would chafe exceedingly, if the maid or good-wife of the house, having compassion of his nakednes, laid anie clothes for him, beesides his mess of white bread and milke, which was his standing fee. For in that case he saith,
   What have we here? Hemton, hamten, Here will I never more tread nor stampen.
   Immediately thereon he would take himself off and be never seene again.
   Versions differ in what explanation (if any) is given for this odd outcome. The Cauld Lad accepted a green cloak and hood with delight, but left at dawn, singing:
   Here's a cloak, and here's a hood!
   The Cauld Lad of Hilton will do nae mair good!
   (Keightley, 1889: 296)
   Perhaps, like the Devon *pixy, he now thought himself too grand to work. A Lincolnshire story rationalizes the motif; there, a brownie who had regularly accepted a linen shirt took umbrage when given one made of sacking, i.e. hemp, and sang:
   Harden, harden, harden hamp, I will neither grind nor stamp; Had you given me linen gear, I had served you many a year. Thrift may go, bad luck may stay, I shall travel far away.
   (M. Peacock, Folk-Lore 3 (1891), 509-10)
   From a functionalist point of view one can say, with L. F. Newman, 'The brownie or hob-thrush fitted easily into the old, generous rural economy. He typified the good servant in kitchen, dairy or stable' (Folk-Lore 63 (1952), 103-4). Belief in him could be exploited in two ways - by servants, to lay the blame for breakages, untidiness, or odd noises in the night on his mischief-making; by employers, to foster the belief that he would reward those who worked well, and punish the idle. The Elizabethan fairies who, in Bishop Corbet's poem 'The Fairies' Farewell', put sixpence in the shoe of a good maid were probably brownies.
   ■ Briggs, 1959 and 1976; Gillian Edwards, Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck (1974), 103-121.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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