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A Brownie/Brounie (or Urisk/ùruisg in Lowland Scots) or (Scottish Gaelic) is a legendary household spirit or fae popular in folklore around Scotland and England (especially the north, though more commonly hobs have this role). They may also be called brùnaidh or gruagach depending on the region.

Myths & Legends

In folklore, Brownies are said to inhabit houses, especially in the unused corners of the home, and aid in tasks around the house.  

Every manor house had one, and in the kitchen, next to the fire, was a seat which was left unoccupied for him.  

One house on the banks of the River Tay was even believed to have been haunted by such a sprite until the beginning of the twentieth century, 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...which served them - Handbook of Deborean Magick (Page 193) by D.A. Goodrich

However, they do not like to be seen and will only work at night, traditionally in exchange for small gifts of food.  

Brownies seldom speak with humans, but they do frequently converse with each other, and were even said to hold meetings on the rocky shores. 

They can turn invisible, but they rarely need this ability because they are already experts at sneaking and hiding. 

Appearance

Brownies are practically always male, though female brownies do occaisionally appear. They are usually described as ugly, perhaps even frightening or unsettling to members of the house, and are known for (and named after their) their brown skin. They are often characterized as short, rotund, wrinkled, and with a lot of curly brown hair. They are usually said to be naked or to only be wearing rags, though some have a brown mantle and hood or white tunics.

Gifts to the Brownie

They gave a sacrifice for [the Brownie's] 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. - Handbook of Deborean Magick (Page 193) by D.A. Goodrich

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.  
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Illustration of Brownies receiving clothing.

Clothing

If the family gives the brownie a gift of clothing, he will leave forever and refuse to work for the family. It is unclear if this is due to taking offense (such as the story of a Brownie who was used to wearing linen being given a sackcloth shirt), or if they are instead grateful for the gift. It is possible that with new clothing they think themselves "too grand for work", a motif attested to in other folk tales, or that the gift of clothing may have been seen as a means of freeing him from a curse of servitude.

Differences between other Household Spirits

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.

The nisse from Danish mythology is a social being whereas the tomte from Sweden is always solitary, though these two often overlap with each other. The tomte could also take a ship for his home, and was then known as a skeppstomte or skibsnisse. With the romanticisation and collection of folklore during the 19th century, the nisse would gain popularity. In the English editions of the fairy tales of H. C. Andersen the word nisse has been inaccurately translated as goblin (a more accurate translation is brownie or hob).

Modern Depictions

Literature

  • The nisse are mentioned in the book, Magnus Chase: Ship of the Dead, by Rick Riordan.
  • Brownies are one of the many magical creatures in the Spiderwick Chronicles.
  • There are also some brownies in the book Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke. (Sorrel, Burr-Burr-Chan,...)

References

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