In folklore, a brownie resembles the hob, similar to a hobgoblin . 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.
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).
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.
“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.”
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 is a social being whereas the tomte is always solitary. 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).
In popular culture
- In the book, Magnus Chase: Ship of the Dead, by Rick Riordan: They are mentioned on its danish version, the nisse .