Elves in Scotland: the Brownie

By Thomas Crofton Croker

He never speaks of his descent, but seems upon the whole to belong to the Elves. His figure is not very slim, but well proportioned and agreeable; while others represent him as lean and rough coated.

He derives his name from his peculiarly brown colour. He is industrious, intent on his masters service, and always willing. According to some, he remains concealed in his corner night and day; and according to others, only in the daytime, and works at night. He labours for scanty fare, and sometimes cast-off clothes; nay, he even vanishes when any other recompense is given him.

So cheap and useful a servant is naturally very valuable, but cannot be obtained with money. He continues in a family so long as a member of it survives, and hence he is the heir-loom of an ancient and respected house. Besides unparalleled fidelity, he is unremitting in promoting his master’s interest; and his services are still further enhanced by the gift of foretelling future events.

He maintains a strict watch over the servants, reports their good and bad actions, and they are therefore but seldom on friendly terms with him: if he is left to their mercy, his fidelity is not likely to meet with any extraordinary reward.

The master who regards his own interest must take care that the Brownie properly receives his food. He likes to lie down at night near the fire; and if the servants loiter too long around the hearth, he seems apprehensive of losing his place, and several times makes his appearance at the door, as if it was his business to see that they retire in proper time, and exhorts them, saying, “Go to bed, and I’ll mind the fire!”

A certain family had a Brownie, and the mistress of the house being taken in labour, a servant was desired to go to Jedburgh for a midwife; but being rather dilatory, the Brownie slipped into his great coat, rode on his master’s best horse to town, and took the woman up behind him. Meantime the Tweed, through which they must necessarily pass, had swollen; the Brownie, who rode with the velocity of a spirit, was not to be stopped; he plunged into the water with the poor old woman, and they reached the house in safety.

When he had taken the horse into the stable, where it was afterwards found in a very miserable condition, he went into the servant’s room, whom he found just about to put on his boots, and gave him some hearty blows with his own whip. So extraordinary a service excited his master’s gratitude; and as he thought he had understood that the Brownie wished to have a green coat, he had one made and laid in his accustomed corner. The Brownie received the present, but was never heard of more. Perhaps he went in his green dress to join the fairies.

* * *

The last Brownie that was known in the forest of Ettrick dwelt in Bodsbeck, a wild and solitary valley, where he lived in perfect tranquillity till the officious piety of an old woman obliged him to remove, as she had a dish of milk, with a piece of money, placed in his abode. After this hint to depart he was heard crying and lamenting the whole night, “Farewell, dearest Bodsbeck!” which he was now compelled to leave for ever.

Formerly every family of consequence had its Brownie, but now they have become more rare. The two last that were known in the Highlands belonged to the ancient family of Tullochgorm in Strathspey: they were a man and his wife. The man, of a droll and merry disposition, often made game of people; he was particularly fond of pelting those who passed by with lumps of earth, whence he received the name of Brownie-clod. However, with all his good humour, he was rather simple, and was tricked by those whom he himself intended to trick. The best instance is an agreement which he was foolish enough to make with the servants of Tullochgorm, and by which he engaged himself to thrash as much corn as two men could do in the whole winter; for this he was to receive an old coat and a Kilmarnock cap, to which he seemed to have taken a great fancy.

While the servants lay down in the straw and idled away their time, poor Brownie thrashed without ceasing: in short, before the agreement was completed, the men, out of gratitude and compassion, put the coat and cap into a corn measure in the barn. He instantly left off work, and said contemptuously, that as they had been simple enough to give him the coat and cap before the end of his task, he would take good care, and not thrash a single sheaf more.

His wife, on the contrary, instead of being the sport of the maids with whom she worked, was a sort of mistress among them. She was seldom on good terms with them, on account of the fidelity with which she acquainted her master with every neglect of their duty. She had a profusion of hair on her head, whence she was called hairy Mag (Maug vuluchd). She was an honest and able housekeeper, and particularly clever in waiting at table. The care with which she invisibly set out the table was a most entertaining sight to strangers; the thing asked for came as if by magic, and placed itself on the table with the greatest speed and nicety: she had no equal in the whole country for cleanliness and attention.

From Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, part III., by Thomas Crofton Croker.
London: John Murray, 1828.

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