Brownies (aka browneys or even broonies in Scots) are the most famous of all the solitary fairies and are associated with certain historic houses and farms in Scotland and the north of England. The Brownies exists to help the family or the house to which he (or sometimes she) is attached and particularly to the fireplace where they slept. Brownies will, night and day, aid their families with farm work, house work and, indeed, almost every imaginable domestic task from churning to weaving. Some brownies have a side-line going in prophecy as well, at least, where the interests of their family are concerned. At times brownies can become irritable. There is a delightful story of one brownie who took exception to the comment of a servant and threw the servant repeatedly over the house they shared, catching him as he came down. Brownies are also often offended by gifts: the story of brownie’s new clothes mimics that of the pixy. However, they do need to be fed and a wily house-owner would leave out good but simple food and water as she and the family were going to bed: in some cases this was left in a brownie stone.
Home region: Brownies are associated, above all, with the Border areas and the Lowlands of Scotland. There are some hints that the brownie was a fixture further south, but these are very uncertain and late: see further popular culture.
Physical Description: The brownie is typically naked or dressed in rags. He is smaller than a human being but strong and wiry. The word ‘rough’ is often applied and there are references to his ‘hide’.
Earliest Attestation and Etymology: The earliest reference in English came in 1513, though the word will presumably be somewhat older. There have been some attempts to find a Celtic origin but it is far more likely that brownie comes from brown, i.e. the brown one. There are various references in early Scottish ballads to the ‘wee brown man’
Brownie Locations: Numerous houses in the Scottish lowlands!
Brownie Sighting: Brownie and the Bible
Brownie Story: Brownie of Blednoch;
Associated sayings: Though not strictly a saying the nursery rhyme figure Aitken Drum may have been a brownie.
Popular Culture: Brownies became representative in the nineteenth century of the solitary fairy and early folklorists sometimes used ‘brownie’ to apply to all solitary fairies, even when they came from different regions and went by other names. One result of this was that brownie became a much used word and began to be applied to local fairy traditions in the Midlands and South and Orkney and Shetlands where it had no traditional basis. So in the nineteenth century we have references to brownies in Lancashire (which may just possibly represent a genuine tradition), in Sussex and even in Cornwall: this process still needs to be carefully tracked and has caused great confusion. Brownies were also popularized in children’s fiction: Juliana Horatio Ewing’s ‘The Brownies’ (first published in 1865) is the most famous instance and the short story that inspired the term brownie in the girl guides movement.