For many in the UK, brownies recall troops of girls clad in brown and yellow, earning badges in a prelude to joining the Girl Guides. Yet they reference the helpful fairies that apparently did housework overnight to help their chosen households.
Katharine Briggs considers the brownies as one of the “most easily described and most recognizable” fairy types (1976: 45). The territory stretched from the Midlands, up through the north and east of England, and up into Scotland. They were known as the bwca in Wales, bodach in the Highlands, and fenodoree on the Isle of Man (1976: 45).
But what are brownies? How do they relate to their fairy cousins? And what links are there between brownies and ghost stories? Keep on reading or hit ‘play’ to hear the podcast episode version of this post!
What are brownies?
We can essentially consider brownies as a type of fairy. According to Briggs, many brownies seemed connected to pools and streams. People feared them, aside from those who had a brownie working for them. They hated Christian symbols. In some ways, they bear some similarities to both house and land spirits. They seem incredibly localised, yet clearly more ancient than the humans for whom they worked.
Briggs described the brownies found in the Borders as being small men of around 3 ft in height, “dressed in brown clothes, with brown faces and shaggy heads” (1976: 45). They would do any work during the night that the servants hadn’t done. This might include reaping, threshing, herding sheep, and even running errands. Brownies might become attached to a family member. A bowl of cream or a good cake became their right in return (1976: 45).
One belief saw housewives making “knuckled cakes made of meal warm from the mill”. These were toasted over the fire’s embers and covered with honey (Henderson 248). Then she left them somewhere the brownie would find them. She would never hand the cakes directly to the brownie since this was considered a payment. Any form of payment would drive the brownie away.
Interestingly, MA Richardson links the brownie with the Northumberland Silky, but the key point is his description of the “useful” Brownie as “that old familiar Lar” (1846a: 184). Perhaps I’m reading too much into this but a Lar was a tutelary deity in the old Roman religion. At one point, each household had its own Lar, and they offered a prayer to them every morning. They made extra offerings at family festivals. Does Richardson mean to syncretise the brownie with the house spirit? If so, it could offer another explanation as to why payment was so anathema to the brownie.
Why couldn’t you reward a brownie for their services?
The stories vary as to why you couldn’t give any kind of payment. The belief in Berwickshire was that brownies were appointed to help “ease the weight of Adam’s curse”. Part of this appointment was that they worked without payment (Briggs 1976: 46).
Elsewhere, people thought they were independent spirits. Indeed, they were too free-spirited to accept wages or even human clothes, as they implied bondage. Giving them these things would see them leave as that might appear a form of work-based contract to them.
Another theory was that a brownie could only accept payment once considered worthy of it. The bonds of servitude only last until this point. Alternatively, the quality of the payment might offend the brownie (Briggs 1976: 46).
This might explain a tale from Lincolnshire that a farmer left a linen shirt for the farm’s brownie every year. Eventually, the farm passed to another farmer, only this farmer was a miser. He left a shirt made of coarse sackcloth. The brownie left, never to return (Briggs 1976: 46). Reginald Scot even quoted a traditional brownie song in the 16th century, which suggests other brownies might have left their homes for the same reason.
The song ran,
‘What have we here, Hempen, Hampen!(Briggs 1976: 46)
Here will I never more tread nor stampen.’
Aside from offering payment and driving your brownie away, you could also offend them. An offended brownie would either leave or become a boggart. As an example, a brownie lived in Cranshaws, Berwickshire. He saved and thrashed corn every year, until one year, people took him for granted. Someone thoughtlessly commented that no one had mowed or piled up the corn this time. The brownie heard the remark and threw the whole harvest over Raven Crag in response (Briggs 1976: 47).
Boggarts were considered mischievous brownies, though their behaviour sounds closer to that of a poltergeist. One boggart tormented the house of a Yorkshire farmer named George Gilbertson. He would often steal the bread and butter from the farmer’s children. On other occasions, he shoved them into cupboards (Briggs 1976: 29).
Eventually, Mrs Gilbertson began to fear for her children’s safety as the pranks escalated in severity. They tried to move house but the boggart hid in a butter churn and went with them. The family continued living under the boggart’s torment until he got bored and left of his own accord (Briggs 1976: 30).
Where people respected and well-treated their brownies, the brownie proved entirely committed to their master or mistress. They could end up unpopular with the servants because they might expose any bad behaviour, or punish them themselves.
In some stories, brownies fetched the midwife when the mistress went into labour. This is a far cry from the tales in which fairies somehow hold up the journey either to or from the midwife.
Katharine Briggs relates the tale of the brownie who worked for Maxwell, Laird of Dalswinton (1976: 47). He was great friends with the laird’s daughter. So much so that the brownie even helped her plan her wedding. Better yet, the groom moved into the bride’s home so she could still be near the brownie. Later, when the bride went into labour, the river ran too high, and the straightest course led through the Auld Pool.
The stable boy hesitated about going in this direction, having heard the tales of the brownie who lived in the pool. And yes, it was indeed our brownie. But the brownie mounted the best horse and rode straight across the water. The midwife wasn’t happy about going by the Pool, fearful they might meet its resident brownie, but he carried her to the house all the same.
Once the midwife was at her work, the brownie went off to thrash the stable boy.
Unfortunately, the minister persuaded Maxwell that he should baptise the brownie as payment for his invaluable help. Rather than asking the brownie if he would like that, the minister hid in the stable with his holy water. He poured it onto the brownie but he didn’t get a chance to even begin the baptism. The moment the holy water touched him, the brownie yelled and vanished, never to return.
The Cauld Lad o’ Hylton
We see many of the brownie traits in the tale of the Cauld Lad o’ Hylton. This brownie haunted Hylton Castle near Sunderland. According to the legend, the servants rarely saw him, but they heard him at night.
If they tided the kitchen, he would create a great mess and hurl everything around the room. If they left it messy, he tidied it for them.
Despite the obvious solution here, the servants got tired of his antics. They knew the only way to get rid of a brownie was to present them with new clothes. So they laid out a green hooded cloak beside the kitchen fire. Green was an excellent choice, being the colour favoured by the fairies.
The servants then hid around the kitchen so they could see what would happen. At midnight, the Cauld Lad came into the kitchen. He spotted the cloak and put it on. By all accounts, he danced around the kitchen until dawn, at which point he cried out,
‘Here’s a cloak and there’s a hood,(Henderson 1879: 266)
The Cauld Lad of Hilton will do no more good’.
Then he vanished, never to be seen again.
In some ways, his antics recall those of the brownie, especially through the act of tidying and the disappearance upon the receipt of clothing. Yet the throwing of items into disarray sounds more like a boggart. Indeed, his contrary behaviour is rather reminiscent of the Silky. Still, those in the neighbourhood were convinced the Cauld Lad was not a brownie, but a ghost (Henderson 1879: 266).
Ghost or Brownie?
In the neighbourhood version of the story, a baron in a bygone era had a servant boy. He’d ordered his horse to be ready, but when the specified time arrived, his horse did not. Tired of waiting, he went to the stables. He found the servant boy asleep and was so incensed that he snatched up a pitchfork and struck him with it. The baron killed the boy and suddenly cognizant of his actions, covered his body with straw. That night, he threw the body into a pond. According to the legend, someone discovered a boy’s skeleton in the pond years later, though no details are given as to why they were looking (Henderson 1879: 266).
With this version, the Cauld Lad apparently sang a verse in the dead of night. People take this as evidence of his spectral nature, rather than his existence as a brownie.
‘Wae’s me, wae’s me,(Henderson 1879: 267)
The acorn’s not yet
Fallen from the tree,
That’s to grow the wood,
That’s to make the cradle,
That’s to rock the bairn,
That’s to grow to a man,
That’s to lay me!’
‘Laying’ here refers to the act of laying a ghost, or getting rid of it. Though why he would be saying ‘woe is me’ that the man who could lay him hadn’t been born yet is a little more puzzling.
The Plot Thickens
That said, according to Richardson, Robert Hilton of Hilton Castle accidentally killed Roger Skelton with a scythe. The coroner’s inquest on 3 July 1609 recorded the details. Richardson presumed this story may have given the Cauld Lad legend its origin (1846b: 240).
He also noted that there was a room known as the ‘cauld lad’s room’ in the castle. The owners only ever used it if they needed an extra bedchamber, and even within the late 18th and early 19th century, “many persons worthy of credence” had heard the cauld lad’s “unearthly wailings” (1846b: 240).
Over time, it may have been conflated with the legend of the brownie. That said, Richardson also referred to the “genuine Brownie” as being “an unembodied spirit” (1846b: 240). I’m assuming that’s as opposed to being a disembodied spirit. As a result, he differentiates between the brownie and the Cauld Lad.
Other Cauld Lads
Now, it is possible that the epithet ‘Cauld Lad’ does indeed refer to a spectre. A woman named Mrs Murray from the Borders told William Henderson about a Cauld Lad in Cumberland. She’d heard the tale as a child, and for this unfortunate ghost, the Cauld Lad died of cold after mistreatment by his family. He continued to haunt the family, visibly shivering at the bedside of anyone who was about to be ill. Apparently, you could hear his teeth chattering.
If this illness would be fatal, he’d put his cold hand on whichever body part would be afflicted, and say,
‘Cauld, cauld, aye cauld,(Henderson 1879: 267)
An ye’se be cauld for evermair!’
That said, we’ve already seen a fairy function as a death omen around the barguest. It’s not too far-fetched to see the Cauld Lad take on this function, especially if he is a form of brownie, and thus related to the household to which he’s attached. This is definitely something to explore further.
What do we make of the brownie?
Much of the brownie lore does attest that the brownie is in fact a type of fairy. They help around the house, and as long as you treat them well, they’ll be faithful and loyal to your household. Offend or insult them, and they’ll either leave or turn on you.
It’s difficult to see any connections between brownies in a traditional sense and ghosts. In fact, I rather think that there are none. The problem occurs with the Cauld Lad tales. With the Cauld Lad behaving like both a boggart and a brownie, yet being considered a ghost, it’s hard to tell if brownie tales have simply been conflated with the type of spirit that appears in the histories of many old families.
But it does demonstrate the somewhat fluid boundaries between the tales. It also shows what happens when stories are repeated over time, becoming confused or embroidered the more often they’re told. This is something we need to bear in mind with folklore, that it’s difficult to take the stories as reported at face value. We don’t know how well-known or how oft-told these tales are. So they give us a snapshot of the people who both reported and recorded the stories.
Though I certainly wouldn’t risk leaving out clothes for anyone who did housework for me overnight…
Do you know any tales of brownies?
Briggs, Katharine (1976), A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, London: Penguin Books.
Henderson, William (1879), Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, London: W. Satchell, Peyton and Co.
Richardson, Moses Aaron, (1846a), The Borderer’s table book; or, Gatherings of the local history and romance of the English and Scottish Border, Vol. VII, London: Henry G. Bohn.
Richardson, Moses Aaron, (1846b), The Borderer’s table book; or, Gatherings of the local history and romance of the English and Scottish Border, Vol. III, London: Henry G. Bohn.
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