Thursday’s Tale: The Brownie and the Thievish Maids

Illustration by Edmund H. Garrett, 1888, from Brownies and Bogles by Louise Imogen Guiney
Illustration by Edmund H. Garrett, 1888, from Brownies and Bogles by Louise Imogen Guiney

How about a brownie story from Scotland today? Traditionally, brownies 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 often make their homes in an unused part of the house. The brownie in today’s story, “The Brownie and the Thievish Maids,” shares some characteristics with the ùruisg or urisk, who are similar to brownies, but lived outside in streams and waterfalls and was less likely to offer domestic help. 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 favor. 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.

“The Brownie and the Thievish Maids” is from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, by George Douglas, 1901. I read it at sacred-texts.com. The story starts by telling us that the typical brownie was rather concerned about the moral conduct of the household to which he was attached. He was inclined to prick up his ears at the first appearance of any impropriety in the manners of his fellow-servants. The least delinquency committed either in barn, or cow-house, or larder, he was sure to report to his master, whose interests he more important than anything else, and from whom no bribe could induce him to hide the offences which he noticed. The servants of the house usually regarded him with a mixture of fear, hatred, and respect; and though he might not often find occasion to act as a spy, the firm belief that he would be relentless when he did had a beneficial effect.

The story goes on to tell of one particular brownie in Peeblesshire. Two dairymaids, who had a stingy mistress who didn’t give them enough food, found themselves compelled by hunger to steal a bowl of milk and a loaf of bread, which they proceeded to devour, as they thought, in secret. They sat on a bench together, with a space between them where they sat down the bowl between taking sips. They had no sooner started their meal than the brownie came to stand between the two girls, invisible, and whenever the bowl was set down the brownie took a large drink. The milk was quickly gone. The girls were surprise that the bowl was empty so soon, and they began to question each other, each thinking the other had taken more than their share. The brownie cried with malicious glee–

“Ha! ha! ha!
Brownie hast a’ I”

I’m not quite sure what “Brownie hast a’ I” means, but obviously he was thrilled he had tricked the girls. You see why I say he was a bit like an ùruisg, drawn to the barn or the cow house and the milk the girls were drinking.

Think next time the cookies disappear I can blame it on a brownie?

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.

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