In A Nutshell
Brownies are well known as the small (but eternally helpful) mythological creatures that are said to live in the British Isles. There are several different types of brownies, and some of them should definitely not be angered. Angry brownies can turn into boggarts, but there are also brownie-clods, named for their love of throwing dirt at people, and Brown Men, who protect the animals on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor. And then there’s the gruagach, a brownie that was originally a divine creature that farmers and shepherds appealed to for the safety of their herds.
The Whole Bushel
Like many groups of mythological creatures, the brownie exists in a handful of different forms. Most broadly, the brownie is a small creature, usually male, who is thought of as a rather helpful soul to have around the house. Brownies will do tasks like churn butter, sweep the floors, and do the washing up. The physical description varies by area and retelling, although they’re always short, sometimes stout, sometimes slender, and usually dressed in rags or have no clothes at all. Some have distinctive features; Highland brownies don’t have toes or fingers, and Lowland brownies don’t have noses.
Their purpose was doing tasks around the house, indoor and outdoor, and as long as they were treated well, they were generally happy, helpful creatures. Offer them clothes, though, and according to the story they’ll either leave because you’ve offended them, or leave just because they have new clothes and don’t feel the need to help any more. Brownies are notoriously difficult to keep happy, and how to do so varies in the telling of the stories. Some require milk and honey nightly, some get mad when they are thanked for their hard work, some get offended if their family calls them by a name or nickname.
A brownie that was treated badly by his family could turn into a boggart. (Brownies also hate people that steal, cheat, are cheap, and don’t drink alcohol.) These malicious creatures were similar to the more modern poltergeist; they threw things, destroyed valuables, and created general havoc. Boggarts that had been brownies with outdoors brownie jobs would also torment the animals, eating sheep’s wool and spoiling milk. Food in the house would be spoiled, things would disappear. These trickster brownies also look different than their helpful counterparts, sporting sharp, pointed teeth and wild hair.
A dobbie is a type of brownie that’s not very smart and can unintentionally cause some chaos, but they’re generally well-meaning. And the Brownie-Clod is a pesky, irritating, simple-minded brownie whose only desire is to throw dirt at people.
The Brown Men are also a special type of brownie that live only on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, England. Unlike their Scottish household helper cousins, the Brown Men are wild brownies that protect all the wildlife they share their moorland home with. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see these small, redheaded brownies, as they’re said to avoid humans at all costs.
Similar to the Brown Men are the Gruagach, brownies that live in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland and are thought to watch over farmers’ herds. Early legends say that they were given offerings of milk in order to ensure that they would watch over flocks and herds and keep all of the animals safe.
The brownie also isn’t to be confused with the browney, which is a different type of mythological creature. The browney comes from Cornwall, and it’s thought to watch over hives of bees.
There are a number of different variations to the word “brownie,” and all generally mean the same thing. Bodach, bwca, bog, hobgoblin, hobman, bwbachod, all mean brownie. Sometimes they’re simply called the Good Folk, and in Sweden they’re called Tomtgubbe, or old man of the house.
Show Me The Proof
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology, by Theresa Bane
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, by Patricia Monaghan
Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales, by Mika Loponen