What are Brownies?

A brownie, or broonie (Scots) also known as a brùnaidh or gruagach (Scottish Gaelic), is a household spirit from British folklore that is said to come out at night while the owners of the house are asleep and perform various chores and farming tasks. The human owners of the house must leave a bowl of milk or cream or some other offering for the brownie, usually by the hearth.

Brownies originated as domestic tutelary spirits, very similar to the Lares of ancient Roman tradition. Descriptions of brownies vary regionally, but they are usually described as ugly, brown-skinned, and covered in hair. In the oldest stories, they are usually human-sized or larger. In more recent times, they have come to be seen as small and wizened. They are often capable of turning invisible and they sometimes appear in the shapes of animals. They are always either naked or dressed in rags. If a person attempts to present a brownie with clothing or if a person attempts to baptize him, he will leave forever.

Brownies are helpful little men of a brownish hue, which gives them their name. It is their habit to visit Scottish farms and, while the household sleeps, to perform domestic chores. One of the tales by the Grimms deals with the same subject. The famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson said he had trained his Brownies in the craft of literature. Brownies visited him in his dreams and told him wondrous tales; for instance, the strange transformation of Dr. Jekyll into the diabolical Mr. Hyde, and that episode of Olalla, in which the scion of an old Spanish family bites his sister’s hand.