Brownies and Wildness

A good example of how changes in the way the faërie folk have been regarded over time is provided in the accounts of brownies. These faeries have been represented as domesticated and happy to do household chores or farm work, but as such became idealised over time. Originally mainly restricted to the North of England and Scotland they were regarded as easily offended and likely to turn into less beneficial faeries or bogles. An extreme example of this development is that of the Scottish brownie called Aiken Drum or The Brownie of Blednoch who is described in earlier accounts as being naked except for a kilt of green rushes but appears in a later ‘traditional’ nursery rhyme as having “a hat of cream cheese, a coat of roast beef with buttons of penny loaves”. Although genuine faërie lore does not go that far in transforming brownies, many later accounts do show a development in describing the way they should be treated and whether or not gifts should be offered.

The earliest accounts stress their independence from humans and suggest that any attempt to offer them anything for the work they do would result at best in no more work being done and at worst by some sort of reprisal such as the undoing of work or the destruction of crops or farm implements. Then, perhaps, a bowl of cream might be left where they might find it, not as a direct gift but so that they are free to help themselves. Their independence is particularly stressed in the matter of their lack of clothes. One account tells how a brownie was offended when some clothing was left out for him to wear and was not seen again after this. In later accounts this changes to brownies being offended by offers of old or poor quality clothes with the suggestion that only best new linen is good enough for them. Such developments seem to ‘humanize’ the brownies away from their wild and independent nature and so attempt to domesticate them. Once this happens they are lost to us as we, rather than they, become further away from wildness.

Author: Greg Hill

Awenydd/Poet, Cultural Critic

One thought on “Brownies and Wildness”

  1. In Lancashire we call them boggarts and there are many place name references such as Boggart’s Hole Clough and Boggart Bridge. Their behaviour varies from household / farmyard helpers to poltergeist-like behaviour to tearing off people’s skins… I think we have a particularly strong boggart heritage because so much of Lancashire was originally peat moss. I tend to think of them as displaced spirits of the bogs and mosses, some of whom have become more humanised, others not. Seamus Heaney’s ‘Bog Queen’ captures their original nature for me.

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