For all that has been said in my past posts about the divine, fearsome and sometimes vengeful nature of British fairies, I have mentioned – and many readers will be familiar with- a species of helpful household beings. This category of supernaturals is often labelled ‘brownies’ but this is one regional variation (of eastern and northern England and the Scottish Lowlands) of a wider class which, as the above quote for Gawain Douglas indicates, includes the hobgoblins, hobs and lobs. There are also those fairies that are made useful to humans by reason of scaring recalcitrant children (Tom Dockin, Tom Poker, Tommy Rawhead et al)- see my separate posting on these nursery sprites. Here we are concerned with those beings that render aid voluntarily and devotedly.
These solitary fairies were more or less domesticated, being attached to a family or place. They were all linked with human habitations and human activities, but the degree of association varied. There were, for example,:
- herding fairies like the Highland urisk who cared for cattle and worked in the fields, but lived in or near pools. Some herded sheep or looked after poultry and the Cornish Browney gathered up bee swarms;
- barn and household fairies which included the likes of Robin Roundcap of East Yorkshire; Dobie, Dobby and Master Dobbs of the Borders, Northern England and Sussex respectively; the Welsh bwca and bwbachod; the bodachan sabhail of the Highlands, and Old Man Crook and John Tucker of Devon. These fairies would grind, mow, churn, sweep and wash, riddling corn and sieving flour in the pantry, thresh, run errands (such as fetching a midwife) and give advice- or they would untidy that which was already tidy! There was a saying ‘Master Dobbs has been helping you’ meaning that a person had done more work than had been expected of them;
- buttery sprites and cellar ghosts who guard larders from thieving servants;
- housework helpers like Habetrot and Scantlie Mab who assisted with spinning and weaving; and,
- mine fairies: Milton knew of “the swart faery of the mine” by which he meant the knockers and coblynau who help and guide miners (see for example Ritson pp.37-38 Dissertation on fairies).
Most of these creatures were small and hairy, perhaps at most clad in rags. They worked hard and energetically and expected no direct reward except some clean water, cream, honeycomb or bread left out before the fire, discretely and without announcement. Any attempt to give clothes (or at least cheap clothes) was never appreciated and could either drive a brownie away or convert it into a boggart, a nuisance brownie who behaved like a poltergeist with mischievous tricks. Brownies reacted the same way to criticism of their work (see Briggs, Tradition and literature p.34) or if their name was discovered (or an unwanted human name given).
Brownies could become too attached and too devoted to households. In Ben Jonson’s The silent woman Dauphine complains that “they haunt me like fairies and give me jewels here; I cannot be rid of them” (Act V scene 1). This might seem inexplicable were it not for Professor John Rhys , who notes a Cardiganshire belief that:
“once you come across one of the fairies you cannot easily be rid of him, since the fairies were little beings of a very devoted nature. Once a man had become friendly with one of them, the latter would be present with him almost everywhere he went, until it became a burden to him.” (Celtic folklore p.250).
They might then overstep the mark, stealing from neighbouring farms to supply their own. Sometimes they exposed lazy servants, but equally they might defend them, as in the instance recounted by Briggs where the brownie left until servants dismissed for laziness by letting him do all the work were reinstated (Briggs, Tradition and literature p.38).
Boggarts and brownies could become such a nuisance to households that a farmer might decide to ‘flit‘ to try to escape from one. There are widespread versions of this tale in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland. The decision might be made to move house; the contents would be packed and loaded and the family would set off, only to find that the brownie was with them- so they might as well turn round and stay put (See Keightley Fairy mythology pp.307-8).
Finally, we should note that Brownies are now junior girl-guides. The name was taken from Juliana Horatia Ewing‘s story of The brownies (1870), in which two children learn that they can be either helpful brownies or lazy boggarts. Originally Baden-Powell had chosen the name of ‘Rosebuds’, so perhaps it was wisely replaced.
Spirits related to those described here are those that warn humans of danger, such as the Cornish hopper and the Isle of Man houlaa, who both alerted fishermen to approaching storms and the skriker of Yorkshire and Lancashire who warned of death.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).