Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – No. V. – Brownies.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   IN the superstitious mythology of many of the nations of Europe we find supernatural beings having at least some of the features which peculiarly belong to the Scottish brownie. Whether we owe the creation of this personage to our Celtic or our Saxon ancestry it is now in vain to inquire, though it may be remarked that the Gaelic word buineadh means “a little corpulent man.” In the Edda we have swartalfar, or the swarthy elves, and the livsalfar, or white elves – the former corresponding in some respects to our brownie, and the latter to the fairies. The picture of the lubbar fiend, as drawn by Milton in his “L’Allegro,” resembles in its prominent features the useful and wonder-working drudge of our forefathers. 

“Who, in one night, ere glimpse of morn, 

With shadowy, flail had threshed the corn, 

That ten day-lab’rers could not end; 

There lies him down the lubbar fiend, 

And, stretched otu all the chimney’s length, 

Basks at the fire his hairy strength; 

And, crop-full, out of door he flings 

Ere the first cock his matin sings.” 

The Scottish brownie was dwarfish in stature, and corpulent in appearance. His body was covered with hair, and he had a peculiar wildness in his aspect. The remote recesses of old houses were his favourite haunts during the day-time, and by night he employed himself in discharging any laborious task which he thought might be useful or acceptable to the family to whose service he had devoted himself. He was most disinterested in his attachments, and the offer of reward in any shape, either of clothing or of food, never failed to drive him away for ever from his favourite howff

“T’was thus in Caledonia’s domes, ‘tis said, 

Thou ply’dst the kindly task in years of yore. 

At last, in luckless hour, some erring maid 

Spread in thy nightly cell of viands store, 

Ne’er was thy form beheld among their mountains more.” 

   A few anecdotes illustrative of the manners and habits of the brownie will convey a better idea of this useful, but, alas! now extinct being, than a lengthened and formal description. 

  Peter Smith, joiner at Kame End, a small hamlet in the upper ward of Lanarkshire, was exceedingly fortunate in having a brownie who anticipated his necessities and performed in the night-time the most unheard of feats. Once, being required to make a coffin, Peter selected and set aside the pieces of wood which he intended to use in its construction on the following morning. To his astonishment when he entered his shop to begin the task at an early hour next day, he found the coffin standing on his bench completely finished and ready for the reception of the corpse. the same individual occupied a few acres of croft-land which he had sown one year with barley. the weather was most propitious for the growth and ripening of the crop, but when it was ready for the sickle he had some difficulty in procuring hands to cut it down. His faithful brownie came to his aid, and in one night his whole crop was cut, bound in sheaves, and stooked long before Peter and his servants got their hooks sharpened in the morning to begin the “harvest toil.” The old man’s gratitude knew no bounds, and he forthwith presented his supernatural benefactor with a handsome cloak and hood, which was deposited in a place where he was supposed to haunt. During the night loud cries and sobbings were heard in the hamlet, intermingled with 

“Brownie a cloak, brownie a hood,

Brownie will do no more good.” 

This was his last: he disappeared from the Kame End, and was heard of no more, to the great grief of Peter Smith, or, as he has been called in some Border song, “Wee Patie the Laird.” 

   About one hundred and fifty years ago a gentleman had occasion to ride across the Tweed nearly at the spot where the wooden bridge now spans the limpid waters of that river, and unites together the two famous villages of Traquair and Innerleithen. When he had reached the middle of the stream, which was at that time considerably flooded, he felt as if there was something on the horse behind him, and on looking back, by the light of a “bright and bonny moon,” he descried a little grave-looking personage – wholly covered with long, shaggy hair – sitting en croupe, and holding a salmon of immense size in each hand. On reaching the bank he looked round for his rugged companion, but found that he had altogether disappeared. He galloped home with all becoming haste, and on doffing his great-coat what was his surprise to find in the large pockets worn in those times, the identical salmon he had seen in the hands of the brownie when in the middle of the river? As the gentleman’s word could be implicitly relied on, his adventure was narrated and credited by old and young, with the exception of a small knot of would-be philosophers, who ventured to dissent from the common belief, and hinted that the gentleman had been late at a party at Kirkhouse, and that both the brownie and the salmon were the creations of the inspiring power of John Barley corn. 

   It is told of a brownie, who haunted a Border-family, that the lady having fallen unexpectedly in labour, and the servant, who was ordered to ride to Jedburgh for the sage femme, shewing no great alertness in setting out, the familiar spirit slipt on the great-coat of the lingering domestic, rode to the town on the laird’s best horse, and returned with the mid-wife en croupe. During the short space of his absence, the Tweed, which they must necessarily ford, rose to a dangerous height. Brownie, who transported his charge with all the rapidity of the ghostly lover of Lemoré was not to be stopped by this obstacle. He plunged in with the terrified old lady, and landed her in safety where her services were wanted. Having put the horse into the stable, he proceeded to the room of the servant, whose duty he had discharged; and, finding him just in the act of drawing on his boots, he administered to him a most merciless drubbing with his own horse-whip. Such an important service excited the gratitude of the laird; who, understanding that brownie had been heard to express a wish to have a green coat, ordered a vestment of that colour to be made and left in his haunts. Brownie took away the green coat, but was never seen more. We may suppose, that, tired of his domestic drudgery, he went in his new livery to join the fairies. 

   The last brownie known in Ettrick forest resided in Bodsbeck, a wild and solitary spot, where he exercised his functions undisturbed, till the scrupulous devotion of an old lady induced her to hire him away, as it was termed, by placing in his haunt a porringer of milk and a piece of money. After receiving this hint to depart, he was heard the whole night to howl and cry, “Farewell to bonny Bodsbeck!” which he was compelled to abandon for ever. 

   My old friend, Patie Galbraith, whose experiences seem to have been of a most miscellaneous and varied kind, had an encounter with a brownie which I must allow him to narrate in his own words. 

   1774. – March 3. – Last week, my spousie Mysie needed some bits o’ things, sic as shoon for twa o’ the bairns, an’ a new blue bonnet for Patie, our auldest laddie – wha, by the bye, is an awfu’ hempie, and yet, as the dominie says, he maun hae some ingyne about him, for he has been through the Proverbs o’ Solomon, and can screed aff the single Carritch as far as “repentance unto life” without missin’ a word. I set aff wi’ my neist door neibour, Robin Douglas, after our day’s darg, for the kirk clachan o’  iresykes, to get the necessaries for my weans. We gat our business owre in nae lang time, an’ were just coming our ways hame, when it cam’ into baith o’ our heads at ance that, as we had gotten gayan cheap bargains, and the muir was unco lang an’ dreary, we couldna be the waur o’ some sma’ refreshment, in the shape o’ something to drink, for drouth, a’ body kens, gangs a lang way afore hunger wi’ a true Scotsman. Sae in we gaed to Jeannie Tennent’s, at the east end o’ the town, an’ we duntit in a bottle o’ her best tippeny; but we fand it unco blash, an’ no like to grip the mouth or warm the saul ava. It was little better than cauld water, or the drumlie swipes o’ Berwick, which a’ body kens, an’ nane better than mysel’, is no a fit drink for either heart or body. To keep down the rummle gumption we spiered for half a mutchkin o’ Jeannie’s best, and to do her justice, it was really gude. Aweel, we sat an’ clavered owre our bit dram, for Robin, puir fallow, ‘s an awfu’ haveril when he gets a tastin’ o’ the barley bree, till the clock strack ten. We baith saw the needcessity o’ liftin, sae after payin’ our lawin’, an’ gettin our pipes into gude luntin’ order, we took to the road as brisk and spunkie as if it had been a bonny e’enin’ o’ simmer instead o’ a gur;y mirksome nicht o’ the borrowin’ day o’ March’ I cockit my blue bonnet fu’ brawly, an’ we baith daundered (I noticed Robin stackered whiles) alang the moss road crackin’ on twa subjects at ance, an’ it was wonderfu’ how we agreed, especially on points o’ doctrine, sic as predestination, the elected number, an’ the worthlessness o’ good works. We gaed scrievin’ owre the road and met wi’ naething uncanny till we cam’ in sicht o’ the auld smiddie. The hail village o’ the Overtown was sound asleep; but the smiddie windows were bleezin’ wi’ lict, an’ we heard the puffin’ o’ the bellows nearly a quarter o’ a mile away. We couldna understand it ava, an’ we slippit round to the back window to see what was gaun on. An’ there – I hope I’ll ne’er see the like again – was a wee man a’ covered owre wi’ hair, an’ as wild as a New Zealand savage, hammerin’ wi’ a’ his micht at the study, an’ makin’ what appeared to us a flauchter spade, – a thing o’ nae sma’ size i’ our muir country. In an instant the smiddie grew dark, an’ we lost a’ track o ‘the spade and the queer wee man what had made it. Robin and I gaed hame to our bed, an’ as our wives were rather in a dour key at us bidin’ out sae late, we didna tell them a single word about our adventures. No lang after, the smith resolved to ha’e what Andrew Scott o’ Bowden calls a “Moss day,” and away he an’ his journeyman and apprentices hied to cast peats amang the moss bogs o’ the Miresike muir. What was their astonishment to find that a’ their peats had been cast through the night and laid in order on the heathery bent to dry. Nae doubt the brownie had done it; and mair than that, in a fortnight after the peats were a’ put up in rickles, and when the smith lookit out ae fine sunny morning he saw a peat stack at his house end where nae peat stack was the nicht afore. 

   I met wi’ the smith as I was gaun out to the hirsel yesterday mornin’, an’ he tauld me it cost him seven gills o’ Brotherston’s best, and twa bottle o’ double X, to tell to the inquirin’ strangers the wonderfu’ ongoin’s o’ the brownie. An’ after a’, quo’ he, if the brownie had just mindit his awn business an’ let me alane, I could ha’e cuisten my peats, rickled them, and brought them hame a great deal cheaper than he had done. But it may be remarked that the brownie, puir chield, had nar thought that a’ the profits o’ his nocturnal labours would find their way into the pocket o’ the landlady o’ the “Rampant Lion” o’ the Overtown. 

   So much for the general character of the Scottish Brownie. In my next paper I will endeavour to describe three distinct species of the brownie tribe, which were in the days of yore well known among the folk of the Scottish Borders. 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 21st August, 1863, p.4.

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