Customarily brownies are said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around the house. However, they do not like to be seen and will only work at night, traditionally in exchange for small gifts or food. They take quite a delight in porridge and honey. They usually abandon the house if their gifts are called payments, or if the owners of the house misuse them. Brownies make their homes in an unused part of the house.
The ùruisg had the qualities of man and spirit curiously commingled. He had a peculiar fondness for solitude at certain seasons of the year. About the end of Harvest he became more sociable, and hovered about farmyards, stables, and cattle-houses. He had a particular fondness for the products of the dairy, and was a fearful intruder on milkmaids, who made regular libations of milk or cream to charm him off, or to procure his favour. He could be seen supposedly only by those who had the second sight, though instances where he made himself visible to people not so Gifted have been rumoured. He is said to have been a jolly personable being with a broad blue bonnet, flowing yellow hair, and a long walking staff.
Every manor house had its ùruisg, and in the kitchen, close by the fire was a seat, which was left unoccupied for him. The house of a proprietor on the banks of the River Tay was even at the beginning of the twentieth century believed to have been haunted by this sprite, and a particular apartment therein has been for centuries called “Seòmar Bhrùnaidh” (Brownie’s room). When irritated through neglect or disrespectful treatment he would not hesitate to become wantonly mischievous. He was notwithstanding, rather gainly and good-natured rather than formidable. Though, on the whole, a lazy, lounging hobgoblin, he would often bestir himself on behalf of those who understood his humours, and suited themselves thereto. When in this mood, he was known to perform many arduous exploits in kitchen, barn and stable, with marvellous precision and rapidity. These kind turns were done without bribe, fee or reward, for the offer of any one of these would banish him forever. Kind treatment was all he ever wished for, and it never failed to procure his favour.
In 1703, John Brand wrote in his description of Zetland that:
- “Not above forty or fifty years ago, every family had a brownie, or evil spirit, so called, which served them, to which they gave a sacrifice for his service; as when they churned their milk, they took a part thereof, and sprinkled every corner of the house with it, for Brownie’s use; likewise, when they brewed, they had a stone which they called ‘Brownie’s stane’, wherein there was a little hole into which they poured some wort for a sacrifice to Brownie. They also had some stacks of corn, which they called Brownie’s Stacks, which, though they were not bound with straw ropes, or in any way fenced as other stacks used to be, yet the greatest storm of wind was not able to blow away straw off them.”
The brownies seldom discoursed with man, but they held frequent and affectionate converse with one another. They had their general assemblies too, and on those occasions they commonly selected for their rendezvous the rocky recesses of some remote torrent, whence their loud voices, mingling with the water’s roar, carried to the ears of some wondering superstition detached parts of their unearthly colloquies. In a certain district of the Scottish Highlands, “Peallaidh an Spùit” (Peallaidh of the Spout), “Stochdail a’ Chùirt”, and “Brùnaidh an Easain” (Brownie of the little waterfall) were names of note at those congresses, and they still live in legends which continue to amuse old age and infancy. Every stream in Breadalbane had an ùruisg once according to Watson the Scottish place name expert, and their king was Peallaidh. (Peallaidh’s name is preserved in “Obair Pheallaidh”, known in English as “Aberfeldy”.) It may be the case, that ùruisg was conflated with some water sprite, or that ùruisg were originally water sprites conflated with brownies.