In folklore, a brownie resembles the hob, similar to a hobgoblin. 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 of food. Among food, they especially enjoy 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.
Folklorist John Gregorson Campbell distinguishes between the English brownie, which lived in houses, and the Scottish ùruisg or urisk, which lived outside in streams and waterfalls and was less likely to offer domestic help. The ùruisg enjoyed solitude at certain seasons of the year. Around the end of the harvest, he became more sociable, and hovered around farmyards, stables and cattle-houses. He particularly enjoyed dairy products, and tended to intrude on milkmaids, who made regular libations of milk or cream to charm him off, or to gain his favour. He was usually seen only by those who possessed second sight, though there were instances when he made himself visible to ordinary people as well. He is said to have been jolly and personable, with flowing yellow hair, wearing a broad blue bonnet and carrying 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. One house on the banks of the River Tay was even until the beginning of the twentieth century believed to have been haunted by such a sprite, and one room in the house was for centuries called "Seòmar Bhrùnaidh" (Brownie’s room).
In 1703, John Brand wrote in his description of Shetland (which he called "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.”
Brownies seldom spoke with humans, but they held frequent and affectionate conversations with one another. They had general assemblies as well, usually held on a remote, rocky shore. 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. According to Scottish toponymist William J. Watson, every stream in Breadalbane had an ùruisg once, 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.
Anglo-Scottish Border folklore also included a figure, "Billy Blind" or "Billy Blin", much like the brownie, but mentioned only in ballads. A hob came from the Scottish Borders and north of England, while the lubber fiend, lob or lob lie-by-the-fire was a variant from England.
The Killmoulis was a similar creature which inhabited mills. Its distinguishing feature was that its face was made up of a huge nose and no mouth.
The fenodyree is a folkloric fairy from the Isle of Man with similar attributes to the brownie.
Jack o' the bowl is a Swiss folkloric fairy.
The 19th century saw the growth and profusion of children's literature, and often incorporated fantasy. Juliana Horatia Ewing incorporated folklore into her 1871 work of short stories The Brownies and other Tales with brownies and lob-lie-the-fire. George MacDonald incorporated features of Scottish brownie lore in his 19th century works The Princess and the Goblin and Sir Gibbie - his brownies have no fingers on their hands.Brownies appeared in the 1988 film Willow.
Brownies were popularized in the humoristic poems and drawings of Canadian-American artist and author Palmer Cox.
By extension, the name "Brownies" is given to the junior branch of the Girl Guides (Girl Scouts of the USA) as well as their Canadian and British counterparts.
The basis of the House-elves in the popular book and movie series Harry Potter is derived from folklore on Brownies. "Dobby" is used both for the house elf and as a name for brownies in Yorkshire, and "Mr Dobbs" in Sussex.
The Cleveland Browns occasional mascot is named "Brownie" (sometimes called "Brownie the Elf") and resembles the creatures from folklore of the same name.
The popular magic film The Spiderwick Chronicles contained a Brownie named Thimbletack, who would transform into a Boggart when angry.
Big Ears is a character from Noddy series books by Enid Blyton and is described as a brownie.