brownies are supernatural diminutive woodland beings, although accounts of them as somewhat larger and less supernatural exist.
the oldest tales depict them as sometimes irascible but usually honorable solitary beings who might associate themselves with a household and help with the work in exchange for a good bannock bun once in a while and a new clean shirt once a year. in some accounts this must not be given to him but left where he can find them.
both male and female brownies are recorded. modern children’s lore depicts them as diminutive, male, aged and bearded, about knee high to a six year old, dressed in soft brown leather and scented with the odours of the forest floor. they commune with nature, exercising authority over birds and beasts and the fairy folk too, settling their disputes and giving wise council to all who consult with them.
what are they really, then, and how does the folklore arise? has the idea of them any basis in fact? the clue first came to me while listening to danny spooner, the melbourne ballad singer, singing the following song:
brown adam the smith.
oh wha would wish the wind tae blaw
and the green leaves fa’ therewith
and wha wad wish a lealer love
than brown adam the smith.
his hammer’s o’ the beaten gowd
his stood is o’ the steel
his fingers white are my delight
he blaws his bellows weel.
but they hae banished him brown adam
frae faither and frae brither
and they hae banished him brown adam
frae sister and frae mither
and they hae banished him brown adam
frae the flower o’ all his kin
but he’s bigit a bower in the gay green woods
twixt his fair lady and him
and it fell oot all on ae day
brown adam he thought lang
that he wad tae the hunting gae
tae fetch some venison
and he shot high and he shot low
the bird all on the briar
and sent it tae his lady fair
saying “ye’s be o’ gude cheer!’
and he’s shot high and he’s shot low
the bird upon the thorn
and sent it tae his lady fair sayin’
“i’ll be hame the morn.”
and when he came to his lady’s bower door
he stood a little forebye
and there he heard a foul fals knight
attempting his fair lady
and he’s ta’en off a ring a ring
which cost him many a pound
says “grant me love for love lady
and this shall be thine own.”
“i lo’e brown adam weel,” said she
“god wot sae does he me,
i ne’er shall be your lemen sae true
for any gowd ring that ye gie.”
and he’s ta’en oot a purse o’ gowd
twas fu’ untae the string
says “grant me love for love, lady
and this will a’ be thine.”
“i lo’e brown adam weel” said she
“god wot sae does he me!
i neer will be your lover sae true
for all of the gowd that ye gie.”
and he’s ta’en oot a sword a sword
and flashed it in her ee
says “grant me love for love, lady,
or through thee this will flie!”
and sighing says this fair lady
brown adam tarries lang
but he’s stepped oot frae the gay green woods
saying “i’m just tae your hand!”
he’s gar’d him leave his sword his sword,
he’s gar’d him leave his brand.
he’s gar’d him leave a far better pledge
four fingers of his right hand.
now in nearly every instance of the occurrence of the name brown adam in this song, the word brown is started on one note and switches to another in mid-diphthong, so that it is very tempting to split it into two separate vowels, and because the tune is bouncy there’s a tendency to insert into it an h. if you yield to this and your accent is southern, not northern, you end up singing not brown but brae-hon adam, and while that isn’t exactly the word brehon, it resonates undeniably with it.
(there is a tension between the southern words and northern treatment the song is given, as if it were a southern song preserved in the north by the border singers.)
likewise the character resonates well with the image of the sterner sort of not very supernatural stern hardworking brownie associated with households who might take offence rather suddenly and turn morose on you.
banishment was a brehon punishment, and perhaps our adam had transgressed a brehon law, at least, in an older version of the song, which might have depicted quite another escapade.
but also, during the roman occupation and the time of the persecution by the early church of celtic heretics, brehons, witches and druids were banished or fled, taking refuge in the woods. both brown adam and the classic helpful but secretive brownie may have been in hiding from one phase or another of the persecutions.
the ‘foul false knight’ in folklore is nearly always a roman. it’s true that they left native institutions in place when they took control, but they used to kill or put to flight all native office holders (or marry them by force if they were women) and replace them with heartily hated false office bearers who fawned on caesar in the name of the helpless subject nation.
we can easily imagine a brehon in roman britain hiding out in the woods and emerging to protect his lady, perhaps from his own roman substitute.
in real life we can imagine that he might have had a large company of followers.
(just think, if he did wear what children’s book pictures show him in, i.e. a robe and hood, there you’d be, rob’n’hood, hiding out in the greenwood depending on his bow and arrow to feed and defend himself, and adept at both.)
but during these persecutions in which brehons, druids, and witches of all kinds were hunted in the woods hedges and moors with hounds and on horseback, our brehon adam would not have fared so well. in winter the leafless forest would have hidden him less effectively and the smoke of any fire would give him away, so he was cold. anyway, not all brehons were strong hunters and swordsmen. some of the most powerful, magical and highly educated of them were gentle scholars. as the woods were divided up among clergy, and later normans and so on, communities of surviving brehons would have got smaller and smaller and the survivors more and more solitary and retiring.
imagine if while still young you had had to flee to the woods, and conditions made it unsafe to appear even to your own kin, so that you had to spend the rest of your life alone in the forest. your loneliness would give way to a sort of surrender, in which you would begin to be aware of the minute subtle details of forest life, of the birds songs and the small animals behaviour. you would sleep in the moss, breathing mushroom spore-laden hallucinogenic air, which would show you fairies and plant spirits and the beings who haunt trees. when you died, after feeding exclusively on forest fare, nuts and berries and game and mushrooms, and being exquisitely attuned to the woodlands for forty or fifty years you’d be so well attuned to them, so much a part of the fabric of the forest glades that you’d haunt them.
and perhaps under the influence of gravity, or perhaps as a result of the anathematisation of the brehonie folk by the church, your ghost might even shrink away to almost nothing, not stopping till you were knee-high to a six year old . . .
. . . who would to your utter amazement understand all about you and all the other woodland sprites because she’d have heard it all from brown owl . . .