The Brownie's Coat
He leapt off the horse outside the house of the mid-wife and banged upon her door. Upon answering the mid-wife….
Words by David White
Illustration by Linley Barba
The brownie is a creature most dear to the hearts of the great Scottish families, for while shaggy, short and unkept in appearance, quick to upset and generally opting to lurk in the darkness avoiding human company, they hold a certain endearing quality. Not only that but they are bound by duty and so when anything is lost or awry in one of the old Scottish houses a cry for the brownie to summon up the items can be heard.
Some have drawn comparison between the brownie and the house elves of Harry Potter for like their novel counter parts, brownies too carry out chores for the family they care for and they too work in the shadows so as not to disturb the great family they served. One other similarity can also be found but to share that now would give away our tale. What can be said though is that the brownie does not work for the hope of some reward nor does he appear bound by any unnatural force to inhabit the house- although with such fantastical creature one can never be sure. However, stories do tell of a wild brownie who attended his dwelling in Ettrick forest until he was brought into service, but that is a tale for another day. It is also not known how long such creatures live although it has been guessed to be many times the lifespan of a human, some have even reported brownies living over 500 years.
The story I shall now spin is one known in the south of Scotland, for it is often in these border regions where brownies made themselves of most use to their families. While the family he served has now long since departed their ancestral home and some even report the extinction of their lineage completely, the story remains and acts as a testimony to the virtue of the brownie but also a warning against certain acts. The tale is that of a brownie and his coat.
It was a dark and stormy Sunday evening in the height of winter, peals of lighting could be heard clashing outside the doors to the grand house but the family rested peacefully by the fire. The laird and his beautiful wife, bountiful with child rested next to the hearth after a delicious meal and down stairs was the cook and a single servant boy, the only staff members in attendance that day for the laird had seen it fit to send the rest to visit their families on this day of rest.
The night drew on and the storm continued to rage outside but the laird, safe within his sturdy walls sought to retire to his bed and so beckoned to his wife. She in standing immediately sat back down, as though hit by some sudden force. A moment past and the laird approached her to offer her his hand but, in that moment, she released the most ghoulish moan. She turned to the laird and stated surprisingly coolly that she would require a midwife for the baby was on its way.
The husband was taken aback by the sudden onset of the situation and the lack of staff to attend his wife. He called for the cook but, on remembering that the cook being the most old, frail of the house and likely already fast asleep therefore not the most suitable attendant for his wife, he turned to her.
“I shall try and awaken the cook to wait with you while I ride to town to fetch the midwife.”
She moaned once more and turned to the laird, this time her eyes burning:
“You shall not set a foot out that door not in this storm and you should not wake the cook either for she is long past the age she should be working and I will not further exhaust her by depriving her of sleep.”
The laird now in somewhat of a predicament offered cautiously:
“What, then, would you have me do?”
“Send that useless servant boy!” cried out his wife.
The lord summoned the servant boy and ordered him to ride as fast as he could to Jedburgh and retrieve the mid-wife for his wife who had just gone into labour. The boy having received his instructions then turned and ambled towards the door muttering to himself.
“Think I want to go out in that, no a chance, I’ll be killed, jumped up lairds, can do it himself if he cares that much.” And so the servant continued grumbling until he reached the stables where he climbed the ladders to the hay loft and so perched himself. Perhaps he intended to ride out once the storm had cleared slightly, perhaps he just planned to hide out but regardless, much unknown to him a pair of eyes had been watching since he received his instructions from the laird. Those eyes belonged to the brownie of the house.
The brownie you see is not only dutiful to the letter but gets increasingly annoyed by those who aren’t, so having known the boy to be lacking in the past the brownie had followed him to see he fulfilled his task. As expected, he would not. Promising to see to it that the boy was suitably punished upon his return he prepared to undertake the journey to retrieve the mid-wife.
The brownie grunted, throwing on the servant’s great coat which he had tossed to one side upon entering the stables. He then readied a horse: a beautiful brown mare with pale hair and white socks, upon which he swiftly mounted and turned to ride out. From the shelter of the doorway the laird saw the horse and its rider thunder away from the house and he couldn’t help but wonder whether that may be the last he saw of either of them. Unbeknownst to him the rider was not in fact the boy but a brownie instead, should he have stared a little longer he would have noticed the difference in height but given the darkness and rain such a detail was easily missed.
The brownie drove on through the wind and rain and upon reaching the Tweed, the water level was just reaching a half foot over the ford and while that not currently being an issue, his return across the river was sure to be met with opposition if he was not quick. So he drove on, the horse tiring quick until the dull lights from Jedburgh came into view.
He leapt off the horse outside the house of the mid-wife and banged upon her door. Upon answering the mid-wife was most surprised to find a brownie awaiting her and was further surprised by the speed at which he dragged her out to his horse and beckoned for her to ride behind him. The women had to recover from the shock of the speed of the development, for but a few minutes before she lay tucked up in bed, though she noted the coat of the brownie and presumed him to be a servant of a lady she had been attending. Then as quick as he arrived the brownie was off again with the mid-wife in tow. As they raced towards the Tweed, the brownie noted that the level of water had risen to almost three feet and the current was fast moving. No normal person would have attempted to cross but the brownie was no man and, in his desperation, rode the frightened mare into the river. The mid-wife, now advancing in years, let out a scream for never in her decades as a midwife had she tried to cross the river at this height. By some miracle, perhaps even the brownie’s own magic, if in fact they are gifted with such talents, they made it across the river and within in minutes the house came into view, its silhouette made out against the flashes of lightening.
As they arrived the brownie jumped down and helped the mid-wife to the door where she was beckoned inside. The laird took one look down and saw the brownie, a look of mild surprise passed across his face but he was clearly too distracted by the situation inside to focus too heavily on strange occurences.
The brownie then took the mare, who had suffered dreadfully and was now looking far from her once groomed state, to her stable. Upon stabling the mare, he glanced up and saw the lazy servant now asleep upon the hay. The brownie now seeking to fulfil his earlier promise to punish the boy upon his return took out a horse whip and proceeded to flog the boy. It can be noted that from that day on, the boy made especially sure that no eyes lurked in the darkness when he sought to deviate from his duties, some even say he became a better servant although whether he just appeared as such is unknown.
Upon the cockerel’s cry of the next morn the child was born. A son for the laird and his wife and the laird so overjoyed with the efforts made by the dutiful brownie that he sought to reward him. The brownie, being normally dressed in rags had no coat of his own, the one borrowed being that of the servant and much too big for the creature. The lord had heard whispers amongst the servants that the brownie had remarked upon the green coat of a visiting laird and expressed how much he would have loved such a coat. The laird thus had one made to mark the brownies great deed.
Upon receiving the coat, it is said the brownie said nothing but rather put on the coat, which was a perfect fit, and wandered off. He was never seen again, not in this life anyway. Some suppose that the gift of the coat symbolised a release from his bond to the family, others deem that the brownie believed he had fulfilled his tasks for this world and thus now suitably bedecked, sought to join the faeries in theirs.