The tale of the Copinsay Brownie is set at a time when a
farmer was the sole inhabitant of the island of Copinsay.
Copinsay, which is now uninhabited, is a rocky little islet, lying off the south-eastern
shore of Deerness, the most easterly
parish of the Orkney Mainland.
The tale is a pleasant,
if not slightly perplexing, story containing elements of recorded hogboon
lore, that seem to have been tacked on to a creature with the appearance of the
is Hughbo - the Brownie of Copinsay...
cold, wet and windy winter night, the farmer of Copinsay had just climbed wearily
into his box-bed when he saw something in the a corner of his room.
sat an ugly naked creature with a wet, leathery skin that seemed to glow softly
in the darkness. The visitor was somewhat smaller than a man and was certainly
terribly ugly with a flat, bald head and wet, slimy seaweed as a beard.
the sight of this unwanted intruder alarmed the poor farmer, he was a man with
a hasty temper and, fortunately, a quick wit.
talks with the old folk on the Mainland, he remembered that only cold steel and
the Word Of God could be depended upon against creatures of sorcery. So, seizing
a razor from a shelf in his bed, he pulled a dog-eared Psalm book from under his
Springing from his bed, he landed softly onto the
cold flagstones, ready to do battle with the repulsive intruder.
despite the fact that he sained himself with the Psalm book, and then
drew a circle in the air with the blade of his razor, the visitor remained in
the corner gibbering at him.
Exasperated, the farmer snatched
the fire tongs and poker from the hearth and sent them hurtling towards the squatting
creature. But the intruder was swift and avoided them with ease.
temper finally broken, the farmer lifted the heavy crook from its chain above
the fire and, with a roar, tried to get closer to his adversary. The crook, however,
was made of soft iron from the smithy, not of steel, so the creature plucked it
quickly from the farmer's trembling hand and threw it across the room. Now, even
more angered, the farmer lashed out and managed to hit the intruder twice before
it darted through the doorway with a squeal.
To get his
breath, and gather his wits, the farmer sat down on a straw creepie (stool) and
slowly his temper began to cool. He reflected that, while he had done his best
to disable the intruder, it had actually made no attempt to injure him. With this
in mind, when it re-entered the room, grinning and making friendly gestures, the
farmer remained seated and tried to understand what it was saying.
brownie - for so he was afterwards known - said that his name was "Hughbo".
He explained to the farmer that he had always lived in the sea but was now sick
of gnawing the bones of drowned men. It was his dearest wish that he remained
on the land. In order to fulfil this, he was willing to work well for his lodging.
The farmer grudgingly agreed and they decided that each
night Hughbo would use the quern to grind sufficient meal for the farmer's breakfast
porridge the next morning. All the creature asked in return was a saucer of milk
to sup with his own handful of burstin (parched barley).
farmer was a busy man and at heart a hospitable one. This arrangement pleased
him well. He quickly got over his disgust at the brownie's appearance and the
bargain was made.
The farmer went back to bed while in
the background, the low, gritty, scraping of the quern went on, and on, throughout
By the time the feeble winter sun crept timidly
over the horizon, there was a bowl of clean, well-ground oatmeal waiting for the
farmer as he climbed from beneath the covers.
True to his
word, Hughbo became a valued servant.
Sometimes the farmer
would talk with him, but more often lay silent in the darkness of his bed and
watched as the clumsy, glowing figure industriously turning the millstone.
as the millstone turned, the wheel of life turned ever onwards and Hughbo seemed
content with his lot.
Now, it happened that the farmer
had a sweetheart.
This girl lived on the Orkney Mainland
and the two were pledged to be married.
But it had recently
occurred to the farmer that it would be most unwise to bring the girl back to
Copinsay until she had become accustomed to Hughbo. So he told his sweetheart
about the strange servant, making sure she understood the creature's faithfulness
and good nature.
Then, to make even more sure of her acceptance,
he took her to the island on several occasions so she might meet the creature.
girl was a sensible sort and, like many, knew well that there were many things
in Orkney that mortal men knew little about. Therefore, she did not object to
sharing her new home with the brownie. So, in due course a marriage was celebrated
and the bride moved out to Copinsay.
As should be the case,
there were better things for bride and groom to do than pay overmuch attention
to Hughbo, but the girl's love for her husband flowed over to include the naked
figure who spent the hours of darkness grinding meal.
nights, while snuggled up in her warm bed, the girl imagined that poor Hughbo
must be shivering in the cold of an Orkney night and this pained her kindly heart.
In addition to this, of course, she was ever so slightly embarrassed by the extent
of Hughbo's nakedness, of which the creature was entirely unashamed.
telling her beloved husband, or the brownie, the girl obtained a length of good,
warm cloth from Kirkwall. From it,
she fashioned a warm cloak with an ample hood to cover Hughbo's bald crown.
one windy, moonless night, she placed the completed garment on the quern, pleased
with herself for the good act she had performed.
usual for Hughbo to come in quietly to carry out his task, but on this fateful
night he had no sooner entered the room than he began a dismal howling.
and round the quern he ran, sobbing his heart out and repeating; "Hughbo's
gotten cloak an' hood, so Hughbo can do no more good!"
And with that he flew out into the darkness of Orkney night
and was never seen again.