Contributed by Marilyn McPhie
There was once a young Scottish lairdie who was known to have a heart of gold. Everyone said so. It was because he could not bear to see people in trouble without trying to help them in some way. He was as kind and good-natured a lad as could be found anywhere.
When the lad was young, his mother died, and his father, the old laird, never got over her death. He mourned and mourned, and one day he realized that his son looked so much like his mother, that it gave him sorrow just to look on his face, so he sent the lad to live with relatives in the North. By and by, the old laird died, and the young laird was sent for to take over the estate. When the young laird arrived, he was almost sorry that he’d come.
In his grief, the old laird had let everything go to rack and ruin. It was true that the young laird had inherited a lot of land, a village, a kirk, several farms, a large park with many deer – and even a castle. It all sounded grand, but the when the young lad went around to see – the reality was much different that he had expected. Many of the farms had been deserted and the land had gone wild. Most the rest of the farms weren’t being properly kept up. The kirk was beautiful on the outside, but when he went inside, he saw that there was a big hole in the roof, and it almost looked like it could be a barn. In fact, the same could be said for the castle itself. The only thing good about the castle was the servants. They had been with the family for many years and had fond feelings for the old laird, his wife, and the young lad himself.
When the young laird had a good look at the accounts, he was even more discouraged. It seemed that when the quarterly rent was due, it was always the same story. Some of the tenants were honest and hard-working, but they had ill luck and could not pay. Others were able to pay, but pretended that they, too, were poor to keep the rent money for themselves, and the laird was so good-hearted that he believed them. Only two or three tenants paid in full each quarter. It was hardly enough to keep bannocks and cheese on the laird’s table.
Of course, people advised the young laird to let the servants go, but they were getting old, and he was afraid they would not be able to find new places. Besides, they had grown to love him, and he them – although there was little enough compensation for their work. They did have lodging and food as good as the laird’s, but that wasn’t saying much.
One winter’s day when the quarterly rents were due, the young laird went out to collect them, but all he got were excuses and promises and sad stories – which he of course believed. Returning to the castle, he saw what he at first took to be a pile of children’s toys on the ground at the crossroad – and many small poppets beside them. But, as he came closer, he was astonished to see that those “poppets” were alive!
In fact, it was a group of brownies with their furniture. “What are you doing out here in the cold and snow?” the laird inquired. At that, one of the brownies stepped forward, “I am Lachie Tosh, and this is my wife and our seven sons and their wives and their sons and their sons’ wives and their bairns. I am the head of our sept of the clan, and what are we doing here? We are flitting.”
“But why are you flitting, and where are you going?”
“That’s the problem,” replied Lachie Tosh. We have lived at the mill for as long as anyone can remember. But when the miller’s wife died, he married a town-born woman who will have naught to do with brownies. She claims that we steal the meal, and that we nibble holes in the cheese and take the eggs from the nest and skim the milk from the cream. She brought in a cat to frighten our bairns and dogs to chase us from the corn. That’s why we’re flitting. The trouble is, we don’t know where to go.”
Of course, the young laird was sympathetic. “You are most welcome at my castle,” he said, “though I have little more to offer you than a roof over your head porridge, and milk, and sometimes cheese and bannocks. The servants would welcome you, I’m sure, and although they have a cat and two dogs, they are a friendly sort and harmless.”
“That sounds good enough,” said Lachie Tosh “Say no more. We accept your invitation.”
When the young laird returned to the castle with the brownies, the housekeeper was surprised. But when the lad explained that they were the brownies from the mill who had been turned out by the miller’s new town born wife, she exclaimed, “Och, the poor wee things!” And she immediately welcomed them.
And in the weeks and months that followed, the brownies made a difference in the castle. The fire seemed to burn brighter. The hens laid more eggs. The cows gave more milk – and richer, too. And the cheerful chatter and singing made everyone smile.
Outside the castle, however, things did not improve, and the young laird grew sadder and sadder. As for Lachie Tosh, he went out every day and did not return until evening. Once night when the lad was examining the accounts and trying to figure out how to make do with so little, Lachie Tosh entered and announced that he had something to say. The laird invited him to speak his mind. The young laird had long suspected that when things did not improve, the brownies would be moving on. So he was surprised when Lachie Tosh announced, “Willful waste makes woeful want.” He went on to explain, “Butter and brawn in the cottage and bannocks and cheese in the castle is not right and never will be!” He said that many of the farmers were well enough off, but pretended that they were poor so they wouldn’t have to pay their rent. Others were simply lazy and thriftless and shiftless – and it was because the young laird had a heart of gold and could not bring himself to challenge even the laziest and most dishonest of his tenants.
“What you need,” said Lachie Tosh, “is a factor, someone to manage the estate and collect the rent. And who better than me to do it?” The young laird said he’d never heard of anyone who had a brownie for a factor, but when Lachie Tosh told him that he’d be fair and honest with everyone and could even manage to see that the genuinely poor might mend their luck, the lad handed the accounting books to Lachie Tosh and told him to give it a try. And, surprisingly, that night the young laird slept better than he had since he came to the castle.
Well, that was the start of some big changes. Tenants got letters – mountains of them – all written in a small, neat hand. They were instructed to mend the fences, whitewash their sheds, and see that the laird was paid his rent from the silver hidden under the bed. Folks wondered who this Lachie Tosh was, the new factor who signed all the letters, and how he seemed to know everything about them.
Complaining was no use, for the young laird only said that they’d have to take up their complaints with the factor. Some of the laziest and most dishonest packed up and left, but the rest mended their ways – and their farms and even the roof of the kirk. And the honest and hard-working folks seemed to have better luck. They were healthier. Their crops grew better. Their children got good positions in work or service. And so, of course, they could pay more rent.
When the accounts were balanced and the estate in order, Lachie Tosh turned his attention to the laird himself. “There are two things you need, and the first is to replace your threadbare clothes with a new suit.” The laird was surprised, but he took himself off to the tailor and a week later came back looking as fine as any young man in the country. Then Lachie Tosh told him the second thing he needed – a wife!
The laird hadn’t had time or heart to think of such a thing before, and he didn’t know how to go about finding a wife, but Lachie Tosh assured him that he’d know when he found the right lass.
So the laird took himself off to the north to visit cousins, and when he found a likely lass there, he asked her, “What do you think of brownies?” She replied that she didn’t think of them at all because she didn’t believe in brownies.” Clearly, she was not the right lass for him. He visited cousins in the south, but when he asked a pretty and well-educated lass there about brownies, she remarked in a very cultured voice, “My good man, the idea of the existence of brownies is the attempt of the common people to explain the disappearance of the Picts.” Not the lass for him. He visited relatives in the east and then in the west, with no better luck. Either they suspected that they would not like brownies at all or, even worse, they said that brownies were horrid little things, worse than rats.
Finally, discouraged, the young laird headed for home. On his way, he passed the mill, the one that the brownies had flitted from. There, on a bench by the door, sat a lass. It was the miller’s daughter, and although she was quite bonny, she looked very sad. When the laird asked the problem, she explained that her father’s new wife and she did not agree, for the stepmother had different opinions about almost everything. Encouraged, the laird asked what she thought of brownies. She began at once to weep as she said through her tears, “Och, the dear wee things! There were always brownies at the mill when my mother was alive. How I miss them!”
That was all the young laird needed to hear. He took the lass up to the castle and could hardly wait to tell Lachie that he had finally found the lass he wanted for his wife. Of course, Lachie declared that she was the very lass he’d had in mind all along. So the young laird married the miller’s daughter. It was a grand wedding, with all the guests from around the estate eating and drinking and dancing and laughing and congratulating the laird on his good fortune. And perhaps they were having such a good time that they did not even notice that an entire troop of brownies were celebrating along with them.
After that all went well, and why should it not with a castle full of brownies and Lachie Tosh for the factor and a lass who love the brownies and a laird with a heart of gold.