Drawing And Whalebone Artefacts. Grinnebhat Exhibition Room, August 2023. Image By Courtesy The Artist.

Conversations Through a Whale, Grinneabhat, Isle of Lewis | Mhairi Killin

Mhairi Killin is a visual artist from Iona working with the precious relationships between land, sea, humans, and other living beings. Mhairi was supported to undertake a residency at Grinneabhat on the Isle of Lewis with the aim of introducing her project, On Sonorous Seas, to the local community and exploring further iterations of this work in the context of the village of Bragar.  

Mhairi travelled with the whale skull that was part of her 2022 On Sonorous Seas exhibition and installed it at Grinneabhat for the duration of the residency, where it became a focus for conversations and the development of new work. This whale came ashore at Bragar at the same time as a whale washed up near Mhairi’s home in Iona; two of one hundred and eighteen Beaked Whale carcasses washed ashore during a few weeks in autumn 2018 - an event which slowly revealed itself as an entangled story of the cryptic environments of the whales and the military. 

“On Sonorous Seas created an enquiring energy around this question and wider topics such as our relationship to the non-human worlds around us. I hoped that by returning the whale head to Bragar, installing it a Grinneabhat, and using the exhibition space in a particular way I could learn more about this village’s relationship with whales, and to some of the themes the project raised. It seemed fitting to bring the Bragar whale ‘home’, not least because of the village’s long association with whales and their remains, but also as a powerful, totemic object.” - Mhairi Killin

I hoped that its presence might hold a space at Grinneabhat, reflecting the ethos of the centre by welcoming people in to share conversation and stories around the whale, about the whale, of the whale. The context of Bragar, and its relationship to whales and whaling, meant that it did indeed became, ‘Half the Work’. One of the stories central to the village’s relationship to whales is the famous Whalebone Arch - the lower jawbone of a harpooned Blue Whale whose carcass drifted in to Geodha Nam Muc, Bragar, in the autumn of 1920. The story is best told by Mary Macaulay, the daughter of Murdo Morrison, the man who in 1921 erected the arch over his gateway in the village of Bragar. 

Being in residence with the Bragar whale, the centre, and its visitors, gave me a chance to extend the On Sonorous Seas project outwards, whilst reflecting inwards on some of the questions the project raised. The residency also gave me time to read, draw and catch up on research notes. 

I made myself available and welcomed people into the space daily, in addition to holding an artist talk and a closing studio event. In this way the space became studio, exhibit, and salon as I opened my practice up and out; drawing, thinking, reading, talking, sharing, and inviting a curiosity about what connects an artist to place, to an idea, to a feeling, to a purpose. 

I think that the most worthwhile residencies offer moments of reciprocity between artist and context; bringing an artist closer to place, people and story, and hopefully bringing the public closer to artistic practice - enough to allow an exchange. 

Grinneabhat, and the community of Bragar were without doubt ‘half the work’ during the residency and I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone who took time to share a conversation through the whale. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Jon Macleod, Tina Macphail, Peigi Anne Scott, Anne Campbell and Robbie Thomson for their insight, hospitality, facilitation and support. Thanks also to Mary Morrison, and to CHARTS for part funding the residency through the Island Development Project, Ràmh.” - Mhairi Killin, December 2023


Click here to read Mhairi's full residency blog