Conversation: Mhairi Braden

Edinburgh-based illustrator Mhairi Braiden produces beautiful work informed by Celtic folklore and mythology. We spoke to her about the inspirations behind her work and life as a freelancer. Interview by Sam Bradley and Bethany Thompson.

You’ve produced a lot of work focusing on folklore and mythology - why are you drawn to the subject?

Being a strong mix of Northern Irish and Scottish, my heritage has no doubt helped shape my interest in folklore and mythology - particularly those associated with the Celts. Their stories are unique in that they’re built into their landscape, with them either taking place at certain landmarks - or being about ancient beings such as the Cailleach, who is so formidable that the most deceptively dangerous mountains are named after her as a warning to those who dare to climb them. The stories exist as a way for us to respect nature in acknowledging the ease at which it gives and takes life - which is something I’ve admired my whole life.

Folktales and mythology are always evolving and changing - do you find that there is a lot of room in these stories/themes for reinterpretation as an illustrator?

I definitely think so! They can’t survive without staying relevant, and I don’t see why illustration should be any less of a storytelling voice than other forms when it comes to this. In general though, I believe it’s very difficult to do them justice in terms of staying true to the original - and it’s more than just a novel that could be adapted badly - they’re stories that are thousands of years old which have shaped cultures, which can get quite intimidating. 

Is there a folktale or story you’re particularly interested by?

There’s an endless amount of interesting snippets, but when it comes to a story, I’m always brought back to the Leabhar Gabhála na hÉireann- a book about the six invasions of Ireland which was recorded in the Middle Ages - understood today as pseudo history. One of the invasions is by the Tuatha Dé Danann, a supernatural race descended from the ultimate Mother, Danu. Basically they arrive to Ireland from the Otherworld on stormclouds and do really cool stuff with their powers with no real grasp on good and evil. 

Any illustration heroes?

Kate Beaton was one of my first true illustration loves - her work is so clever and funny; it helped begin to change my pre-student views on comics. This was furthered by love for the work of Jon McNaught - his comics are simple, silent, sensitive and considered. Marion Jdanoff is probably my favourite illustrator at the moment - she’s based in Berlin and co-runs her own studio, Palefroi. They make such interesting and effortless work there that I’m channelling the jealousy into owning as many things from their shop as I can.