The Story of Redhead the Whale Man (Iceland).

Illustrator Victoria Willmott ( brings us a visual report on her contribution to Folklore Exhibition ‘Illustrated Stories of the World’ at Hamilton House, Bristol. 

This ancient legend tells us of men risking their lives to hunt for Greak Auks in southern Iceland. One unlucky young fisherman lost his way and found himself stranded on a rocky island in the company of elves. He made a life there with an elf woman who gave birth to his son but he longed to live back in his home village. The elf woman granted him his way home with one condition that he would baptize his elf child in the village church. When the time came the man betrayed the elf woman and disregarded his baby who was found in a cradle outside the church. The elf woman punished him for his betrayal and transformed him into a huge whale. For the rest of his days he haunted the sailors and fishermen at sea. He was easy to recognise, as at the time of the curse he was wearing a red cap, so as a whale he had a red head. 



The villagers were afraid of going near the sea. Many lives were lost as the Redhead Whale-Man raged against them in vain, killing hundreds of sailors and fishermen. A sorcerer and his daughter were the only ones left to save what they had left of the village.

VictoriaWillmott whale 2.jpeg


Using magic they led the whale from the sea towards the river where the waters were so narrow there was hardly any water.


VictoriaWillmott whale 3.jpeg

The whale was entranced by their spell and followed them, tiring as he swam. They reached a waterfall and the whale leaped and landed in the river above. The sorcerer didn’t stop walking until they reached the end of the river, the whale was so exhausted his heart broke under stress and he sank to the bottom of the lake. All but a red cap remains of what was left of the Redhead Whale-Man, the terror of the sea.

VictoriaWillmott whale 4.jpeg


Victorias version is based on Jon Arnason 1, 81-82  from the book:- J.M. Bedell, 'Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Icelandic Legends', 2006, Interlink Publishing Group.

Like all fairy tales and folk tales with vivid descriptions and metaphors, there is always a lot left for the imagination to conjure up. I found this story fascinating and the specifics of the red head from the red cap a funny detail that makes the story interesting in my eyes. I edited the ending as the original says ‘And in any case you doubt the truth of this story, you should know that mighty whale bones were found washed ashore on the beaches of Lake Hvalsnes.’  Whereas I wanted to include the red cap as the pivotal evidence that this story might in fact be true.  

My illustrations are made from lino carving stamps. I have made a whole lunchbox full of lino stamps from the story that means I can re-create the fairy tale in parts or as a whole wherever or whenever I please. I have focused in on one part of the story where the whale-man is terrorizing the fishermen in its new form as an enormous whale. Its red head a flicker of the life it had before.

The folklore exhibition ‘Illustrated Stories of the World’ at Hamilton House was an Open Call exhibition curated by Gordy Wright who invited illustrators from all over the social media world to apply. An invitation on Twitter gathered a collection of artists from the UK to USA, Canada to Argentina and beyond, with folktales from all over the world to be illustrated. Illustrators and artists responded to their favourite folklore, myth or legend in whichever way they wanted to represent their chosen narrative. Each culture has their own unique stories which have been passed down through their history; leading to an endless diverse choice of inspiration.  The show brought together a variety of illustrators and their different styles and influences with an underlining thread of folklore to tie it all together. A golden thread of folklore, I should say.

Artists included in the show:

Janie Anderson, Patrick Atkins, Abi Bailey, Ballawaves, Mhairi Braden, Josh Burgess, Shafer Brown, James Boswell, Camilla Cacciari, Robbie Cathro, Allissa Chan, Geov Chouteau, Elisa Cunningham, Lisa Marie Davies, Draw James Draw, Chloe Dominique, Owen Gent, Jack Goddard, Akhran Girmay, Freya Hartas, Rachel V Hillis, Lara Hawthorne, Ruby Hinton, Lean Hound, Matt Hayton, Jessica Heitzenrater, Jesse Hodgson, Hanna Lee Joshi, Grace Kim, Molley May, Harriet Lee Merrion, Of Ink and Earth, Haejin Park, Adam Pritchett, Ang Hui Qing, Bailie Rosenlund, Simon H Reid, Sophie Robin, Eli Spencer, Eoin O Sullivan, Heather Savage, Ed Stockham, Marcos Santos, Mish Scott, Jay Arthur Simpson, Kim Tillyer, Raven Warner, Victoria Willmott, Louis Wood, Gordy Wright.

The exhibition ran from 6th April to 18th April 2018 at Hamilton House, Bristol

Victoria Willmott is a printmaker and artist educator, she runs arts workshops for children and jointly set up Bristol Print Collective who deliver printmaking workshops for adults and children across the South West of England.

Vicky at work.