by Steve Urquhart, radio producer and sound artist
Inmates at HMP Perth engage with archive birdsong and oral history recordings from the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in a unique, creative audio art collaboration.
Peesweeps meet hip hop beats, grouse unlock coded prison language, and an unhatched kestrel chick provokes philosophy…
In prison, people are literally separated from the outside world, and from the natural world. It can be disturbingly easy to disconnect from life beyond prison walls.
And yet, a sound that’s often cited by prisoners as one of their few direct live links with the outside world, is birdsong.
When the National Library of Scotland invited artists to engage community partners with archive audio collected by members of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, I proposed working with people being held in one of Scotland’s prisons.
In prison, avian language and symbolism are widespread. ‘Doing Bird’ is a slang term for being in prison, as is ‘jailbird’. Many prisons are divided into ‘wings’. Bird tattoos often have specific meanings.
Among the principal stated objectives of prison are constructive engagement, recovery and reintegration. Through the powerful sensation of sound, I wanted to bring the outside world directly into prison, to encourage inmates to actively consider – and to engage creatively with – life, experiences and sounds far removed from their cells, as they prepare for release.
Those taking part are all producer-presenters at HMP Perth’s ‘Insider Radio’ (the station launched in 2021). Together they’ve produced the ‘Doing Bird’ mixtape – Side A and Side B – two ambitious, personal and celebratory new compositions for radio and digital listening, blending archive material with their own stunningly imaginative responses through music, spoken word, and sound art.
Engaging with Scotland’s archive birdsong recordings encourages the men to recall positive memories, to spark creativity, to reflect on the purpose of prison, and to re-evaluate their connection to the world beyond prison walls. They also think deeply about the accessibility and value of oral history recordings, and about who gets to be involved.
The two pieces (each 19 minutes in duration) are created by eight inmates working at HMP Perth’s Insider Radio, in collaboration with the sound artist and radio producer Steve Urquhart.
‘Doing Bird’ was first broadcast on Insider Radio, HMP Perth, in March 2022, and scheduled for broadcast on National Prison Radio in Spring 2022. Listen to extended clips from the mixtapes here…
… and check out the full length versions on Steve’s Soundcloud page…
‘Doing Bird’ is supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland. It’s also supported by the National Librarian’s Innovation Fund, and by the Scottish Prison Service.
Photography copyright Steve Urquhart