“Doing Bird”, Scotland’s Sounds at HMP Perth

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…


“To be a bird, even just for a day, would be… freeing. Just free. Where would you go? I don’t know – I’m just gonna fly!”

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.


“With birds, there’s a pecking order – same as there is in the jail!”

Why prison?

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.


“Some mornings, between 3 and 4am, I’ll hear a smaller bird, like a robin. That sound takes me back to being at home.”

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…

Doing Bird Mixtape – Side A.
Doing Bird Mixtape – Side B.

… and check out the full length versions on Steve’s Soundcloud page…

SIDE A: https://soundcloud.com/listentosteve/doing-bird-a

SIDE B: https://soundcloud.com/listentosteve/doing-bird-b

‘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

The excitement gleaned from little stories

by Rob Smith, Cataloguing Co-ordinator, UOSH

The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.

Instantaneous disc “Revolutionary Study” Chopin and Part of Waltz in Ab by “Margaret McGeoch (over 92)”

Hidden amongst old vinyl and shellac records are usually some special and very unique audio gems. ‘Instantaneous’ discs offered people a means of making a recording instantly and taking it home with them (https://obsoletemedia.org/acetate/). While they resemble 78rpm shellac records, they are much more fragile and it was not unusual for these discs to only get played a handful of times. In fact, they might not be played for decades as the technology to play them fell out of fashion and then into obsolescence.

Fiona Petrie and her mother, Caroline Campbell, have two of these discs in their possession. One of these discs contains recordings of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret McGeoch, playing piano at age 92.

Fiona and Caroline joined me for an interview to talk about this disc and what it was like to listen to the recordings found on it. Caroline was “totally impressed” by her grandmother’s piano playing and her ability to play these complex classical pieces from memory. Fiona never had the chance to meet her great-grandmother. She found the anecdotes and “little stories” told by Caroline, which were evoked by listening to the recordings, exciting to hear as it allowed her to connect with her family’s past.

Listen to Margaret at the piano while I talk to Fiona and Caroline about these recordings below. Many thanks to Fiona and Caroline (and Margaret) for taking part!

Speaking to Fiona and Caroline about the recording with clips of the recording