“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…

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“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.

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“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.

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“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

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SOUNDS LIKE SCOTLAND

Have a listen in to Scotland’s past through our 2-minute Sounds like Scotland animated mixtape. It features clips from 12 audio collections held across the country from Lewis to Aberdeen and from Inverness to the Borders. The archive recordings span from 1909 to 2017 and were made on varied formats – wax cylinders, wire, shellac discs, open reel tape, cassettes and digital media. Enjoy birdsong, music, spoken memories and more.