'Doing Bird': Scotland's sounds at HMP Perth

Inmates at HMP Perth have been engaging with archive birdsong and oral history recordings from the SOC – some more than sixty years old – in a unique, creative audio art collaboration.

Listen in, as 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.

A couple of years ago, the National Library of Scotland and the British Library secured funding to digitise important community audio collections. The SOC’s collection was one of the first to be done, and as part of this project, artists were invited to engage community partners with the archive recordings.

I’m Steve Urquhart, I’m a radio producer and sound artist. Much of my audio work over the past two decades has been with people affected by the criminal justice system. And so, I proposed working with people being held in one of Scotland’s prisons – here’s why.

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

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 Insider Radio, in collaboration with me as radio producer and sound artist.


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

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

The project is supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland and by the National Librarian’s Innovation Fund, and the Scottish Prison Service. And we’re thrilled that it has been so warmly received by the SOC.

‘Doing Bird’ was first broadcast on Insider Radio, HMP Perth, in March 2022, and is scheduled for broadcast on National Prison Radio and Resonance FM in Spring 2022.

Steve Urquhart


Update 31 August 2022: The Koestler Awards results have just been announced. HMP Perth's 'Doing Bird' is a double winner in the Radio Production category!

'Doing Bird mixtape - Side A' has won a Gold Award

'Doing Bird mixtape - Side B' has won a Highly Commended Award