No Birds Land – One Year On

Sound Walk and Art Installation, September 2021-September 2022

Sound Walk September, a global festival, has come round again and I am minded to reflect on the year that No Birds Land has been in the Trinty Tunnel on the Edinburgh cycle paths. Here is last year’s blog with all the details about location, transcript and documentation.

Funded by Sustrans and the RSPB, No Birds Land was shortlisted for a Sound Walk September award in 2021, and a year later, No Birds Land is still up, albeit in a different form.

Cave paintings

The preparation time for No Birds Land consisted of lengthy email conversations, and long hiatuses between communications with lots of departments of the City Council and tunnel owners; a frustrating process. I was in contact with all my local MSPs and Councillors, most of whom were very helpful, and some who pulled strings behind the scenes I think. In the end someone (maybe anonymously) telephoned me and suggested I just went ahead instead of waiting for permissions!

What remains?

Although I had initially planned for wooden A boards at either end of this place where birds cannot nest or sing and hardly ever fly, the signage folk persuaded me that street signs would be better, given the weather and so on, and they have been fantastic, standing stalwart through wind and rain. With their air of familiar street furniture, you need to look twice before realising that they are something a little bit different. Furthermore, covered in graffiti and stickers nowadays, they blend into the tagged landscape beautifully.

The sound endures on the cloud. The QR code printed in indelible inks, its distinctive black and white geometrical pattern prevailing, is the interface between the ubiquitous mobile phone and ‘Soundcloud’, where it sits waiting to be triggered and listened to. It’s an eerie experience for me to walk or cycle through and hear my own voice: “What can you hear? Hear, hear. What can you he-he-he…?”

I never thought it would still exist so much later, indeed I was asked how long it would be up and warned that it wouldn’t last long, what with vandals and so on, that I better watch out for any danger it might cause.

So what has changed?

The very long string of bunting with bird images and sounds on it, was trickier to install than I imagined even though I had my friend, tall-Andrew, to assist, so people stopped. They wanted to know what we were up to and immediately started to help. This community involvement has continued.

For 6 weeks it was untouched, but in October when I proudly led a group of Pilgrimage for COP26 hikers through to show them, it had suffered its first attack and much of it was lying in pools of bright orange water, the run-off from the walls which had collected ores and elements on its way down.

Look at the colours the rain has co-created with the graffiti and the wall itself!

I had been checking almost daily before we left for Dunbar and the start of our Climate Trek. I would stand or sit close by to watch people interacting with it, listening to their conversations if they were in groups, and asking them what they thought if I sensed they were up for a chat. Despite my fears, it had stayed whole.

At this stage of the Pilgrimage, we had a journalist with us who was interviewing me as we walked and my distress was obviously clear because other members of the group started to kindly collect the parts and attempt to make good. However, we had to continue on our way to South Queensferry, so I phoned artist-Lesley that evening and asked her if she might do her best to attend to it until I was able to do so myself, and she kindly obliged.

Rotting twine

It has taken on a life of its own

Since then, unseen passers by have often repaired and rehung lengths. I used to do it myself but after 6 months, I thought I would leave it to have its own life, and now I see new types of string connecting the pennants, and sections which weren’t there one day have magically reappeared the next. Little changes have been made, signalling the care that has been taken, and also showing, subtly to me, that there is understanding of the work itself.

The graffiti scrawlers add to it, another artist has complemented it, and nature has made many changes. Walking with Jim Slaven along the canal as part of the Art Festival in August 2022, I was interested to hear him comparing the 2 tunnels along the Forth and Clyde, how one was built soundly, is dry and in tact, and the other was not and lets in the rain. Well the engineer who built the Trinity Tunnel, Thomas Grainger (no relation, even though that’s the exact name of my grandfather who was also a tunnel engineer and worked in Trinity House in London!) didn’t do a great job, because ‘my’ tunnel is verr-ry damp.

And it seems to still have life because when people ask what I do and I tell them about No Birds Land, they know what I mean. They say “Oh yes, I’ve seen it and like it”. Walking along an adjacent path recently, I met a Community Policeman and he knew it too. Talking to dog walkers who were telling me what they thought of the new Sound Walk / Installation, The Wall (my entry for the Sound Walk September 2022), I heard, “Oh you are the artist! Yes, I listened to that and told my neighbours on the stair, ‘you must listen to The Wall’. We need more of these.” It’s heartening, of course.

The Wall, Western Breakwater, Granton Harbour

What is much harder to ascertain, is the effect that No Birds Land has had. Has it informed people about the plight of our nesting birds and why that is happening? Has it suggested alternatives to the prevailing habits of designing glass buildings with no ledges for birds to perch on, nor eaves for them to make their nests under, for example? That is so much more difficult to guage.

This type of long-term intervention in a public space, which is used by commuters and other regulars as a through-way between the sea and the city, encourages people to eventually stop and check it out, it allows for re-listening and sharing with friends and family (I have been told this). It went up at the tail end of the Covid restrictions, at a time when walking was still super-popular, and so there is a high footfall (12-48 people an hour depending on whether it’s a week day or a Sunday). It has repurposed the space and brought art outside and to its audience.

Sound Walk September Festival

Here is an interactive map and full list of walking pieces on the walk.listen.create website, and here is a full programme of events. There are three different ways you can get involved:

  • In-situ pieces (like The Wall); These are timetabled pieces which take place at a physical location
  • Downloadable sound walks; These can be downloaded and undertaken at a time of the walker’s choosing
  • Online events; these events have a nominal fee and range from group discussions to artist-hosted talks and hands-on workshops.

And for artists, there are four ways to get involved:

  • Submit a piece to the walk · listen · create platform
  • Host a timetabled sound walk event in a physical location
  • Host or participate in an online event
  • Enter for the Sound Walk September Award

Press coverage

‘Wondrous Variation; in the Broughton Spurtle

No Birds Land

A site-specific sound-art installation in the Trinity Tunnel on route 13 (Trinity to Granton) of the Edinburgh cycle path network where it goes under East Trinity Road #nobirdsland

Now in place! August – November 2021

The installation team. Thanks to Andrew and the team who were taking a walk and kindly stopped to offer their assistance. It was much appreciated

Find it here: ///hands.calculating.wiping (South end)
wins.trial.preoccupied (North end) 55.976045, -3.203276

This is the link for the sound poem which you can listen to as you walk through the tunnel. You will need headphones to hear it. It is hosted by soundcloud and this link will take you there:

No Birds Land soundpoem on Soundcloud

You can also access the sound poem from the QR code on the signs at either end of the tunnel if you have a smart phone.

Our wildlife is key to our environment, and, with so many of our iconic bird populations in decline, it’s vital that we invest in supporting and protecting them. It’s a unique piece of art and I’m looking forward to visiting it. I’m always excited in art that explores wildlife and our environment. I will be heading to the unlikely location of Trinity Tunnel where I will stop, relax and listen to the birds.

Scottish Greens MSP for Lothian, Lorna Slater
Downloading the sound poem onto his phone from the QR code at the entrances

In the poem, I am not pretending to be a bird, nor reproducing or emulating realistic bird sounds and song. I am acknowledging how easily we attempt to wield power over other species and appropriate others’ languages without their permission.

Sometimes it’s only when you don’t see them that you notice they’re not there.

Amanda Thompson

The Trinity Tunnel is a disused railway tunnel that is now part of the extensive Edinburgh cycle path network. Before and after entering the tunnel, the air is full of birdsong; inside there is little or none. This sound-art installation recognises that no birds land or alight there (although occasionally one flies through), that it is a sort of ‘No Man’s Land’ for birds, though humans built the sandstone structure to transport goods and each other between Granton Harbour and the rest of the city.

No Man’s Land originally denoted contested territory between fiefdoms, even a place of execution. It is now often remembered as a WW1 area of land between two trench systems which neither side wished to cross due to fear of attack and death. Except, that is, on Christmas Eve of 1914 when it is known that British, French and German soldiers came together to smoke a cigarette, carry out joint burial ceremonies, and have a chat – somehow communicating in their different languages.

In this place of cold stone where moisture trickles and calcite forms weird shapes, no birds land and no birds sing.

Hooks on the west wall of the Trinity Tunnel before the bunting was hung
Bird bunting hanging over a metal hook on the inside of the Trinity Tunnel, No Birds Land Edinburgh. Lift the flaps -do they really say….tweet, tweet, caw, chirp, cluck?

You will find signs saying ‘Stop! Listen to the Birds! at the two entrances to the Trinity Tunnel which is 183 of my paces long (146 yards, 390 foot). A double track railway ran through here from 1842. Above your head is an elliptical or horse-shoe shaped roof with new, brighter lighting (thanks to the council).

In the tunnel itself there are a series of hooks on the west wall (as you are walking towards Granton), which were for cables and wires when the tunnel was used by the Edinburgh, Leith and Granton Railway before it ceased operations in 1986. Festooned along them is a length of bunting made of found materials with illustrations of birds. On the reverse of each pennant is a word which aims to recreate a bird sound, an explicit appropriation of an other-than-human ‘language’. A pennant is a commemorative flag, used historically, but I prefer to call it Bunting, a word that has been used since the 14th century for a lark-like bird which we know as yellow-hammers. Yellow hammers are said to sound as if they are saying ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’. Try saying it fast!

RSPB Yellow Hammer info and song

The birds you see are sketches and impressions, they’re not real. The sounds you can read on the reverse of the pennants are rough translations of what are actually rich varieties of tone and timbre. They have been translated into the less melodious, simplistic human words. The only bird sounds you will hear in the tunnel are these approximations: tic tic tic tic – the Robin’s warning call, chiff chaff chiff chaff chiff chaff, tweet tweet tweet, you know how it goes – chirpy chirpy cheep cheep chirp. I cannot play you their songs in this place, even if, as in the Japanese shopping centres, they might calm you, bring a smile to your face.

This is no place for the birds; this land, like so much of the British Isles and elsewhere, is inhospitable and uninviting to them.

Over increasingly large areas of the United States spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.

Rachel Carson from Silent Spring
The Trinity Tunnel runs under East Trinity Road on route 13, and is easily reached on foot (approx. 10 mins) or by bicycle (approx. 5 mins) from the Granton end where it can be accessed from where trinity Road meets Lower Granton Road near the sea front

In the Trinity Tunnel there are no ledges nor perches, no nooks and crannies to nest in. There is nowhere here to stand and preen feathers or sing from. We are replacing old barns and houses which had eaves and rafters, with edifices of vast glass windows and metal corners, but birds cannot live or raise their young in and on them. We are clearing hedges, spraying pesticides and extending fields so far to the edges that birds natural habitats are destroyed and poisoned. In the UK, we have created places where birds used to, but cannot now thrive. This has resulted in drastic changes in avian behaviour and deaths. There is more info on the RSPB site here.

In the 2 minutes it takes me to walk through the tunnel, it is believed that 2 pairs of breeding birds will disappear. (See below for source).

If we listen, tune in to birds, we can learn. Mozambican people can whistle to honey birds (or honeyguide birds) and understand their calls. The birds tell them where the bees are, the people harvest the honey and this lets the birds get the wax and grubs afterwards. It benefits both – it really happens.

scientists have now discovered that the birds can be attracted out of the trees by a distinctive trilling sound that local hunter-gatherers use while looking for honey. According to the researchers, hunters are taught this special trilling noise by their fathers.

Jules Howard in The Guardian

In other parts of the world, women and men have learned to flute and trill like their native birds, so that their voices carry across dense forests. They are amplified, making sounds that are far bigger than we are (like wrens do closer to home).

There are some who recognise the difference between a warning call and a serenade – think of that! If we all knew and taught our children, we could choose to keep out of the way of birds when they are nesting, and delight in their courtship rituals. We could be warned, too, that a hawk is overhead or a fox on the prowl down below.

In the absence of birds, we would have to create them, to create our own version of them, their song, and appearance. But I ask you, how long will it be before we forget what they sounded and looked like, before we have to rely only on recordings and photos? Will we lose the memory of what delights us about them, will we forget our felt sense of how they really were, how it was to be in the same world as them?

In the silence of the Trinity Tunnel, you don’t have the privilege of being regaled with their songs.

No Birds Land on Vimeo

No Birds Land Video on YouTube

The sound poem was inspired by Gertrude Stein’s If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso (1912) and the quotes are by Stein and Gail Simmonds’ in The Country of Larks

This project has been entered into Sound Walk September and added to Soundcloud. It will shortly be available via the Echoes app.

Twitter @WalkNoDonkey #nobirdsland

Instagram @TamsinShiatsu

The information about bird statistics comes from birdlife.org

Some of the tunnel information came from forgottenrelics.co.uk

Here is the Guardian source in the quote above

No Birds Land is in partnership with the RSPB and Sustrans.

With thanks to the City of Edinburgh Council and the following people: Ewan Davison, Ken Cockburn, Cosmo Blake from Sustrans, Erica Mason and Nick Hawkes from RSPB, Fiona Underhill of the City of Edinburgh Council, Eleanor Bird, Jim Campbell, Amy McNeese-Mechan, Logan Rutherford, Alan Moonie, Stephen Knox, Cammy Day, and Alice Cockburn.