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