If you have ever wondered what it sounds like to board a steam train and journey through one of the worlds most beautiful landscapes on the winter solstice then sit back and enjoy a wintery acoustic journey through the Scottish highlands on board the Jacobite Express! (wear headphones for full 3D stereo experience)
If you are searching for true wilderness in the UK then your travels will likely take you to Sandwood Bay, a large sandy beach on Scotland's north coast that neighbours the Cape Wrath peninsula. The John Muir Trust have produced a map of the most wild land in the UK and the land around Sandwood Bay ranks in the top 10%!
In the spring I went to A 'Chleit Beach on the Mull of Kintyre to see if I could record the beach 'chattering', a natural soundscape phenomenon that my gran had noticed one afternoon on a walk along the beach. Unfortunately on my visit the tide and weather conditions weren't suited and so ever since I have been listening out for this effect. Finally, when recording surf at Sandwood Bay, I noticed that when each wave crashed down upon the line of shingle and retreated it would cause the stones to roll and bounce over one another, chattering as they go. It is finding these small acoustic oddities that fuel my love for acoustic ecology and the natural soundscape, like popping seaweed, trees humming with bees or strange animal calls, carried by the wind but twisted beyond recognition.
A cave like Smoo cave requires little in the way of introduction. A game of where's (the) Wally in the image above will show just how big the largest sea cave entrance in the UK is. The main cave is 83 metres long and has three chambers (chamber 1 is shown in the above image). Allt Smoo river plunges through the ceiling of chamber 2 and into a deep pool in the form of a 20m high waterfall before flowing through the cave and out the entrance. At the back of the cave in chamber 3 the dry passageway ends and yet the cave system continues, plunging into a a sump that divers have explored 40 metres into before being restricted by mud and silt. One of the divers supposedly described the dive as the scariest of his life as he disrupted so much mud that he lost all visibility and had to feel his way back out of the depths!
This soundscape was recorded inside chamber 2 where the Allt Smoo River flows into the cave. The rock walls of the chamber reflect sound so well that the acoustic has an unusually long decay, thus creating a whitewash of immersive and oddly disorientating 'noise'. I found the following description of this sound by travel blogger Bernard L'Estrange amusing and I hope that he comes across my truly immersive recording!
"...the sound here in the caves second chamber is deafening. Forget what the salesman at Curries told you about Dolby Prologic 5.1 Surround sound being the best, this is Total Sound Immersion. I should copyright that name, it has a nice ring about it..."
Facing northwards into the Bay of Kirkwall from Hatston Pier, screaming winds slam against the side of the van which jolts with a jarring thud at the impact of each gust before groaning and rattling as the next explosive exhale rips across the water and up the pier towards us.
I will be sad to see my parent's yacht Victoria go. Over the years she has carried us safely to hundreds of Scotland's wildest, quietest places and I hope that she will continue to sail the ocean for many years to come with her next crew. I was glad to have my microphones with me on my last sail on her to record a soundscape that has sent me daydreaming for many long passages over the years as I lie on her deck, rocked to sleep by a rolling Atlantic swell and the gentle lapping of the water against her hull.
To me this has always been a soundscape of adventure and summers spent exploring Scotland's west coast. Victoria inspired my fascination with the sea and an appreciation for travelling by the raw power of the wind alone, a gift from nature that we too often forget about.
This is the most northerly recording in my archive so far and possibly the windiest too!
Location: N 58˚57.407' W -002˚42.905'
Perched on the edge of the enormous cliffs of Hoy's southwestern coast watching climbers scale the Old Man of Hoy, I realise that this truly is an island of giants. The137m high sea stack that rises from one of the most wild and storm-worn coastlines in the UK stands next to St John's head where the cliff edge drops a terrifying 335m (taller then the Eiffel Tower) into the roaring Atlantic swell below. This coastline has even captured the imagination of Steven Spielberg who, in his recent remake of the BFG, chose the Old Man of Hoy as the final stepping stone from our world into the world of giants.
In the barren valley that separates the Knap of Trowieglen and Ward Hill (the highest mountain in Orkney) lies the The Dwarfie Stone, a 8.5 x 4.5m glacial erratic sandstone slab into which a small passageway and two chambers have been hollowed. The chambers are thought to be as many as 3,000 years old and so, over the centuries, many a visitor captivated by the stone's curious architecture has offered their theories as to it's origins. These have included tales that the stone was crafted by giants or one in which it was inhabited by Snorro, a Dwarf who had made his residence in the valley so that he could spend his days searching for a magic gem that was hidden in Ward Hill and that would bring magical gifts to it's finder. The size of the passageway and chambers certainly swayed me to the story of Snorro the dwarf however I would soon realise on visiting Rackwick Bay and the cliffs of St John's head that it is no wonder the island of Hoy has inspired stories of giants...
I was very excited at the prospect that the stone might act as a gigantic resonator and sure enough, as I lay inside the chamber and listened, the wind howled past the entrance and a deep, heavy hum could be heard. In the strongest gusts I even felt the slightest tickle across my face as my cheekbones buzzed in sympathy with the gentle earthy rumble. It is possible, knowing the area and length of it's opening and it's total volume to calculate the cavity resonance of such a space and my rough calculation estimated that the Dwarfie Stone has a cavity resonance of approximately 30Hz. Sadly my ambisonic microphone is only sensitive to sounds from 40Hz upwards so the 30Hz hum cannot be seen in the spectrogram or heard in the recording, however, the harmonics that have been recorded are consistent with a fundamental tone of 30Hz and are highlighted in the spectrogram. The dark line at 60Hz represents a hum that would be much more audible than the 30Hz resonance an octave below (on the threshold of human hearing) so the recording is a fair representation of what was actually heard, however, the 30Hz resonance is likely to thank for the sensation of actually 'feeling' the song of the Dwarfie Stone, a quality which makes it surely one of Scotland's greatest acoustic wonders.
Binaural microphones fitted in my own ears allow you step inside my head and join me for the start of our journey across the Pentland Firth from Scrabster to Stromness aboard the Hamnavoe.
Headphones are recommended for the full immersive experience.
Location: N 57˚14.873' W 006˚13.808'
I am looking forward to a week in Orkney this summer recording sounds for an upcoming collaboration with poet and photographer Alastair Jackson, visual artist and printmaker Moira Buchanan and photographer Ingrid Budge.
'The CAIM Collective have come together as four distinct and separate artists, in our shared interest in the Scotland’s wild coastal places and a desire to capture a sense of space and wonder. Many things are not able to be seen properly. They may be unclear, hazy or gauzy. Landscapes may be misty or seen from an odd angle, or just unfamiliar to the viewer. They may be viewed in bad weather, or poor visibility. Our 2017 project aims to define the Orkney land/seascapes' relationship with the vagaries of the elements. Structure and absence are reoccurring elements in our work, as are juxtaposition and the unexpected. This project will bring together the disciplines of photography, poetry, printmaking and natural sound recording as an immersive whole which the viewer will be able to interact with.'
Visit the CAIM Collective on Facebook here.
I appreciated BBC Radio 4 contacting me to discuss my work for their series 'The Digital Human'. In this episode, airing today at 1630, we discuss silence, the title of the final episode of the series and arguably one of the most important concepts for the digital human to consider.
Have a listen HERE.
I press record and lie down on soft forest floor, resting my head upon the fallen trunk of a young pine tree. As my body sinks, still and heavy into the ground, I feel my senses heighten, lifting skywards to tune with the forest around me. The sweet smell of the pine trees blends with a hint of fresh, salty sea air. Tentsmuir forest is unusual as these pine trees march to the very edge of the expansive Tentsmuir sands that stretch along the eastern seaboard from Leuchars to Tayport - a mighty tryst between the kingdoms of land and sea.
The pines creak and crackle in the wind above my head and a vole appears from it's home in the bark of my pillow, dashing head down along the ground towards my legs before skidding to a halt in suspicion of the new denim build in the neighbourhood. Caution prevails and she makes a swift beeline for home in the pine trunk. It is not long after that a faint shuffling draws my attention (1.15) and I notice a red squirrel, not 15 yards away, making the final preparations to haul a reasonably sizeable (for a squirrel) pinecone up the trunk of a tree. After a few nimble and gravity defying manoeuvres upwards he carries out a final textbook three point turn, shifts into reverse and backs up onto a branch ten feet off the ground where lunch is served. If you listen carefully you can hear the nibbling of his tiny jaws making light work of the pinecone (1.50 onwards). Unfortunately you cannot see the nonchalant gaze he gave me from his branch as if curious to see what stunts I had in store with my lunchbox!
The sounds you hear are an unnerving glimpse into the electromagnetic activity of an iPhone, captured using a telephone pick-up coil.
We may not hear these electronic signals with our ears but could it be possible that this digital noise can interfere with with the delicate electronics of our brains? If so, how might this noise be affecting our minds?
Switch your phone off, leave it at home, buy an analogue alarm clock. Stop the buzzing in your brain and find time for some digital silence in your life.
A visit to the impressive gardens of the Ardkinglas estate this afternoon happened to coincide with the Cairndow Clay Target Club's first day of shooting in 2017. At first I was frustrated by the sharp bellows and cracks of shotgun fire that rushed through the air, slicing the soundscape and causing a fleeting 10dB increase in the sound pressure level*. However I then considered that maybe the encounter was a stroke of luck. For hundreds of years the sound of shotgun fire has echoed through the mountains of grand estates like Ardkinglas and, to hear the sound today, is a reminder of a time when guns would have been the loudest man-made sound to be heard in such places.
The sound of gunfire may be an unwelcome intrusion, but maybe it is also an important part of the story of man's working relationship with the land. This is in stark contrast to the banausic hum and rumble of the road, a sound which tells only of his transient and passive journeys through it.
* A 10dB increase in sound pressure level results in a doubling of perceived 'loudness'.
The Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any bird and, in it's lifetime, can stack up the equivalent distance of an astonishing four trips to the moon and back! It's continuous migration from it's summer breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere to it's winter home in Antartica makes the Arctic Tern a familiar sight on both the Atlantic and pacific coasts. The Arctic Tern has an unmistakable piercing, jabbing call. Listen to it's song punctuate the seascape of the Brough of Birsay, Orkney.
It is great to see the Glasgow Herald publishing an article about my work today. The loss of our naturally silent soundscapes is a current, and very real, environmental issue. By subscribing to this blog you are registering with me your awareness of this relatively understudied area of environmental study and showing your support for my work. Thank you!
Read my full article HERE.