Douglas Robertson (left) and Donald S Murray - National Library of Scotland 2016

‘Visiting this shoreline, aware that sky and ocean might one day be clear of their presence, that I might soon stroll round here and find both fish and fowl have disappeared.’  extract from ‘Terns’ 

Birdfallis a collaboration of poetry and art by Donald S. Murray and Douglas Robertson.  

The pair have woven a poetic journey along the coast, both real and imaginary, where they encounter the birdlife of the strand, rock pool and cliffs, from the elegant flight of Terns and Lapwings to the winged menace of marauding Skuas and Black-backed Gulls.

The poetry and art in the exhibition encourages the viewer to take a fresh look at the familiar birds of our coastline but also takes care to underline the fragile and delicate nature of the lives of our shorebirds, which have undergone dramatic reductions in their populations in recent years.  

In keeping with Murray and Robertson’s previous collaborations, there is a tongue-in-cheek element to the work. Along with the familiar birds of sea and shore, the viewer will come face to face with flocks of new species from the imagination of the poet and artist including the Raukmar, secretly inhabiting the pebbles on the beach, or the Fearmin’s twisted form among the bladder wrack, and the hitch-hiking and map drawing travels of the diminutive Oblomov.

Donald S. Murray and Douglas Robertson have worked on a number of collaborations over the last ten years including two volumes of prose and poetry, The Guga Stone (Luath) and SY Story (Birlinn), and Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings shaped human taste and history, and Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands (Bloomsbury).  

The Guga Stone and Herring Tales were included in the Guardian’s Best Nature Books of 2013 and 2015.

With the exception of an occasional day when even the most courageous duck might tremble before heading outdoors, I walk the shoreline of Quarff on the eastern coastline of Shetland’s South Mainland.

Accompanied by my dog, a Labrador with a fondness for smearing herself with seaweed, I watch the everyday wonders that are to be found on the coastline there. They include cormorants perched on rock, gannets plunging into water and seals sunbathing whenever the rare opportunity arises.

Sometimes, too, there is the exceptional. In the past year, I have witnesssed a pod of orca swimming into the entrance of the bay, an otter’s head popping out from the froth of waves and even a pair of curlews swirling downwards, almost trimming my thatch of greying hair with beak and wings. (The latter I count as exceptional. The Arctic tern and skua seem to enjoy a near fatal attraction to my locks, brushing against them almost daily during their season here.) Their company has been uplifting, especially during a year in which I have spent much of my time working on a book entitled ‘The Dark Stuff’, which is due for publication by Bloomsbury next April.

It is on walks like these that I take flight - most often in terms of my imagination. I write short poems and pieces in my head about not only the birds I see before me, but also those which I visualise in very different way. The bird that succeeds in disguising itself as a stone. The heavy footed man who imagines himself as an overweight version of the myth of Icarus, cloaking himself in pinions and quills. The Cassandra bird that brings erosion and collapse to every inch of the shoreline on which it is doomed to perch.

Apart from my dog, I must confess I am also - metaphorically speaking - often accompanied on these walks by another individual, the artist, Doug Robertson. A native of Dundee though now living and teaching in Hampshire, Doug is the individual who helps to give shape to my fevered fantasies. His understanding of the lives and movements of birds, which is evident in the drawings, comes from a lifetime as an avid birder. He draws the birds - both real and imagined - that I see on my journeys, providing them with light and shade, substance and form. In this, I regard myself as very fortunate. Doug has worked with many poets and writers before and I am enriched by this experience. We have collaborated most notably before on ‘The Guga Stone: Lies, Legends and Lunacies from St Kilda’ and ‘Herring Tales’. Both books received wide recognition, including being chosen as among the Guardian Nature Books of the Year.
Donald S Murray
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