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a murder of crows

Who doesn’t love a collective noun? From the perfectly suited - a bloat of hippopotamuses - to the downright strange - an embarrassment of pandas (so many questions...). Where do collective nouns originate from and who decides on them? These are just some of the questions that surfaced during a recent conversation between the enquiring minds here at Resipole Studios. So, with Dr Google firmly by our side, we set about researching the subject and, given that many paintings here at the gallery feature birds, we thought this the perfect opportunity to share some artwork with you along with their corresponding collective nouns. 

The etymologist Michael Quinon noted that the first collective nouns in English appeared in The Book of St Albans. Printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry, it was a book that was in fairly wide circulation for its time and reprinted many times over, ensuring that collective nouns began to seep into popular conciousness.1
Around the same time, publications called the ‘Books of Courtesy’ became popular amongst the noble classes. These aimed to inform and educate, in order to make the reader appear as learned as they were wealthy. And so, after a fair few ‘did you know...’ moments at 15th century dinner parties, collective nouns began to enter common parlance.      

But who comes up with the names for collective nouns in the first place? The short answer is anyone and no-one in particular. As we are all well-aware (especially those of us who have ever tried to teach children to learn to spell), the English language is a complex and ever-evolving beast, with new words added all the time - ‘mansplaining’ and ‘hangry’ being two recent examples. Unlike many other languages, English is not governed by a committee or body who agrees on the new addition of words. Instead, we merely coin a phrase or word and if it begins to be commonly used, appearing enough times on a lexicographer’s radar, it becomes assimilated into our language, eventually finding itself immortalised amongst the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Fancy coining a collective noun for something so far unamed? Go for it. 

Sometimes, this lack of moderation can lead to a few different collective nouns being used for the same animal or creature. A group of cats, for example, can be known as a clowder, a clutter, a pounce, a dout, a nuisance, a glorying, or even a glare. We asked Pippin, the gallery cat, her opinion on this but she merely stared at us before going back to sleep on her favourite chair. Case closed.

Andrew Squire’s striking depiction of birds, some of which were recently on display in our ‘postcard’ exhibition, feature geese, curlews and crows. Whilst a group of curlews is referred to as a herd, some of you will have come across the rather sinister murder of crows before (say it with an overly rolled ‘r’ for optimum menace) but maybe you’re not so familiar with why this term was coined. Seemingly, there are several theories, mostly based on medieval folklore or superstition: one being that crows were branded as witches or even the devil himself in animal form. Another, that if a crow were to land on a rooftop then it was thought to be an omen that the occupant would soon meet their demise. Whichever theory you decide upon, Squire’s crow certainly gives the impression of being party to some kind of nefarious activity. 

From one sinister noun to another... It’s not uncommon to see a heron just in front of the entrance to Resipole studios, where the burn passes by and ambles down to Loch Sunart. However, it’s quite unusual to see more than one heron at a time, as demonstrated in Alan Hayman’s ‘stone pool’, above. If you were so lucky as to see more than a solitary one, you could brag that you had seen a siege of herons. Alan begun studying and drawing birds at a very young age, in his birthplace of Montrose, later studying taxidermy to better understand the anatomy and form of birds and animals. It is therefore no surprise that birds feature in several of Alan’s works currently on display in the gallery, including a gulp of cormorants and a parcel of oyster catchers.

Artist Ruth O’Dell also draws inspiration from the resident and visiting wildlife - such as charms of goldfinches and museums of waxwings - to her home on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Beginning in her Sketchbook, Ruth takes these initial observations in pencil back to her studio before working them up into small, intimate paintings, using aqua oils.

Resipole Studios is delighted to be exhibiting award winning wildlife and landscape artist Colin Woolf. With over 30 years experience as a professional artist, Woolf has up until recently worked with watercolour but now predominantly works in oils. But why the change? In his own words: 

“for me, oils offer the ability to create real depth of colour and to experiment with light and luminosity. There is so much enjoyment in the use and the feel of the paint.”

In a number of his paintings, Woolf uses the technique of ‘‘painting with a woodcock’s pin-feather - a tiny feather on the front edge of the bird’s wing, just above the first, which is a technique once favoured by the Victorian miniaturists, who used them to paint portraits on ivory. Colin has mastered this difficult skill and now uses pin-feathers to create beautiful images of woodcock in their natural environment.’’ Current work of the artists’ on display in the gallery feature, amongst other subjects, a bellowing of bullfinches, as well as a covey of ptarmigan, and a paddling of eider ducks.

And finally, to the artists themselves. Would you believe that there is even a collective noun for a group of painters? In particular, the painters of portraits. If you should happen upon a rare sighting of a group of portrait artists in one room, you would be observing a misbelief of painters. Not because it’s a rare occurrence... but because Medieval painters had the dubious task of creating a portrait of their subject - most likely a wealthy patron - which would serve as an impressive legacy of them after their death. (No pressure then!) The historical equivalent of ‘photoshopping,’ this might entail making some subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) adjustments to the subject’s appearance whilst committing it to canvas. Therefore, the portrait painter’s job was to create misbelief amongst the viewers: to cause them to perceive something or someone as being, perhaps, far more aesthetically pleasing than they were deemed in the flesh.2

1. Dent, S, (2012). Oxford English Dictionary. [online] Oxford University Press. Available at: [Accessed 6th June 2018]
2. Rhodes, C. (2013). Ten of the best collectives nouns, [online] Available at: [Accessed 6th June 2018]


Further details of the artists mentioned, along with other examples of their work, can be found under the artists section of our website. 


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