Wildlife artist Robert Fuller is disappointed to find the roe deer gone from Glasgow city centre as featured in the Yorkshire Post September 2012.
I CONSIDER myself a countryman through and through. But never was this brought home to me more clearly than during a night's stay in Glasgow last month. It followed a tremendous week of watching wildlife on the island of Islay, an isolated beauty spot off the west coast of Scotland. The journey home to Yorkshire from Islay is a long one - some 12 hours door to door. With two young children, Lily, age four, and Ruby, nine months, in tow, it made sense to break the journey with a night somewhere.
I decided on Glasgow, in the hope that I could revisit a family of roe deer that inhabit the Necropolis cemetery in the city centre. I had spent two days photographing these deer back in 2005, and, was pleased to discover in an article on urban wildlife in The Guardian this May that they were still there.
But as I pulled into the city centre, the car filled to the brim with holiday gear and topped with a large sea canoe, I began to feel a bit lost. Glasgow was celebrating its annual Merchant City Festival as we arrived and the streets were heaving. It was well before 5pm yet many of the people thronging the streets were too drunk to walk and police sirens wailed every few minutes - a culture shock from peaceful Islay. We felt conspicuous in our muddy 4x4 dressed in green fleeces and climbing boots.
The last time I visited the cemetery there had been just the two of us, my wife Vick and I. It had been an unsettling experience. The evening had begun promisingly, with a clear sighting of the doe and her two fawns out in the open on mown grass. I was delighted to be able to photograph her whole form, right down to her hooves, as the pictures made important studies for my paintings. So often in the countryside their bodies are obscured by foliage. As the evening drew on, however, the cemetery became increasingly menacing. The deer gave way to gangs of young lads drinking special brew. In spite of the fact that I am 6ft2" and weigh 15 stone, I felt uneasy. We were alone and carrying expensive camera gear.
But, having spotted a fox den in a remote corner, I was reluctant to leave. As the light faded, a patrolling security van sent drunks and foxes scattering into the shadows. Thickset security guards came over for a word. 'If those cameras are worth anything I wouldn't be hanging around. There are drunks and heroin addicts here, not to mention the prostitutes,' said one, matter-of-factly. I asked if he knew about the deer, especially the roe buck that I'd yet to see. 'Found dead two weeks ago,' he said as he got back into his van.
We waited a bit longer to see if the foxes showed but the drunks re-emerged from the shadows so we took his advice and headed off.
The following morning we returned at 5am, knowing it would be a safer place at this time. And sure enough we had three happy hours photographing the deer in peace, until at about 9.30am two figures dressed as Goths appeared, giving me the fright of my life, their eyes dark and sunken and their skin deathly white. They looked like they had just stepped out one of the graves. It was clear they were high on drugs because they started talking to us in utter gibberish; the deer didn't like the look of them and headed up a bank. We turned our backs on the Goths to follow the deer. But the Goths followed, still talking their nonsense. Quite suddenly, and absurdly, they slumped down by a grave.
We stayed with the deer the rest of the day and only went back to the hotel for tea. We both felt dubious about another evening in the graveyard, but we had come all the way to see the deer and so we were reluctant to give up. It didn't take long to find the deer again and this time we also spotted some young fox cubs. We hid behind some tombs and they scampered along a wall in front of us. I had only taken one photograph when they suddenly scarpered. I looked over my shoulder to see what had frightened them and saw a gang of eight boys, all aged about 10, walking toward us carrying crowbars.
Despite being so young, they looked like trouble. Seeing us watching them, they slipped their weapons up their sleeves. Vick smiled at them and said, "What are you up to lads; you're out a bit late aren't you?" It was 9.30pm. One of them replied "Is that the time? Me mam will kill me". But then they got distracted. They asked if we were English and Vick said "yes." I wondered if things were going to get complicated by her answer. But they were fascinated and treated us if we had come from another planet.
They seemed to find our accent hilarious. One boy admitted he had never been out of Glasgow. He was one of seven children, he said, living with his mum in a condemned block of flats. We could see the building from the cemetery. Most of the windows had been knocked out, but from the odd one a line of washing or a bit of a curtain hung, indicating that some families still occupied the place. Vick tapped at her watch and the boys headed off in the direction of home. As they did so, the crowbars came back out and they tapped them along the wall as they went, whacking any leaf or branch in their way.
Later, I asked a groundsman why these boys were carried them. I learnt they use them to break into the tombs, looking for valuables. They also take out skulls and skeletons and lay them out in the paths to frighten the tourists with. Charming. In spite of the drunks, druggies and vandals, I still have such good memories of the two and a half days I spent watching the deer in this cemetery.
In the intervening years I produced eight paintings of those graveyard roe deer and so I was keen to see how they had fared during that time at my next visit. Remembering the unsavoury characters that occupied the cemetery at night, I left Vick, Lily and Ruby in the hotel room and set off alone this time. The door to the gatehouse of the cemetery was open so I knocked and walked in to ask about the deer. "They've gone mate" said the groundsman. His face grave, he told me they had been killed by a gang of lads with air rifles and dogs back in 2006.
You could see the emotion etched in the face the man as he told me that he had found the doe with over 20 air rifle pellets in her head and her body torn apart by dogs. I felt a lump in my throat - I had painted her so many times, she really did feel like an old friend. I decided to go in anyway to see if there was any other wildlife about. But the groundsman warned me: "There's noot left. I haven't even seen a rabbit in there for years - these thugs will kill 'owt." Seeing I was determined he added: "Take my advice laddie don't be going in there looking like that" "Like what?" I said. "Like a bloody tourist" he replied.
It turned out a photographer was nearly killed there two years ago in an apparently mindless attack. A gang had smashed his head in with his own tripod, although they had taken nothing. The groundsman said that he himself had been attacked five times. I asked what I should do to fit in. He advised carrying a blue carrier bag filled with tinnys and a take-away. He reached back and grabbed a large kitchen knife - "and you'll definitely be needing one of these, laddie" he said grimly.
With some trepidation I went into the cemetery - he was right there was no wildlife left, just a few squirrels, magpies, crows and dodgy types drinking beer. A sudden thunderstorm forced me under some trees. Just as I thought things couldn't get much worse, I was mobbed by some lesser black backed gulls as I left the shelter of the tree. I looked up and took a direct hit as one crapped on me. It about summed up the day.
Early the next morning I decided to give the wildlife one more chance. Picking my way past beer bottles, chip wrappers, take away cartons and splattered sick on the pavements, I noted how different this to my usual wildlife watches. But I saw nothing that day either, except a brief glimpse of a wary fox slipping through some gravestones. As I left the cemetery, probably for the last time, I spotted a sign describing the Necropolis as one of the best examples of a Victorian cemetery in Europe. But to me what had made this place so special was its roe deer. I walked back to the hotel, followed by an addict in a hoodie. Back at the hotel I said to Vick, "Let's go." "Yes," she agreed "Let's go home."