City edgelands: a sanctuary for oddballs and fly-tip art

glasgow-wilderness-edgelands-pylonsExploring a lost wilderness in the city – a sanctuary for strange characters, fly-tip art and foraging.

You need to fix your references before you enter this place or you will be lost. Check the date, check the time, check the old man walking his dog and the woman hushing a baby in a pram. If you have found this place you have the right to explore, but be sure of your footing and walk-in with nerve.

This place is a strange wilderness, found between impoverished and forgotten areas in the north of the city. It is bordered and cut-off by a canal, rusty railings and allotments. It is seen more than it is explored, especially from the path on the other side of the canal. The characters seen looming up out of the undergrowth swigging on cheap lager and whisky discourage exploration. It’s bad enough on the path side of the canal with its muttering hooded figures. On the other side, only a few metres yet another world, it looks like wild jungle for sheltering Kurtz-like figures ruling loss tribes of the city. Dolls heads are stuck on shopping trolleys, occult signs made from sticks dangle from tree branches, tags on the walls give due warning.

Standing on the reassuring formality of a street I look into the wilderness and then back at my beautiful but faithless companion. She looks to me for protection and will run at the first sniff of danger but that’s greyhounds for you. She is loved by the underclass and upper class alike and the feeling is mutual so she’s here to charm anyone found in such bandit territory. Nonetheless, she is initially reluctant to enter, spooked by something only on her radar. We walk in and a peculiar outburst of birdsong tells us that time and rules are now different.

It’s an area within the city but outside its limits. It is beyond citizen safety patrols, the A-Z, privatised zones, CCTV surveillance, health and safety, licences and regulation. Google Maps has no idea what this place is and just leaves it blank, here be dragons. The Ordinance Survey angrily calls it Firhill in a petulant font that is large and bold with uncertainty, and quickly moves onto other more decipherable areas to map. In reality this place has no names. I ask a couple of locals and get a different answer every time. One woman smiles and reels off a roll call of local nicknames and vernacular. The amnesiac nature of this place means I can only remember the most direct and short name. The Coup, a Scottish word for a dump, empty by upturning.

The Coup. A depository for odd hobbies and strange dreams. An escape, a place for people to drift-in and find sanctuary. It draws in dubious characters. I come across a man struggling to free his bike from some railings. As we amiably chat for a couple of minutes I notice he has huge swollen cracked hands and is keen to hide a bag behind him so I can’t see inside it.

For a few weeks I regularly visit the northern part of the Coup for autumn blackberry picking. It is cut-off from its southern section by a combination of impenetrable bush, a stream and a bog. Paths lead through patches of woods, dense bushes and clearings with panoramic views over the city. Spider webs glisten in their fragility, delicately spun amongst often waist-high grasses and wild flowers. Black small towers stand in the clearings. They look like the machine-gun pillboxes of a home guard for whom time has stood still and the war is not yet over. In fact they are doocotes, homes for the pigeons of breeders. At the top of the tower an occasional pigeon can be seen taking in the air on a perch. If you listen carefully you can hear the pigeons cooing and rustling inside the doocotes. The greyhound is bounding about with joy, excited by the scents of wild animals, in the Coup deer and foxes are a common sight.

I follow a path and blunder into two young men smoking cigarettes. One of them has an intelligent face blunted by drug abuse. The other is not a junkie, but his mouth hangs open and he looks at me blankly. The intelligent one glares at me with hostility.

“What are you’re doing here pal?”

“Picking blackberries,” is my cheery response. “Great for my Christmas bramble whisky.”

Now they both looked bemused and even more surly. The other one still doesn’t close his mouth, still shows no sign of life behind the eyes.

“So long as that’s all you up to pal,” replies the first one with a hint of menace.

I resist the temptation of asking what I could be up to that would be unacceptable. Judging by their mood and the way they are dressed in suits it suggests court or a funeral. I start to retreat but the greyhound has other ideas and rushes up to them to say hello. They melt at the sight of her. The conversation runs it familiar pattern with such characters. They love greyhounds, an uncle used to race them, a good mate won a large bet on one, they would give righteous kicking to anyone who harmed one (if we quietly forget the irony of their following the racing industry and its shady underbelly ). The three of them gaze longingly into each other’s eyes. Eventually I have to break-up the love-in and as the hound and I leave it’s difficult to avoid the cliché of thinking where we would all be with different postcodes assigned at our births.

Fly-tip art or dumped rubbish

After the blackberries have gone I find the entrance to the southern section, marked by an abandoned house protected by coils of barbed wire. This part of the Coup features the remains of canal dredging and related-industry. There are mounds of masonry, great roughly-hewn boulders, and piles of mangled wire and metal. Someone has constructed temporary sculptures out of the rubbish, artfully arranging pieces of shopping trolleys, wooden slats and painted boxes. The winter sun pours over the canal and streams through wooden letters spelling out PRIDE. A rusty carcass of a motorbike lies next to oxidised and painted sheets of metal. Rubbish has become art and art has become rubbish. The sculptures are dwarfed by pylons, standing underneath I see their geometric patterns narrow and climb up to the blue sky.

Paths loop through the trees and remnants of industry to the canal. If you frame out the tower blocks and burnt out warehouses it is a bucolic scene. The lines of trees, water, rushes and water plants curving away like a scene out of an old Dutch painting. Swans glide by the banks where there are burnt patches from fires and piles of cheap strong lager cans.

When you leave the Coup you need to check your references. Has time passed? Has a year leaked away for every hour in the Coup? Are the young woman and baby now old, the man and dog long gone?

13 thoughts on “City edgelands: a sanctuary for oddballs and fly-tip art

  1. Enjoyed the story Alex, thanks for taking us with you into the Coup. I think you should have asked the two gents what illicit behavior you could possibly have been up to in a blackberry field just to hear their response, ha!


    • A lot of the pieces were, I think, an informal project by a local sculpture studio. I loved that they just went in and did it. It’s that kind of place and long may it continue. Thanks for the kind comments.


  2. Nice to come across the word ‘coup’ again. A term my mum used to describe my teenage bedroom although your term as a ‘depository for old hobbies and strange dreams’ was probably how I viewed it. An enjoyable wander ‘off the map’ and sounds like it was a good idea to take the greyhound.


    • It’s a descriptive word for all kinds of situations – love the thought of Scottish teenagers having to defend their right to have a coup. The greyhound can be a great ice-breaker and a right pain when she bolts to the horizon at first sign of trouble. And she bolts very fast.


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