Mermaids, jackalopes and a one-eyed pig

Gordon Rutter's most recent acquisition is this one-eyed pig. It now takes pride of place in his collection.
Picture: Gordon Rutter

IF YOU walk into most people's living rooms you'd expect to find a sofa, a television, maybe a few magazines and cushions. When you walk into the front room of Gordon Rutter's Edinburgh flat, the sofa's there, but squeezed between his one-eyed pig, his feejee mermaid, his skull collection and of course – the must-have for every cryptozoologist Scot – a miniature Loch Ness Monster.

For Rutter is one of a dying breed of gentlemen-collectors - people who hunt down and collect the unusual, the different, if we're being honest … the downright weird.

His penchant for the unusual has been with him for a very long time.

"I've been into this sort of thing all my life," says Rutter. "When I was a kid I'd go to the library and devour weird stuff. And now," he says with a wave of his hand, "I've got all this!"

"All this" comprises a collection of over 100 strange items. He has fossilised fingers, rings that belonged to (real) giants, a painted bowl made from a human skull, an ostrich egg mounted on an ostrich foot ("why not?"), plus a whole lot of other weird things. Rutter never goes out looking for things to buy, but when he sees something he knows immediately that it's the thing for him.

"I say to people if it makes you go 'yeargh', 'what's that?' or 'who would want that?', then the chances are I'd be interested."

A jackalope is a rabbit with antlers attached. A clear fake it was apparently first 'spotted' in Wyoming in 1829.

Rutter's "room full of curiosities" comprises genuine weird things and fake weird things. For him, the fakes are just as exciting as the real things.

"As soon as people started collecting weird and unusual things, the frauds started," says Rutter. "But the fakes are just as interesting to me. Reality is not the over-riding thing."

One of the most common fakes that he has is a fur-bearing trout. This fish supposedly grows fur during the winter in order to defeat the unusual coldness of the American and Canadian lakes where it lives. Of course it's a hoax. That's why Rutter loves it!

He has now become well-known as a collector of the unusual and people come to him with the offer of items for sale. He is presently mulling over whether or not to buy a seven-legged lamb – a bit pricey at £1,500 - but found himself unable to resist his latest acquisition, a genuine Cyclops piglet.

"It came from a litter of five, all Cyclops. They were originally preserved in formaldehyde, but someone in America knew I was a collector and contacted me and asked if I wanted one."

The little pig, with its freaky single eye, sits beside his computer screen, under the jackalope (half rabbit/half deer) and close to his stuffed crocodile. Among so many exciting knick-knacks Rutter find it hard to pick a favourite.

"It has to be the two-headed duckling. I really love that one," he eventually decides before nearly jumping with surprise when asked why? "Why? BECAUSE IT'S COOL!" he yells. "It looks good, it's different and it's a talking piece as well."

With a degree in biology and a love of natural history it is perhaps little wonder that he is fascinated by genetic mutations. He juggles working as a teacher in Edinburgh with freelance writing for the Fortean Times and is pretty clued up about the weird and the unusual. He admits that there are not many things he wouldn't give houseroom to.

"Nothing would freak me. I don't have any books wrapped in human skin – although to be honest I've not been offered one. And my biggest regret was not bidding for a shrivelled hand that came up for sale. It was a saint's relic and had previously belonged to Aleister Crowley (the black magician). I'd have loved that."

He admits that he would feel awkward buying endangered animals. (But concedes that if the right item came up he may find it hard to resist). He willingly agrees that his collection would not be to everyone's taste.

This is an example of a Jenny Hanniver - suppossed to be a mermaid - it is actually made from a skate.

"A lot of these things are definitely no longer politically correct, but, well, tough. I can see how people could object to some of these things and it would offend. But it's wrong to be judgmental about people. And anyway … they're missing out."

For now, Rutter shows no sign of giving up his hobby. On the contrary, the appeal of searching for hard-to-find items is a thrill he won't give up. And why not, when it means his living room is home to things as diverse as a ten-legged spider, a petrified teddy bear, a shrunken head (banished to the hall as it smells), a couple of mermaids and a cast of his own teeth. On the wall he even has what looks like an old tray. He almost jumps out of his seat in excitement when he points it out.

"That's a piece of the Tardis," he says mildly hysterical. "A real piece of the Tardis – so I can really travel in time…"

He is joking of course ... or at least I think he is.