The Fish That Never Swam

My mother was one of 15 children, born into a Lanarkshire mining family near Glasgow. Her dad was a miner, and several of her brothers and nephews went into the pit to toil beside him, a few other relatives into the steel works and shipyards. My mum worked briefly in Colville’s Steel Works driving a crane then moved to the Highlands in her late teens around 1950 and met my dad, married him and raised three children.

When we all made the long journey from the Highlands to visit my granny in Uddingston, which was a regular occurance through the 1960’s as she grew older and more frail, my brother and sister and I would often be bathed in front of the coal fire in the old tin bath that had also cleansed the skin of mum’s siblings and were told stories of the pit and mining. Sometimes just for atmosphere and to entertain we children, granny would light a miner’s lamp and we’d watch the shadows dancing.

My dad would take bags of fish he’d caught, salmon, trout or mackerel, down for our granny, aunts and uncles to enjoy, and they would often share some of their ‘miner’s coal allowance’ with us, and bags of this ‘black gold’ would travel back north to be used in our own flat. It would share boot space in the car with sacks of rice and flour which we’d collect from the Asian food warehouse near the city centre for our Pakistani immigrant neighbours in the Highlands who’d moved to Fort William via Glasgow and shared our block of flats, becoming our good friends.


Inside front cover double-page spread: Archive image of Jimmy Reid, Scottish trade union activist, orator, politician and journalist born in Govan, Glasgow. Jimmy Reid rose to international prominence during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in which took place between June 1971 and October 1973. The work-in was a response to the Conservative Government of Edward Heath’s plan to close down the shipyards on the Clyde, which would have cost 6,000 jobs. But rather than a strike or even a sit-in, the leaders of the unions at UCS instead decided that they could show the shipyards were viable by locking out the management so the workers could complete the orders themselves. The work-in caught the imagination of the world and everyone from Billy Connolly to John Lennon raised money for the workers with trade unions from around the globe offering their solidarity. In the end the Heath government backed down and the yards were saved. Jimmy Reid was the spokesperson for the work-in and his eloquence and passion gained him an international profile. Read more here at The Jimmy Reid Foundation.



When I left school in Fort William at 16 in the early 1970’s I went to work in the Clyde shipyards, in Yarrow’s Yard. Accommodation was in a hostel beside Victoria Park with numerous other young lads all employed as apprentices in various yards, and drawn from all over Scotland. From the Highlands there were two brothers I knew who’d been in school with me in Fort William, a lad from Kyle of Lochalsh and a couple of other fellows from further north. What was noticeable in our day-to-day interactions with various Glaswegian youths of a similar age was how much smaller than us they were. “Dont stay doon here son…” said an old welder to me one day after asking where I was from “’ll end up wi nae eyesight or nae lungs wi aw this work. Look at me.” I heeded his advice, eventually.

Several of my mum’s male siblings suffered the usual pit ailments, with arthritic joints and ruined lungs, my grandad eventually succumbing to ‘Black Lung’ (pneumoconiosis, CWP). But there was also general ill-health coupled with alcoholism and depressive illness, and latterly in the late 80’s and 90’s drug misuse affected a few of my relatives, living in places like Maryhill and Drumchapel. Casting an ever-present shadow over all of this was religion, and all the tensions such strongly held beliefs manifested whether through sport or in education, something I suspect my mother went north to escape from although she would never admit it.

As an adult I would sometimes make the journey south from the Highlands to Glasgow to attend funerals of family who died ‘before their time’ after long bouts of chronic illness, events that occasionally ended in some small smoke-filled pub festooned with memorabilia reflecting deep affiliation to the Loyal Orange Order. I was always warmly welcomed into these places, whispers passed from ear-to-ear explaining who I was, with glasses of whisky appearing from some old pit buddy of whichever departed relative’s funeral we’d just attended. But always I remember far too many slightly built men, many prematurely aged, and lots of them coughing.


Annotated page excerpts from ‘The Fish That Never Swam’. Data gathered by the Glasgow Cente for Population Health (Authors: David Walsh, Gerry McCartney, Chick Collins, Martin Taulbut and David Batty).




I revisited Clydebank a few months ago to visit a relative in the Jubilee Hospital. With time to spare I decided to wander through my teenage haunts and see what changes had occurred in the 50 years since I’d worked there. Despite numerous visits to the City over the intervening decades I’d never actually walked my old route to work from Victoria Park to Yarrow’s Yard, which is now BAE Systems. So I did. It was profoundly different. Many of the old tenements have been renovated, I found a Polish deli filled with a wonderful array of foods where there once had been something I’ve now forgotten. I marvelled at BAE’s buildings, large and shinily impressive, and all around the yard many new structures have gone up, and old ones either removed or restored.

I noticed a fish and chip shop that seemed very familiar and I’m pretty certain it was present in that location in my youth; if it was, it was outside it that one night three lads from a local gang jumped a mate and I, taking exception to our intrusion in their ‘patch’ and slashing at my mate’s face with a comb, a plastic one fortunately rather than the sharpened aluminum ones some preferred, but still hard enough to leave an angry red weal down his face and eventually a thin slow trickle of blood.



Page left: Annotated page excerpts from ‘The Fish That Never Swam’. Data gathered by the Glasgow Cente for Population Health (Authors: David Walsh, Gerry McCartney, Chick Collins, Martin Taulbut and David Batty). Page right: David and his son Marshall. Image © Kirsty Mackay




I stood staring, and smiling, at the old hostel I’d lived in, now beautifully renovated, its granite walls gleaming in the autumn sun. I wandered into the grounds and spoke briefly with a big lad who was standing in the carpark, explaining that I’d lodged there decades before and was curious about what it was being used for now, as it looked very smart. He was wearing work clothes and hi-viz and I assumed he was a caretaker or gardener, and he informed me that the old hostel was now converted to luxury flats and very desirable with expensively furnished interiors.

But as he turned to look at an arriving car and wave cheerfully at its driver I noticed a huge ragged scar from his ear to the corner of his mouth…and he said: “Good tae talk to ye pal but ah need tae go now, that’s ma drugs counsellor for ma rehab session in that building therr, its no all flats an that here. Cheers, an enjoy yer wee walk.” And off he went. It was a stark reminder that whilst the facade of the city might have changed for the better in numerous ways, many of its underlying problems persist; but so also does its friendliness.



Page left: Annotated page excerpts from ‘The Fish That Never Swam’. Data gathered by the Glasgow Cente for Population Health (Authors: David Walsh, Gerry McCartney, Chick Collins, Martin Taulbut and David Batty). Page right: Punam in the close where she grew up in Hillhead. Punam now works as a GP across three practices in the city. “People are living in a huge amount of stress, which often is triggered very early on in their life. The effect of that over 5, 10, 20 years culminates in creating disease….” Image © Kirsty Mackay




Photographer Kirsty Mackay knows all this. She’s lived it. She was born into it, grew up surrounded by it and now photographs it. Her recent book ‘The Fish That Never Swam’ (History, Politics and Vulnerability. Explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow) explores the social and economic problems and the underlying politics that have shaped modern Glasgow, and continue to exert their influence. And her work is remarkable.

The foreword to the project on her website states the premise of her book in no uncertain terms; there’s no wooly artist’s statement laden with ambiguity. It’s direct and it hits hard, as it should given the subject matter:

“In Glasgow, people’s lives are cut short.

Male life expectancy in Possil is 66, in Penilee three young people took their own lives within the space of one week in June 2020, suicide in Glasgow is 30% higher than English cities, male life expectancy is 7 years short of the UK average and women’s is 4 years less. This is not isolated to areas of deprivation – Glaswegians across all social classes experience a 15% reduction in life expectancy.

The causes of Glasgow’s excess mortality lie in government policy – not with the individual and their lifestyle choices. Local, regional and central government policies created an environment where: segregation, alienation, mass unemployment, the generational trauma that followed, poverty and deprivation constitute a public health issue. During the 1970s and 80’s Glasgow was in a ‘managed decline’.

Unbeknown at the time, the city was starved of funding from Westminster.”


Kirsty Mackay pictured with her parents in Maryhill, 1971. ‘This was the first flat I lived in. It was a victorian tenement flat called a “room and kitchen”. We had this room and one bedroom, the toilet was on the landing shared with the neighbours.’ Courtesy of Kirsty Mackay




When I opened the package the book arrived in and slid it out, it tried to escape my grip, in part a consequence of the quality of its production and the stout but flexible cover, but mainly because of what lies inside and the way it is concealed, and thus causes the book to diminsh in thickness towards the edge, giving way between one’s fingers.

A quick flick through the pages revealed the cause: a book-within-a-book. The shiny ‘shell’ of the volume are pages full of copious research into excess mortality in the city undertaken by the Glasgow Cente for Population Health (Authors: David Walsh, Gerry McCartney, Chick Collins, Martin Taulbut and David Batty). It is their stark statistical work that notes objectively what living in this city is, what it looks like in data terms, what its measurements and estimates reveal as effects on the populace, and suggests why and how some of these health outcomes may have come about.

But nestling within that outer shell is a pearl, a series of images and conversations exploring the lived experience of modern Glaswegians and, crucially, explaining what that cold statistical life in their city, as reflected on those enclosing pages, actually feels like, how it shapes their individual lives and their aspirations for their futures.

The images are powerful and direct. The text captions spare and to the point. Glimpses of lives that have been jostled by circumstance or simply kicked, hard. Its an emotionally affecting read, the images underlining the personal stories these myriad voices have to tell. Whether male, female, young, old, immigrants…all of them constitute a real living breathing community often ‘represented’ only as data points on a graph in some report on ‘inner city deprivation‘ or ‘adverse health outcomes‘.



Page right: Annotated page excerpts from ‘The Fish That Never Swam’. Data gathered by the Glasgow Cente for Population Health (Authors: David Walsh, Gerry McCartney, Chick Collins, Martin Taulbut and David Batty).



From a design perspective the book is very cleverly made – the research pages are 25mm larger on the page edge and bottom than the image pages, quoting the language of the academic and occasionally underlined in pen or pencil for emphasis, but always between each page-pair of left and right there is a smaller page on higher quality stock, with an image and a caption.


Debbie holds her newborn baby, Anderston, Glasgow. That first journey home from the hospital, depending on which area home is, has a profound impact on health, well being and life expectancy. © Kirsty Mackay


That juxtaposition of stark statistical data and Kirsty’s sensitive portraits I have to confess I found profoundly moving, and the inclusion of these powerful images at a smaller page size reflects the diminished life-expectancy and opportunity many in the city experience. But thumbing through these image-rich pages  you are left in no doubt that these lives matter. Kirsty’s photographs are at once both condemnatory of the political and economic system that has inexorably shaped these people’s circumstances, yet brim full of celebration of their lives being lived as fully and richly as possible despite these deprivations.





This is an important and powerful book, one that needs to be seen, and read, and understood by those whose business it is to know such things: whether academics or politicians of whatever political persuasion. Given the current shocks to the economy caused by Brexit and Covid, the impending storm of price hikes in energy and food costs, and the looming economic and health effects of climate change, these communities photographed by Mackay are right in the front line and will undoubtedly feel the impact more deeply than many others.

And for photographers, whose work seeks to record other’s lives and to ‘give voice’, this book should provide a timely reminder that the most important ‘voices’ come from within a community, and that rather than try to speak for them, to instead allow those with roots there and who know it, respect it with all its imperfections and challenges, and who are deeply invested in its future, to be heard.

Make no mistake, this is not a book about the past, certainly it glances backwards and with a deeply critical eye, but it also looks forwards too, and towards meaningful change. It eloquently underlines that what lies behind the dry objective language of research and statistics are people, individuals who need to be afforded dignity and opportunity. ‘The Fish That Never Swam’ proclaims with a great deal of pride “In spite of the issues that affect this city we citizens thrive, as best we can. And we matter.”.

If you can afford to buy this book, do so, you will not regret it. Then read it, and share it.

You can order the book from Kirsty’s website here, where you can see more of her powerful and moving work. There’s also an excellent interview with Kirsty in Huck magazine here where she talks about her motivation for undertaking this project.


PS. We do not expect nor solicit review copies of books at duckrabbit, we buy them ourselves in order to support fellow photographers and authors.

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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