A Watersong of the Kelvin and for the Rio Atrato

We’re grateful to Glasgow-based singer-songwriter and criminologist, Fergus McNeill, for sharing his song, “Watersong” about the River Kelvin with the Rios Solidarios project. Although we had originally conceived of the project as a visual arts project, how could we not resist sharing this message of solidarity as a wonderful start to the project especially given the wonderful tradition of song and storytelling in communities of the Atrato.

See here for Vida te Quiro Viva, a song developed to articulate the importance and interdependence of self, community and environmental care during the pandemic. 

If you are interested in contributing artworks to Rios Solidarios you can find the details here.

- Jan Nimmo

A Watersong of the Kelvin and for the Rio Atrato

Fergus McNeill, 29th August 2021

I admit that I hadn’t given much thought to rivers, or our relationships with them, until last year. As for many people I think, the way that my world shrunk around me forced me to engage with my immediate surroundings much more thoughtfully. During the first of the Covid-19 lockdowns, on my one permitted daily walk, I would wander from my house, across a busy road, and into the tranquillity of the University of Glasgow’s Garscube estate, through which flows the River Kelvin. 

Over the months that followed, I explored many different routes, but they all involved the river, and as the pandemic and our altered lives wore on I walked through the seasons by and with the river.

Only one season had turned by August 2020, when I attended the Glasgow Song writing Festival (online of course). When, in the first session of the festival, folk singer-songwriter Emily Barker invited us to write a song about a body of water that meant something to us, it was the River Kelvin that immediately sprang to my mind. The Kelvin also runs through the University of Glasgow’s main campus in the West End of the city, and my life has been inter-twined with that place since 1984.

To stimulate our song writing, Emily asked us to read a short article in the Guardian by George Monbiot, bemoaning the neglect and abuse of rivers in the UK. I read it with a sense of shame, realising that rivers (and the Kelvin in particular) had been sustaining and nurturing me throughout my life, and especially through the lockdown, but that I had given nothing back to them.

That thought led me to write ‘Watersong’ from the River Kelvin’s perspective. The Watersong is the tender love song that any river might sing to the humans it sustains, but it is also, more subtly, a song of protest at being used and taken for granted. The Watersong challenges me to think about and act upon the asymmetry of these relationships: The rivers give, and we take. It leaves us with the question, ‘What can we do to change that?’

When, very recently, I heard about the the Rivers in Solidarity/Rios Solidarios project, I realised immediately that it responds to the same question, specifically by raising awareness of environmental injustice around the Rio Atrato in Colombia, and by inviting creative expressions of solidarity from other rivers and peoples.

Solidarity requires the reciprocity and balance that, I hope, the Watersong challenges us to consider in our relationships not just with rivers, but also with one another. So, I send the song and with it my good wishes to the Rio Atrato and the people there struggling for justice, and for their river. In solidarity.

You can listen to Watersong on YouTube via this link: https://youtu.be/ONx0QtHaIRM

Winter's day, bare trees next to the Kelvin river

A sort of love song, but it’s about my relationship with the River Kelvin. Or maybe about the river's relationship with me, since it's written from the river's perspective.


You won’t recall where we first met

I passed you on the Western steps

The indifference of youth perhaps, you didn't notice me

Our paths have crossed a thousand times

The tributaries intertwined

The busyness of life perhaps, you couldn’t cease 


But when the world slowed, I -- still flowed and

You found me when your need was strong

When the doors closed, I -- still flowed and

Finally, you heard my song


You walked beside me every day

I whispered all your woes away

Lost in froth and foam, drowned in horseback brown*

You saw me fall in grey and gold

Watched the life around me grow

Baptised, I drew you so far down, and turned you round


So when the world spins, and -- time thins, will

You find me when my need is strong?

And when clocks turn, and -- lights burn, still

Listen to the water’s song?

Will you still hear me?

Will you still hear?


When the world slowed, I -- still flowed and

You found me when the need was strong

But when the world spins, and – when time thins, still

listen to the water’s song


And when weary feet can walk no more

I’ll carry you from bridge to shore

In the ocean we begin again, times without end

[*This line borrows some words from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Inversnaid, surely one of the most beautiful river poems.]

Fergus McNeill profile pic

Fergus McNeill