Ríos Solidarios/Rivers in Solidarity: Three Scottish Rivers

Jan Nimmo

Artwork of a Raven at the Clyde

"I am the River Clyde and I stand in solidarity with the Río Atrato" - digital drawing/collage by Jan Nimmo © 2021

When I was approached by Professor Mo Hume of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow about the Colombia River Stories project, the idea was that I would travel to Colombia to meet the people living along the Río Atrato, in the Chocó region, in order to understand at first hand the environmental and social issues facing the these riverine communities. The Río Atrato had been granted special rights in 2016 but its fragile ecosystem was still being eroded by illegal mining, with its custodians, the River Guardians and their communities, living under the constant threat of violence from these and other vested interests.

I was familiar with other rivers in Latin America; the Usumacinta that divides Mexico and Guatemala, the Papaloapan, also in Mexico, the Sixaola that forms the border between Costa Rica and Panama, and the Rio Pacuare, from my days collaborating on an art project with banana workers and their trade unions; but the Atrato and its story wasn't familiar to me until Mo invited me to meet two grassroots activists, one a river guardian and the other a human rights lawyer, who visited the university in October 2019.

The Global Pandemic put paid to my travelling to Chocó, so the project had to be re-designed and I am now working remotely with Mo Hume and Allan Gillies of the University of Glasgow, partners in Colombia and Scotland and collaborating with US photographer, Steve Cagan, who has a long involvement in Chocó, documenting daily life and gold mining. This won't be the first time I have made work in solidarity with other communities from the solitude of my studio here in Glasgow. Between 2014-15, I spent a year making 50+ portraits for the parents and families of the 43 forcibly disappeared students from Ayotzinapa in Mexico.  As a regular traveller to Mexico, I knew the State of Guerrero well, so I felt moved to do something. In the end the project took on a life of its own thanks to human rights activists, social media and the students' families. I aim for the same to happen with the Ríos Solidarios project; I hope through our learning about the situation facing the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities in what is one of the world's most bio-diverse regions, we will not only send a message of strength and solidary to Colombia, but will at the same time reflect on the preciousness and uniqueness of the rivers that pass by us and how the flowing water connects us to the past, the present and the future, and to other people around the globe.

To help kick off this project I have made four small pieces of work, which are both messages of solidarity with the River Atrato in Colombia and expressions of love for three Scottish rivers that are special to me. They are pieces of an imagined patchwork that I hope other people will contribute to as we progress with Ríos Solidarios/Rivers in Solidarity.

The River Clyde

Artwork of a Raven at the Clyde

"I am the River Clyde and I stand in solidarity with the Río Atrato" - digital drawing/collage by Jan Nimmo. River Clyde - photo: Jan Nimmo © 2021

I live and work in Glasgow but was born and raised in Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland - I still consider Kintyre to be my home although I have lived in Glasgow for decades now; Kintyre is where my parents’ and grandparents' bones lie and it was growing up on the shores of the open Atlantic that fuelled my curiosity to travel.  

Like everyone else I have found the last year's restrictions, imposed because of the global pandemic, difficult. One thing that has kept me sane during this time has been going running along the banks of the River Clyde; the Clyde, this post-industrial river, whose history is still full of the ghosts of its industrial and colonial heritage. Glasgow was built on the sugar and tobacco trades and this exploitation financed the subsequent industrialisation of the city.

From Viking graves in Govan to the Clyde Shipyards, although the banks of the river where I run don't provide me with the greenery I yearn for, I have found moments of joy watching the ravens who roost in the Finnieston Crane, which once loaded the locomotives that were built in Springburn and shipped all around the world. I have felt envious of the ravens, during lockdown, and their freedom to leave the city when the human population couldn't. The waters of the Clyde which flow out into the Firth of Clyde and into the Kilbrannan Sound, where I first saw basking sharks as a child; the waters off the east coast of Kintyre. The Clyde connects me with home, the Kintyre peninsula. The paddle steamer, the Waverley, moored on the upper Clyde, now Glasgow's "Digital Quarter", reminds me of summer days in childhood when the streets of Campbeltown swelled with working families from Glasgow, Greenock and Gourock during the trades holidays. Summer days were punctuated by the various trades "fairs" when the shipyards on the Clyde would close their doors for the summer.

One piece I have made for the Clyde, "I am the River Clyde", features one of the ravens (Corvus corax) from the Finnieston Crane. In Scotland, like many other countries, some plants are considered to have magical powers so the image includes a wreath of rowan (mountain ash) and hawthorn. Olive branches in the image play on the biblical reference to doves and ravens. In the background, apart from the crane, we can see the Hydro, normally a venue for concerts, but more recently this building has been where the public have gone to receive their Covid-19 vaccines.

Artwork of a seagull at the Clyde river

"Yo soy el Río Clyde y brindo mi solidaridad al Río Atrato" - drawing/digital collage - Jan Nmmo © 2021

The second piece, Yo soy el Río Clyde (I am the River Clyde), is a portrait of one of a pair of lesser black backed gulls (Larus Fuscus) who nest and breed on the roof of the tenements across from my kitchen window. The gulls come and wait for scraps on our window sill and over the years we've gotten to know each other well during the gulls' summer visits. The gulls have brought nature to our window ledge during lockdown - they too struggled during lockdown. As scavengers they raid the bins of the fast food restaurants but they suffered when these places closed and last year didn't manage to successfully raise any chicks. They remind me of the sea at home, although in Kintyre we tend to see more herring hulls, kittywakes and greater black backed gulls. Both the ravens and the gulls have represented a lost freedom during lockdown and an escape to other imagined places, to foreign rivers and seas.

I have included some flora and fauna from Chocó in the piece and the words on the gulls wings are those of Afro-Colombian poet, Mary Grueso, who talks of community (Please excuse my clumsy translation). 

Yo no soy

soy mi comunidad

soy el Pacífico en todo su esplendor

Soy la tradicíon oral de mis ancestros

que nos educaron de generación en generación

inculcándonos enseñanzas y valores

para vivir en paz y en comunidad.

I am not me,

I am my community

I am the Pacific in all its splendor

I am the spoken tradition of my ancestors

Who taught us from generation to generation

Instilling in us their lessons and values

To live in peace and community.


Artwork of a seagull at the Clyde river
"Yo soy el Río Clyde y brindo mi solidaridad al Río Atrato" - drawing/digital collage - Jan Nmmo © 2021

The River Ayr

Artwork of a bird at the River Ayr

"Yo soy el River Clyde y brindo mi solidaridad al Río Atrato" - digital drawing/collage by Jan Nimmo © 2021

Between lockdowns last summer, my husband, Paul, and I decided we'd try to walk the length of the River Ayr, in Ayrshire, to the South of Glasgow. Although we'd been to Ayrshire many times neither of us was particularly familiar with the river which gives its name to the county.  It was a complete surprise to us that the river and its banks were so beautiful. The river rises in Glenbuck, close to the boundary with South Lanarkshire. Glenbuck was once a coal-mining village which was then obliterated from the face of the earth by open cast mining. The village was the birthplace of the legendary football manager, Bill Shankley, and the memorial to him there is a pilgrimage site for Liverpool fans. Shankley was from a large family of coal miners who were all fanatical about football - a bit like my father's family.

The river walk from Glenbuck follows Airds Moss, a raised peat bog, now teeming with birdlife, but which in 1680, during Scotland's religious "killing times", was the site of the Battle of Airds Moss. Covenanter history is ever-present along the course of the River Ayr, as can be seen at Peden's Cave near Failford and the grave of the Covenanter, William Adam, at Upper Wellwood.

Dropping below the moss the river makes its way through the village of Sorn and winds on to Catrine. There are traces of Ayrshire's colonial and industrial past in the Catrine Voes, the site of one the first cotton mills in Scotland, but whose massive water-wheels have long since vanished. As the river flows on though spectacular gorges and steep banks wooded with native trees, walkers may be surprised to find themselves beneath the soaring arch of Ballochmyle Viaduct, designed by John Miller and completed in 1848, which at 52 metres is the highest railway viaduct in Britain.

At Barskimming the river gorge continues through some of its most spectacular scenery, although here nature favours the privacy of the land-owner, making contact with the river difficult until it meets the road at Failford. On to through what is now a nature reserve, then through farmland we follow the winding river to Stair and the former coal-mining village of Annbank. Today, there are still shelters for anglers on the banks near to the deep pools where the miners would have bathed and fished after their shifts. 

As the river nears the coast it passes through more spectacular wooded gorges at Auchencruive. The River Ayr finally reaches the sea in the town of Ayr where from the mouth of the river there are views of the hills on the Isle of Arran to the west, Ayr Beach to the south, and in between, distant views of Kintyre and past Ailsa Craig to Ireland.

My piece from the River Ayr to the River Atrato centres around the image of a dipper (Cinclus cinclus) in a wreath of Scottish oak, alder and "May blossom", the blossom of the hawthorn tree. The poem, Farewell to Ballochmyle, is by Robert Burns.

The Catrine woods were yellow seen,

The flowers decay'd on Catrine lee,

Nae lav'rock sang on hillock green,

But nature sicken'd on the e'e.

Thro' faded groves Maria sang,

Hersel' in beauty's bloom the while;

And aye the wild-wood ehoes rang,

Fareweel the braes o' Ballochmyle!


Low in your wintry beds, ye flowers,

Again ye'll flourish fresh and fair;

Ye birdies dumb, in with'ring bowers,

Again ye'll charm the vocal air.

But here, alas! for me nae mair

Shall birdie charm, or floweret smile;

Fareweel the bonnie banks of Ayr,

Fareweel, fareweel! sweet Ballochmyle!

That sacred hour can I forget

Can I forget the hallowed grove,

Where by the winding Ayr, we met,

To live one day of Parting Love?

Artwork of a bird at the River Ayr  

"I am the River Ayr and I stand in solidarity with the Río Atrato" - digital collage/ drawing - Jan Nimmo © 2021

Paul and I managed to complete walking the River Ayr in a brief break in lockdown in Spring this year. Photos of the route can be viewed here.

The River Kelvin The River Ayr between Annbank a Auchencruive. Photo: Jan Nimmo © 2021

The Machrihanish Water

Artwork of a bird at Machrihannish

Machrihanish Water/The Backs Water, Machrihanish Kintyre. Photo: Jan Nimmo © 2021. 

I was born in Campbeltown and no matter where I am, Kintyre will always be home. My father, Neil, was born in a village called Drumlemble (locally known as Drumleman). He and his twin brother, Ramsay, were amongst the oldest of a family of nine. Their father was a miner and shot-firer who came from the Central Belt of Scotland. My grandfather, Bob Nimmo, married my grandmother, Bella, a native of Drumlemble, whose brothers were all coal miners at the mine at Machrihanish, on the Atlantic coast, with one exception, Jim, who went to "work at the hay"; that is to say that he worked on the local farms. As a large family working at a time before the mine was unionised, my father and Ramsay were taken out of Drumlemble primary school, aged 11, to work on local farms. At that time it was common for miners to go round the coast to collect seagull eggs on the cliffs at the Inneans. These were often sold to the local bakers, as they were known for to be good for making light, golden sponges.

As a boy, my father used to go foraging in the machair and fields of the Laggan for lapwings' eggs. Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) were known locally as Peeweeps, because of their call so Neil was nicknamed Peeweep. There are barely any lapwings visiting south Kintyre now - just a few appear at Clochkeil Farm and at Ballyvene Farm - I suspect that agricultural pesticides have more to do with that than my father's foraging back in the 1930s.

After doing his national service with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, my father went to work at Argyll Colliery at Machrihanish, Scotland's most remote coal mine. The mine was the last in a long line of mines that were worked in the area between Drumlemble and the Atlantic at Machrihanish. The Argyll Colliery was nationalised just after WW2 and this meant that, although still a dangerous job, the labour-force were paid good wages and had access to new houses that were built especially for miners, in Campbeltown. The truth is not lost on me that coal miners in Scotland had better working conditions 50 years ago than Colombian or Mexican miners do today.

Like many miners and locals generally, my dad loved angling, fishing for salmon and brown trout. He often went with his younger brother, Alister.  Apart from fishing in local lochs he used to fish the Machrihanish Water, locally known as the Backs Water, which flows past where the mine used to be and out into the Atlantic in Machrihanish Bay. One day in October 1958, after finishing his shift underground, he was fishing there and managed to reel in a 16lb salmon. In those days families like ours didn't have freezers so the salmon was sold to a local hotel.

Fisherman with salmon

Neil Nimmo at Argyll Colliery with the 16lb salmon he caught nearby in the Machrihanish Water in 1958. Photo courtesy of the Nimmo Family.

My father loved painting seascapes. If circumstances had been different he would have been a contender for art school. Instead Neil worked physically hard all of his working life, even drilling and blasting roads on the Isle of Lewis, in all weathers, well into his late 60s. It was seeing him work like that, that made me interested in labour rights both here and further afield and led me to make artwork and documentaries about the lives of banana workers in Central and South America. My father loved the films I made about banana workers but grumbled that I hadn't made a film about the miners in Kintyre. However it was not to be until after he had died that I finally made a film about Argyll Colliery, The Road to Drumleman.

More recently, I was asked by Familia de Pasta de Conchos, an organisation representing the families of miners in Coahuila, Northern Mexico, to make commemorative works about the 65 miners who were killed in a gas explosion in a coal mine in 2006 and whose bodies we were never recovered.

This piece about Machrihanish Water is, of course, my message of solidarity to the Río Atrato, but is also dedicated to the memory of my father and the beauty of the Atlantic shores of Kintyre were barely any traces of mining still exist.

Artwork of a bird held against the background of a beach and the seaArtwork of a bird at Machrihannish

'I am the Machrihanish Water and I stand in solidarity with the Río Atrato". Dwawing/Digital Collage - Jan Nimmo ©2021