Song of the Clyde: saving the river

Clyde shipping river
Shipping on the Clyde (1881), John Atkinson Grimshaw, Image Public Domain

It is Scotland’s most important waterway, its course rising from headwaters in the Southern Uplands to the seaside communities of its firth – the Clyde.

The River Clyde is the physical link which stitches together the most significant events in the country’s history, threading their complexity; on the one hand tying us to our role in slavery and empire and on the other feeding our radical roots.

Its fate has risen and fallen with Scotland’s as well, its waters literally reflecting our industrial grow and decline.

It also has another story to tell about the state of our planet, and the growing movement, harnessed, nurtured and propelled by civil society, to take responsible stewardship of our resources.

For as the movement to improve our aquatic habitats grows, part catalysed by the recent Blue Planet 2 documentary, few might realise that similar problems to those symbolised by the images of the grieving pilot whale mother carrying her dead, toxin-poisoned calf, have been happening right under our nose since the industrial revolution.

Overall, the Clyde is in better shape than it has been for decades – its freshwater stretches have gone from being fetid, near lifeless dumping grounds to the home of otters and salmon once again.

There are bigger and more profound challenges in the river and estuary’s marine stretches, however. These have suffered as the result of industrial and fishing interests pursuing short-term gains.

In both environments, it is the country’s community and voluntary sector which is the often unheralded agent of change, bringing the river back to life.

Community Action

Upstream, that is best encapsulated by the work of the Clyde River Foundation, which has been literally bringing the river into schools, educating a new generation about its worth.

It has been running the successful Clyde In The Classroom project, which encourages children to learn about aquatic ecology by looking after brown trout eggs, with the hatched fry eventually released to the river.

Further down, as the river begins to take on its mature proportions as it threads Hamilton and Motherwell, the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership works to restore paths and make access easier, while putting the river’s history into context, for example by staging exhibitions such as its Land, Life, Water: the Clyde and Avon Valley Past and Present display, focusing on the river and the people working to protect it.

A similar approach is taken at the world famous New Lanark site, which is overseen by a charitable trust.

Further down the river, as it passes Glasgow, the Clyde undergoes a fundamental change as marine waters begin to penetrate and tidal effects are felt.

While the retreat of heavy industry from the river has helped along its entire course, freshwater habitats have responded better than marine ones.

Here, it is the effects of the fishing industry which have had the most profound effect, a disastrous short-termism having seen the collapse of the estuary’s fish populations through over-fishing and the ruinous effects of scrapping historic environmental laws which had prohibited trawling in protected areas.

This led to the exhaustion of the area’s fin-fish population, and with it the loss of the Clyde’s entire fleet and the jobs and livelihoods they provided.


The only sign of commercial fishing on the Clyde now are prawn and scallop boats – only shellfish are landed now, the  surest sign of a denuded eco-system, which can only sustain an almost mono-culture of bottom feeders, 80% of which, according to one recent study, now carry a lode of plastic in their stomachs.

However, there is hope that this virtual eco-wasteland can be transformed. The environment can be remarkably resilient, as has been shown on the Clyde estuary by the work of COAST, an internationally recognised project which has been crucial in establishing a network of Marine Protected Areas, such as that at Lamlash Bay in Arran.

This shows that with some will and the right legislation, the sea can regenerate and begin to re-seed.

The Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust (SIFT) charity runs the Revive The Clyde campaign, which has campaigned for the creation of areas protected from trawlers which would provide nurseries for fin-fish, which would allow the recreation of a sustainable fishery once more.

Crucially, this would be overseen by the creation of a new devolved agency, which would harmonise interests across the sector.

Their plan, however, has met resistance from the trawling industry – and the SNP Scottish Government, perhaps bowing to pressure from this direction, has declined to take the plans further.

The Clyde can be seen as a microcosm of the problems besetting the entire planet’s aquatic habitats. But just as all waters eventually run together, what we do here feeds into the global whole.

And Scotland’s third sector can be proud of the role it is playing in reviving the mighty Clyde.

This article was originally published as Song of the Clyde: saving Scotland’s greatest river, at Third Force News on 23/02/2018.

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