Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam

FOR Kirsty Mackay, a project like this was always on the cards. Born in 1970, she grew up in Partick – a place clanking with heavy industry, nestled between the stylish tenements of the West End and the smaller, simpler houses nearer the Clyde. “Growing up here in the 1970s and 80s, I learnt about class with my own eyes. I saw the world wasn’t equal,” she writes in the introduction to her book.

Mackay lived at the bottom of a sloping row of streets, where class divides were steeped into the architecture. Across the road the houses had large, bay windows; one street up – the luxuries of a front garden. At the hill’s summit lay the stained glass and tiled closes of the Victorian piles of Dowanhill; these environmental divides instilling in her early on with an ability to read between the lines.

Mackay’s book, The Fish That Never Swam, is a collection of photographs that document Glasgow and its inhabitants, its title taken from a poem used to remember the Glasgow Coat of Arms and the ­legend of the city’s patron saint, Mungo.

“I was ­always fascinated by it,” she tells me, “there was never going to be any other name for the project.” A younger Mackay spent hours poring over the coat of arms in her local library, researching the saint’s story for a school project. “When I did look up the actual story of St Mungo, it was quite dull, compared with what I’d conjured up in my head as a child.

The National: Saturday morning in Drumchapel where ‘it doesnae matter if you’re a good boy or a bad boy'Saturday morning in Drumchapel where ‘it doesnae matter if you’re a good boy or a bad boy'

“What I loved was that underneath the arms it said: ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’. It’s that gap between this really melancholy story and the flourishing – which is what we’re waiting for.”

Indeed, it’s that sense of dissonance between what is, and what could be, which residents of a Glasgow both past and present will recognise. “It speaks of lost opportunity and missed opportunity,” Mackay adds.

The Fish That Never Swam was catalysed by a 2016 report by The Glasgow Centre for ­Population Health (GCPH). “History, Politics and ­Vulnerability: ­Explaining excess mortality in Scotland and ­Glasgow” is a 300-page paper that examines the ­possible factors contributing to Scotland’s “excess mortality” – an aberration sometimes referred to as “The Glasgow Effect” – that 5000 more people die here every year, compared to the rest of the UK – even after ­adjustments for differences in deprivation are made. The term was first popularised in part through the fault of the GCPH itself, after it published a report on the city's poor health status in 2010, with the phrase "the Glasgow effect" in the title. The GCPH has since condemned the phrase as an "unhelpful term which has now lost its meaning", since the phenomenon is no longer unexplained.

The National: From Castlemilk looking over GlasgowFrom Castlemilk looking over Glasgow

GCPH’s report examined 40 different ­hypotheses, ranging from vitamin D deficiency, migration, ­religious sectarianism, scale of deindustrialisation, to the effects of vacant and derelict land – a ­hypothesis Mackay is particularly interested in. When this ­research was released, only two articles were ­published in response. “One in the Scottish Press, and one on the UK press,” she explains.

Spurred on by this lack of coverage, Mackay’s aim was – and remains – to disseminate its findings: “The information in that research is so important, it needs to get out to ordinary people and be fully understood. It is open a little to interpretation. My work is an analysis of that.”

Mackay has practised photography since secondary school – after an art teacher put her forward for a place on a residential art course. She ­explains this was where everything fell into place.

“It was film we were shooting on, and we were developing the pictures as well, so we could work in the dark room with all the smells of the chemicals. It was ­captivating. It was like a lightbulb ­flicking in my head. It was that way of being able to see the world differently.”

The National: Bea, playing in her close, BattlefieldBea, playing in her close, Battlefield

The Fish That Never Swam has a clear purpose: “Connecting the research with people’s lived experience.” On its pages, Mackay’s photographs lie ­parallel to snapshots of the research, where she’s ­underlined important passages and ­added comments in the margin.

“You can see where I’m getting angry. I wanted to make my mark on the research, but I kind of knew people wouldn’t read it all, so I’ve highlighted the points I think are most important.”

Mackay's photographs are both ­tender and striking; a juxtaposition of the warmth of the human life inside the frame and the often sterile and neglected environment they’ve been captured in. Schoolchildren cross the road on an abandoned quadrant in Drumchapel where Mackay’s cousins used to live, the houses long gone, replaced by nothing other than scrub grass; on a Saturday morning in Drumchapel shopping centre, a young man celebrates his vodka carry-out; a picture of Castlemilk, taken from a high-rise flat – a strange allure in the glowing M’s of the fast-food chain in the distance.

There are uplifting photographs too; a newborn baby asleep in the Scottish Government baby box, children waiting in the queue to have their faces painted at the Women Against Capitalism Care and Share event, kids with their dads on the weekly Men Matter walk in the countryside around Drumchapel – a place where more people die from suicide than Covid. “Every guy at Men Matter cares, and they genuinely have a connection with other people. I feel that connection is really missing from some professionals who are trying to help people with addiction problems,” Mackay explains.

The National: Kaitlin, 23, at home in Springburn: ‘I’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness, been through two blocks of therapy, left uni, started a new job. I feel it in my bones that good things are going to happen for me soon.'Kaitlin, 23, at home in Springburn: ‘I’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness, been through two blocks of therapy, left uni, started a new job. I feel it in my bones that good things are going to happen for me soon.'

“It’s about compassion. They ignored the drug death crisis for years. There’s such a strong recovery community in Scotland. And it’s only because of the campaigning of those groups that they’ve got the government to take notice. The value of people with lived experience in the drugs death crisis… I think people in positions of power need to let go and share their power with the people who have real knowledge.”

Mackay’s work humanises the statistics and policy recommendations of the report. As she asserts on her website: “The causes of Glasgow’s excess mortality lie in government policy – not with the individual and their lifestyle choices.”

“I think there’s a lot of shame around it. I know some people don’t like my work because they feel I’m shining a negative light on the city. I know it touches a nerve with some people. But, I don’t think there’s any need of shame. This is not the fault of people in Glasgow. It’s the effect of damaging policies.”

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Glasgow was put into a “managed decline”. Unknown at the time, it was being starved of funding from Westminster – something which only came to light 30 years later, through the Official Secrets Act. During the 50s and 60s, as tenement slums were being demolished, the “Big Four” housing estates – Easterhouse, Castlemilk, Pollok, and Drumchapel – were being erected on the peripheries of the city.

The Glasgow Corporation built cheaply and quickly, ploughing a new motorway through the city’s heart – neglecting to provide public amenities, green spaces, and reliable public transport links for these new estates, severing their connection with the rest of the city.

The National: A portrait of photographer Kirsty MackayA portrait of photographer Kirsty Mackay

Mackay mentions Nicola Sturgeon’s 2019 “wellbeing economy” TedTalk. “I feel what’s missing from that talk is an openness of what’s happened. Politicians understand it, but it’s really left unsaid,” Mackay explains.

“What I would like to see within Scotland is an acknowledgement of what happened, and an understanding and open conversation about the legacy of these political policies and the damage they’ve done. I want to hear politicians say: ‘Look, this is why we have the problems we have, but here’s what we’re going to do to turn it around.’”

I ask Mackay where her feelings lie with the independence movement. “I don’t necessarily believe in independence, but there is a chance of change with the Scottish Government. I can see it in their policy, in their Scottish Child Payment, and Sturgeon’s talked about Universal Basic Income. I think those are the solutions that we really need,” she says.

“Reading the research, it’s really difficult not to be in favour of independence. It seems to me that the choice Scotland has is to remain as it is, which hasn’t worked historically, or make a change. I think Scotland as a country is really progressive. And I’d like the politicians to catch up and go further and commit to more change.”

“I want to see them committing to eradicating child poverty. That’s totally feasible. Poverty is a choice. I want to see them going further and being bolder.”

At the moment, Mackay lives in Bristol. I wonder how her relationship with Glasgow has changed over the years; from growing up here, then moving to London as a young woman, to reframing the city as the subject of her work. “I just crave being part of a community again. I’ve spent a long time trying to analyse what it is that’s different about people from Glasgow. Often, we’re told people are the friendliest.”

“For me,” she ponders, “it’s the lack of hesitancy in people here. Down south, people are reserved, there’s a bit of hesitancy. But in Glasgow, that’s just not there. People are right there to lend a hand or help you out.

“You can come from other places and not have that feeling, of being from that place. Glasgow is a place that has always pulled me back. It’s got such a strong identity, and my own identity is linked to that.”

AND indeed, there is an enduring consciousness that binds the people of Glasgow, of Scotland, together. There is a sense the best is yet to come. The knowledge we could live differently, more collectively, generously – that gap between what is and what could be which the poem hints at; a story of taking flight, growing, using our voice, learning to swim – of flourishing.

Mackay’s book is finished, but she’s working on a documentary on the same subject. The film will focus on the solutions to the problems highlighted in The Fish That Never Swam. “In the film,” Mackay says, “I really see Scotland on the edge of change.”

“Growing up here was a rich experience. It grounded me, became a part of me,” Mackay says. “I am a product of this place and remain strongly attached. I belong to Glasgow.”

“Making the book has made that attachment even stronger.”

Four of Kirsty Mackay’s photographs will be part of an exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – Counted: Scotland’s Census, runs from March 12 until September 25, 2022. The Fish That Never Swam is available to buy from her website: You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kirstygmackay