Caught by the River


23rd September 2023

30 years after its closure, the site of a former steelworks is anything but empty, finds Amanda Thomson — we just have to look.

Let’s start with the mosses, the bryophytes. They’re often the first colonist species to arrive, and it’s thought these mosses are not dissimilar to the first plants that came out of the water onto land, more than four hundred million years ago. Without roots, tiny hairs anchor them to the surfaces of rocks, cement, trees, logs, bricks, anything that they can find, and they pull their nutrition from the atmosphere around them. 

Here, they’re carpeting steps that go to nowhere, are thickening and softening the tops of walls, edging over surfaces and settling into the cracks of concrete that has been split by water and ice and heat and cold. They’re lining and softening the ghost circumferences of cooling towers and gas holders, the footprint of the stripmill, coke ovens, offices, furnaces, admin. offices and everything else that exists as the spectre of Ravenscraig Steelworks, in Motherwell, just outside of Glasgow. Once the largest steelworks in Europe, it was a vast industrial complex that was a square mile in size and lasted a scant thirty years. At its peak it had a workforce of seven thousand and a nickname of Steelopolis. To build it they scraped and shifted rock and soil, even changing a river’s course to service the 20th century’s ever increasing consumer, as well as military industrial, demands. Now, only its ghost, and the memory of it remains. Locals still talk about how it glowed at night, ex-workers talk about its dangers and its deaths, about the red dust that covered the nearby golf course, the fears for the toxicity that accompanied its industry, and the toxicity that may still remain underneath the ground. The British Steel blue gas holders and the huge cooling towers, visible for miles, and seen from the air or nearby railway lines would tell them people they were nearly home, and folk will still speak of the almost physical pain when the cooling towers and gas holders came down, detonated in 1996, and of the aftermath of that loss of industry, jobs and community.  

In the dead of winter, when the sun hits them, these mosses are a vibrant, almost luminous green that seems to glow even in shade or in the dreich winter light, and though they seem like a single mass, if we zoom in, there are often five or six different species together. They have names like Calliergon cuspidatum and Rytidiadelphus squarrosus, spear mosses and feather mosses, and they hold water droplets that sparkle and diffuse the light. Close in, they’re a mass of intricate textures and shapes that are feathery and frilly sometimes spiky, sometimes spongy and always incredibly intricate. We see them growing in tiny cracks but think of scale. To them, these fissures are microhabitats, perhaps more sheltered or wetter, perhaps there’s soil, or where they can respond to the lime that’s in mortar or concrete. 

Mosses live in what Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as the boundary layer, where atmosphere meets the earth, air meets land. The Met Office tells me the boundary layer can be a few metres or several kilometres, and it’s here that the turbulence that affects the world’s weather occurs, how pollution is held or dispersed. But for mosses, the boundary layer between air and plant surface is miniscule. The air is caught by its friction with the surface of the moss, and stilled. And it’s this zone that holds the moisture the nutrients that mosses need to thrive. You’ll sometimes see small spikes pushing up above their boundary layer to their own turbulent zone where the spores they hold will catch the air and be blown to settle and grow where they may. Mosses stabilize soil, even kick-start it, control how water and nutrients are recycled and store carbon for us too. 

It’s easy to think of the life of Ravenscraig during and after the steelworks, but what of before? A 19th century OS map reveals a rural landscape that’s quietly undulating, covered in fields, allotment gardens, pockets of trees and dotted with the occasional coal pit. There’s an area called Meadowhead that only exists now as a house-lined street. Back then, the South Calder Water meandered east to west across the whole northern end of the site before it was diverted underground to make way for steel. This same map documents the site of a Roman Road that ran east to west, and at one point there was a Watling Street that looks like it followed the same road, and ran just south of what was once a Pit named Wellington, just west of where the cooling towers more recently stood.  In April 1875, so the Glasgow Herald tells us, a Mr Andrew Pringle died after falling 104 yards down Wellington Pit’s shaft, and five years later, James Rox, under the influence of liquor, did the same. 

I wonder about the meadows, grasslands and woodlands that used to be here, what they once held. Shifting baseline syndrome is when we presume that the numbers of birds and butterflies we see in the here and now is the norm, and what it has always been like. We might not realise that previous generations may have flushed up more butterflies as they walked though grasslands than we do now. We may not even think of the grasslands and fields that existed before the housing schemes and shopping centres that seem to have sprung up in places we’ve not driven past in a while, and what they might have held. It’s easy not to realise what we might have lost.

Some might see nothing but vacancy here now, in what used to be a vibrant industrial site, closed by Thatcher and leaving so much bitterness, damage and a legacy, 30 years on, that still remains. Some might see in this place now a void, a space still waiting for something else, redevelopment perhaps, certainly something better, to come along. There’s an old Scots language word, barescrape, I found in a 19th century Scots Language dictionary. It means very poor land that gives very little back for the labour that it would take to farm it, and I imagine that this land, as it is now, might also be termed a barescrape. But look around.

The dirt and soil and slag material left in the aftermath of demolition hold new and changing communities of their own, communities that would be unheard of 200 years ago, and these mosses are joined by grasses, plants and trees. Some might see it as a wasteland, and it does have a certain feeling of desolation to it, especially in winter. It’s a type of landscape that has a formal description: An open mosaic habitat on previously developed land – a known history of disturbance the site; evidence that soil has been removed or seriously modified by previous use of the site; or that extraneous materials, or substrates such as industrial spoil have been added. 

The plants that are able to grow in such environments are described as being stress-tolerant species, able to cope with drought or soil that is low in nutrients, and ruderal species – weedy, itinerant plants that grow fast and produce lots of seeds. So these mosses are joined by grasses and plants and trees, and there’s thirty years worth of growing now. Still, this place holds so much muscle memory of what was here before, above and below the ground. There’s a geographical grain to this site now that’s north to south, the orientation of the cooling and gas towers, coke ovens, buildings and mills; the roads and railway lines that brought coke and the raw materials of steel-making in, and took steel away. The trees and plants that make up this new community trace near invisible remnants and fill in the gaps of what was once here – birches, willows and occasional larches circle the ghost circumferences of the cooling towers and gas towers and edge the peripheries of buildings that site maps tell us once were furnace bays and casting bays, a lime burning plant, a pig stocking area, as well as the massive Strip Mill itself. Birch trees form avenues down the sides of rough paths that were once known as Coke Oven Road West, Melting Shop Road East, Blast Furnace Road, Product Road West.

The underlying slag material that’s the detritus from demolition and clearance is described as supporting ephemeral and short perennial vegetation, and though that sounds and can look unpromising, there’s lots to seek and behold within, including uncommon plants and Scottish rarities like wild mignonette, wild carrot and spear-leaved water plantains; fern-grass growing on top of basic steel slag.

There are wetter areas that hold water avens, water forget-me-nots, cuckoo-flowers and bulrushes, great horsetail too.  In summer, amongst grasses with names like cock’s-foot, smooth meadow grass, Yorkshire-fog, tufted hair-grass and false oat-grass, you might see the buttery bright yellows of kidney vetch, bird’s foot trefoil, yellow rattle and black medick as well as the dandelions, hawkweeds and buttercups. Sparks of pinks, reds, purples and blues might reveal rosebay willowherb, knapweed, vetches, red clovers, and thistles, tiny blue speedwells and field forget-me-nots. And with them all will come bees and butterflies and all kinds of insects. Deer will sometimes cross a path in front of you, and bats, badgers, otters, water-voles, rabbits and foxes have re-settled into roosts, setts, holts, nests, burrows and dens. Sites such as this are the grayling butterflies’ favoured habitat. 

Elsewhere, like needles in a haystack, underneath thick layers of leaf-litter, another rarity, a plant called yellow bird’s nest may lurk, singly or in spikes, and should you spot it, lacking chlorophyll, it will be an other-worldly pale yellow, creamy white, ghost-like stem. 

And there are spotted orchids and marsh orchids, wood avens, wild strawberries, fairy flax and common centaury, twayblades and wintergreens, and I wonder again what is newly blown in, what lay dormant under the surface from the time there was an area known as Meadowhead, waiting for their chance to bloom again.   

Charms of finches that might be a mixture of goldfinches and siskins and linnets will flock from tree to tree, flurrying like leaves in a flaw of wind. Jackdaws mingle noisily with rooks, and blue tits and coal tits chirrup, blackbirds and wrens call from low in the birches, and song thrushes sing from the tops of trees. Skylarks rise high, casting their song over the sounds of distant diggers and sirens before falling back to earth. Wood pigeons leave with applause, gulls circle above and skeins of geese flying over as, even higher, planes curve west to land at Glasgow Airport. You might be lucky to hear the low cruck of a raven and remember the site is so named for the crags where ravens used to nest (and now they’re back, adapting, as nature does, nesting among the girders of a railway viaduct). Kestrels hover and buzzards pass as the sounds of nature intermingle with passing trains, planes, and the regular background hum of traffic and occasional voices. Birches, always a pioneer species, predominate, but there are willows, hawthorns, sycamore, larches too, all finding ways to put their roots down and creating habitats for all kinds of birds and beasts, all the while contributing to carbon storage. Birch leaves have been shown to hold tiny hairs and ridges that can filter and trap polluted air particles too.

And let’s not forget the lichens, for they are here too now.  They’re hybrid organisms, a combination of a fungus and an algae, growing together to their mutual benefit, and there’s something poetic and instructive about that. And they’re here now, like the mosses, in a way they wouldn’t have been when the emissions from the steelworks were at their height, and they’re a quiet, subtle presence. Like mosses, they are rootless, and, as lichens also gather nutrients from the atmosphere, they’re indicators of air quality. Some are more tolerant of the nitrogen produced by diesel exhausts and power stations, while others are more sensitive, delicate, and able only to exist in cleaner air. 

In other places, further away from the large urban conurbations — say in Abernethy, the forest I’m most familiar with — you’ll see lichens hanging from the branches, or poking up or out from the bark or mosses or the forest floor in thin strands. These are the Usneas and Cladonias that have common names like old man’s beard and witches hair, pixie cup and the devil’s matchstick, and if you find them and look closely, you’ll see why they’re so named. Ravenscraig is too close to roads and towns and cities and the pollution in the air for these species, but there are lichens here now, and that’s a good thing. Some, the Crustoses, are so firmly attached to the concrete, stone or bark they’ll be near impossible to remove, and are sometimes mistaken for paint splatters or chewing gum. Though they look flat, magnified, they’re more like tiny volcanoes, circling and morphing into other versions of themselves. Other lichens are leafier, bushier, and you might be more likely to find them in the middle of the site, further away from the roads that surround it, and all the pollution the traffic emits. If you look at some of the branches and twigs of some willows you’ll see bright splashes of mustardy yellow, a lichen of the family Xanthorias, the aptly named sunburst lichen, and I’ve seen one tree that seems to glow. Lichens, like mosses, live in and respond to the air quality in the here and now and there’s something about the present-ness of them that feels important. 

On some areas of gravel and concrete, there are thicker patches of living mosses and dead mosses and the ground is mushy underfoot. These mosses are forming the beginnings of a soil layer, which will capture the grass seeds that will begin to grow, and then all kinds of other plants and trees will come in. This place is in a temporary state, subject to ecological succession as the balance of species shifts and changes, plants and trees spread or grow, new species come in and others decline. If this is in the 30 years since Ravenscraig’s closure, if it’s left to its own devices, what might sixty, or ninety years bring?  And of course we’ve come in too, walking, off-roading, littering, fly tipping, not to mention what we’ve left under the soil, the legacy of heavy industry. We affect our own changes too. 

So I wonder, how might we nurture and celebrate what we see and have, no matter how quotidian it might appear, and how might we hold, acknowledge and mind the hidden, and not so hidden, inequities that are sown into the soils of these places, these landscapes, these homes.

This place is anything but empty, if we choose to see it that way. I wonder about our own collective muscle memory.  How might we remember what was here before, and before that? How can we be present to the communities that are here now? How might we hold fast from one generation to the next, notice and nurture the boundary layers between people, between eras of time, between humanity and the more-than, other-than-human?


Amanda Thomson is the author of ‘Belonging: Natural Histories of Place, Identity and Home’, which was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2023, and ‘A Scots Dictionary of Nature’, a compendium of found words from 19th century Scots Language dictionaries. The film-essay ‘Boundary Layers’, where this essay and images come from, is currently part of the Scotland+Venice exhibition ‘A Fragile Correspondence’, a collateral event which is part of the 18th Architecture Biennale, open until the 26th November at  Docks Cantieri Cucchini, S. Pietro di Castello, 40, 30122, Venice, Italy.

Amanda’s website is here, and you can also follow her on Instagram.