Giant memorial will honour thousands of workers who perished at Ravenscraig steel mill

The memorial to Europe's largest hot-strip steel mill will be unveiled next week. Jean West meets the artist and talks to the families still affected by the town's loss
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As an industrial landscape, it was unparalleled – the biggest hot-strip steel mill in Europe; a living, breathing Dante's Inferno. And for the thousands who lost their lives in the British Steel industry over the last century, it became their Great War.

Before Margaret Thatcher's housekeeping extinguished the furnaces at Ravenscraig, the Motherwell site was Steelopolis, a place that turned the sky orange at night as workers battled to keep up with the demands of a developing world fuelled by steam, gas and electricity, reared up to service motor cars, ocean liners, trains and planes.

Now, 23 years after British Steel departed, leaving a huge derelict crater and a shell-shocked community, the memories of those spent lives are being honoured with a new memorial.

And the man deemed fit to produce this lasting tribute to the men who died in this world-shaping industry is Andy Scott, the artist behind the mighty Kelpies.

Steel is Scott's currency; he employed 600 tonnes of the stuff to create the epic beasts that tower 30-metres-high over the Helix Park in Falkirk, the biggest equine sculptures on the planet.

Today, the sculptor is completing Steel Man after countless hours of detailed research to come up with an image of the strength and persistence that translated this once agrarian field space into the British Steel flagship.

The demolition of the gas holder and cooling towers at Ravenscraig in 1996 (Colin McPherson)

He has been wrestling plans to transport his latest creation to the centre of Ravenscraig, where it will be positioned outside the sports centre at the heartland of plans for an imagined new town, on hold until the economy improves. The new sculpture knits the past into the future, drawing on rich local knowledge about a plant twice the size of Monaco with, at its peak, 15,000 employees, where the everyday Joe was proud to work.

Here was where the raw material for nuclear submarines, Sherman tanks, North Sea oil platforms, myriad white goods and just about every kind of 20th-century transportation took form.

John Scott, who worked as a teenage apprentice plater at a local fabrication firm and lost his uncle to an industrial accident at Ravenscraig, says working in the industry and at the plant was intimidating: "It could be terrifying coming out of a classroom and into this. It was a very bleak place, noisy, dirty and hazardous. It was a different planet.

"We were told, 'It's not if you have an accident, but when!' It was hard manual grind. At the end of the day, we would be black. Steel got in our hair and ingrained in our hands. The industry aged people. When you got to retirement age, you were done."

His uncle perished in one harrowing accident. He says: "My grandmother never recovered from it. These were horrible, horrible deaths. When something went wrong, it went wrong in a big way. People lost grandparents, next-door neighbours, fathers, brothers… it decimated whole families, they often also lost the breadwinner."

The memorial, strong and powerful like Vulcan, the Roman God of the forge, will honour the thousands who met such untimely ends in a profession where health and safety in the early days was barely an afterthought. It is too big to lift using Andy Scott's standard forklift and chains so a haulage company will bring their Hiab crane truck directly into the workshop. Thereafter, it will be transported to the galvanising company, where it will be coated prior to inauguration.

The commissioning team from Ravenscraig, as well as local businessmen, approached Scott three years ago about the project. They had considered a memorial garden, a cairn and traditional and abstract artworks before settling on the sculptor's vision. They hope it will reawaken interest from a new generation who can barely imagine what once was.

Says the artist: "I wanted to create a typical steel worker to epitomise all trades and industries. My version is contemporary. In the old days there was no such thing as health and safety. Men would go to work wearing flat caps and dungarees. But I have deliberately clad him in heavy-duty protective clothing with a visor and helmet."

Andy Scott in his studio in Glasgow (Colin McPherson)

Pouring from figure's hands is a waterfall of molten steel: "I wanted to convey the flow of steel from the big giant vats and ladles in the industry which represented such health hazards over the years. It is symbolic of men and steel and industry. There is a sadness that we don't have the industry any more. These men engaged in a battle with the elements and forces of nature to create steel and the industrial might of this country."

John Scott agrees: "The statue depicts precisely the kind of image we wanted. It is a statue of a man rather than an image of steel-making. It was the men that made the industry and we are delighted."

He adds: "We love the way that Andy has created a molten river. The flow of steel-making was all about water and molten metal that moved. You are not sure if it is falling from steam or clouds. It's a work of love."

Tommy Brennan, a union convenor at Ravenscraig for 18 years, who once walked from Motherwell to Westminster to appeal for clemency for the plant, says: "When I first went into the industry in 1947, safety practices were non-existent. The figure for the deaths of workers caused by accidents in the whole of the UK just in my union – the Iron and Steel Traders Confederation – was 2,223. That was just for my union. There were about eight or nine unions.

"When the new boys came in on a Monday we would warn them, 'When you go down into this plant, it will be totally different from anything you have ever seen before. It is big, dangerous, gaseous, there is hot metal, smoke, steam locomotives, lorries, diggers… and in some instances it all happens in a very confined space'."

Brennan says health and safety improved over the decades but that there was always risk. When accidents happened, the padre would be called, but there was no real counselling. He is thrilled with the memorial: "Before the steel industry in Scotland disappears completely, we needed to do something as a way of representing the county of New Lanarkshire in better times.

"Ravenscraig was a great place to work. It was closed not because it was inefficient or losing money, contrary to some of the reports. We held around 18 world records for excellence."

'Steel Man' makes its debut on 17 June