Jan Patience

George Parsonage looks like he has been carved out of granite. A stocky bear of a man with powerful rower's shoulders, strong hands and a wide-eyed, uncompromising yet kindly gaze, his shock of unruly white hair gives him the appearance of a startled albino porcupine.

A riverman to his stout bootstraps, Parsonage, 76, is most at home on Glasgow's River Clyde. He was born in the Parsonage family home on Glasgow Green just yards from the Glasgow Humane Society lifeboat station and boat house on October 15, 1943. The youngest of four children, his father, Ben Parsonage, was the Society's chief officer and his mother Sarah, a loyal first mate to her husband. Parsonage went on to break countless records for rowing, including a world record for the Clyde Scullers Head of the River Race, which he still holds.

He followed his father into the family "business" after Ben's death in 1979 and today, Parsonage is best-known as the riverman who – like his father before him – has pulled more than 1500 bodies from the murky depths of the River Clyde and rescued countless more. What many people don't know is that Parsonage is also a trained artist who studied sculpture at the Glasgow School of Art from 1962 to 1967. In his final year, he was awarded the Benno Schotz drawing prize and a Keppie Henderson travelling scholarship, which allowed him to study in Venice, a maritime city which suited the young rower to a tee.

After art school, he toyed with the idea of being a professional artist, but instead – as advised by his father – he chose the "belt and braces" approach of teaching art. For the next 24 years, he combined teaching; firstly at his old school, Whitehill Secondary School in Dennistoun and then at Hutchesons' Grammar in Glasgow's south side with being on call "for the river".

Even though he moved from teaching into being a full-time officer for the Glasgow Humane Society on the death in post of his father, Parsonage never entirely jettisoned art. Since the 1970s, he has created "junk sculpture", in his boatyard studio from the flotsam and jetsam he finds washed up along the riverbank. The studio is crammed with sculpture. Much of it reflects his twin passions of rowing and music. In this cluttered space, the walls of which are lined by his own paintings, a drum kit has been fashioned from old pots and pans; a bird made from pieces of scaffolding and bits of old lawn mower dives down to get a fish; and in a corner, a garden of alliums springs; the flower heads made of bicycle cogs and the stalks from old music stands. There is even made a sculpture made from olds pieces of stainless steel pipes which, he says, loosely depicts his wife Stephanie playing the bassoon.

Parsonage recently hit the headlines when it emerged that he was stepping down from his role with the Glasgow Humane Society. On the day we meet in his house on Glasgow Green, Parsonage is still bemused at the idea of his not-so-early "retiral" attracted such a lot of attention.

"I really didn't think it was such a big story," he shrugs, "but there you have it. There is a problem with insurance now after the age of 76 so there are practical reasons.” His day-to-day duties for the Humane Society have been taken up by ex-soldier, William Graham. The family will remain in their home, with Parsonage taking on an advisory role.

Parsonage's father, Ben, who he describes as an excellent draughtsman and boat builder (his lifeboat, “Bennie” is in the nearby Riverside Museum), made his first rescue on the Clyde in 1919 while still in his teens. He became chief officer of the Glasgow Humane Society in 1928. All four of his children helped in the "family business".

Parsonage shows me a photograph in which his mother is making up a bed in a room in their house. "They had these two beds for people who were rescued from the river," he explains. "The one she is making up had a rubber sheet because the people we rescued were generally soaked through having been in the river. After they were stripped and put in warm clothes, mum would transfer them to the dry bed."

It was George – the youngest – who ended up taking over from his father. "That's just what you do," says Parsonage as we sit chatting over tea in the study below the upstairs bedroom where he was born. "You just pull together. I'd been helping my father for years by the time he died. My brother had been in the RAF and was not at home and me and two sisters had to rally round our mum who was in a wheelchair for the last 24 years of her life."

Set up in 1790, the society's "principal objective of preventing accidents in and around the waterways of Glasgow and the surrounding areas" has never wavered, although health and safety rules have been transformed since the 18th century.

In 2005, following changes in the way emergency services dealt with safety in major waterways, Strathclyde Police took the responsibility for rescues in the Clyde from the Humane Society and handed it to the fire service. It is now Police Scotland's responsibility to oversee the rescue and recovery of bodies with fire and rescue services entering the water, but the Society, a charity, receives funding from Glasgow City Council. It still has a key role in promoting safety on the Clyde.

It is hard to imagine Glasgow without Parsonage patrolling the Clyde as his name is synonymous with the river. I must be one of the few journalists of a certain age from the west of Scotland who has never met him – until today. Working in newsrooms in Glasgow in the late 1980s and 1990s, most reporters I knew had Parsonage's number in their contact book. If a body was fished out of the Clyde then invariably, he was involved. He has received several honours for his service with the Society, including an MBE in 1999.

Parsonage has even appeared on the small screen, playing himself, in the 1989 BBC crime thriller, The Justice Game, starring Denis Lawson and Diana Quick, and in Your Cheatin' Heart, the John Byrne-penned black comedy made in 1990 which starred a young Tilda Swinton and John Gordon Sinclair. "In Your Cheatin' Heart, I appeared right at the beginning pulling a body out of the Clyde," he says. "I remember John Byrne from art school. He was a few years ahead of me. What a talent. He always stood out."

Parsonage lives with his microbiologist wife, Stephanie, a former international rower, whom he met when she capsized while training on the Clyde, with their two student sons, Ben, 24 and Christopher, 21. Both boys are keen rowers, competing at national level. The house, which was built six years before he was born in 1943, sits close to the Victorian suspension bridge on the north bank of the Clyde.

There is no doubt whose house it is from the moment you step throng the blue gate with its lifebuoy ring insignia of the Glasgow Humane Society in the centre. All around the garden is evidence that an artist lives here, from the peacock sculpture standing guard on a wall, to the old milk churn at the front door, painted with gaily-coloured wild flowers.

Inside, you could stir the house with a stick. The dining room is packed with paraphernalia associated with the river as well as family photographs and drawings and paintings by Parsonage. A clay bust of his father, a small man whom his son talks about in reverential terms, sits on the windowsill. "It's a pretty good likeness though I say it myself," laughs Parsonage. "I even have his old cap at the base."

Near the bust of Ben Parsonage is another of his son's sculptures; a ballet dancer. It's one of his wife's favourites, Parsonage tells me. There's a zesty energy about this little dancer which has been fashioned from what looks like old bits of windscreen wiper and the central part of a bicycle chain. How do you find the subject in among the junk, George? Parsonage smiles and shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. "It just appears as I make it."

Over the years, Parsonage has completed many private commissions for art works and trophies, but his heart was never in making it big in the art world. "At one stage I was doing these big eight feet sculptures for Binns department stores' restaurants across Britain. I was even being compared to Jason Seley, the American sculptor who started making sculpture out of old car bumpers in the 1950s.

"They wanted me to go to Holland and the US, but because I was making the sculpture out of old stuff, I couldn't make a maquette [a model] first and that was a problem. I was also busy with teaching, rowing and working with Dad, so I decided I'd just make whatever I wanted to make.

"The Macmillan Art Show which raised money for people suffering from cancer started in 1973 and I would put work into that every year and it was for a good cause which suited me. These annual shows continued until just a few years ago in the west of Scotland and a lot of people have bought my work through them. The boss of Wiseman Dairies bought one of my pieces every year. He came to me one year and said, 'I have a full orchestra but I need a conductor'. So I made him a conductor! I did one big show once; a charity show at a museum in Henley by the River Thames, but it was too much work. I was working 24/7. I never got a minute to myself."

Now that he has taken a step back from the family "business", is he going to make time for his art again? He shrugs noncommittally, but I take that to be a "yes". Parsonage doesn't like to talk about the process of making his art, describing the process as "a release valve", but he knows that his work is good and has value. His sculptures sell for hundreds of pounds and he could probably make a comfortable living in "retirement" should he wish to pursue that route. There is a Facebook page called George Parsonage Riverman Art, but that is as far as he'll go in advertising this part of his life.

One of his former star pupils at Hutchesons' was the award-winning Scottish painter Charles Jamieson, with whom he established an enduring friendship which has lasted 50 years.

"George really took me under his wing at school," says Jamieson. "I guess he must have been around 10 years older than me which seemed a lot then, but he was actually a really young guy. I wasn't sporty like a lot of my classmates and because I could draw, I was seen as 'the artist' in the class. George spotted this and after a while, he asked me round to his house and studio in the boatshed where he made his own sculpture.

"I lived in Beith in Ayrshire and my dad, who was the local doctor, had no interest in art. My mum loved music but not art, so it seemed so exotic to go this house and talk to his parents, who were lovely. George's mum would make me bacon and eggs for lunch and I'd spend the afternoon in the studio with George. I loved visiting when I was a boy and I love visiting him now. He's such a human guy. We have conversations about his work on the river – including what it's like to pull up bodies – and it's a real privilege to be his friend. He made a bust of my head when I was at school which I still have. He was very very good at working in clay and he inspired me to go to Glasgow School of Art to study sculpture. The likenesses he achieved were uncanny. He's a very fine artist."

Just before I leave, Parsonage and I do a turn around the room in the Society boatyard where he welds his sculptures. It's stuffed to the gunnels with old rusty bits of metal and assorted detritus – some recognisable, some not. All of it salvaged from the Clyde. There is a certain order in the chaos, with bits of old bikes, kettles, garden tools, supermarket trollies all grouped together. "I still need a few wee bits of metal to make some boats," Parsonage muses. "I've got to go looking for more. I'll find it…"

Like his father before him, the Clyde cuts to the quick of George Parsonage. If you opened him up, you'd find its occasionally choppy tidal waters flowing through his veins. He is happiest out on the river; checking equipment, scanning the horizon for potential threats and picking up junk to make his sculptures. As fellow artist, Charles Jamieson, puts it: "It's as though George and the river are one, together with his art."