Sculptor Andy Scott believes in an honest day's work – and his enormous sculptures reflect his roots in a city of heavy industry

IT'S a little before 10am one dreich morning on the outskirts of Cumbernauld, a district of industrial estates, bland warehouses and service roads along which grind lorries wearing the livery of market leaders in tinned soup and frozen food.

• Andy Scott

There are no pedestrians; the grass verges are slippy with a logofied litter of McDonald's wrappers and flattened Irn-Bru cans. In this unpromising context, in the large concrete yard of a galvanising firm, an artist is at work.

Andy Scott is a sculptor. He is 46 and lives in Glasgow, the city of his birth. There is every chance you have never heard his name. Every chance, too, that you know his work. His breakthrough piece, the steel Heavy Horse positioned near junction 9 of the M8 at Easterhouse, is seen by an estimated 100,000 motorway users every day, making an approximate total of 450 million viewings since it was unveiled in late 1997. Of course, many of those viewings will be mere glimpses out of the corner of the eye at 70mph, but still – that's an audience most artists would envy.

The 4.5-metre-tall horse has become an iconic and rather cherished landmark; Glaswegians know when they pass it that, tailbacks permitting, they are nearly home.

"One time I was stuck in a jam there," Scott recalls, "and the guy on the radio said, 'The traffic on the M8's backed up to the horse'. I remember feeling that was quite cool. You know you've made it when your work becomes known as a traffic blackspot."

The horse established Scott's reputation, and he has since made over 60 pieces of public art in Scotland and beyond, including the Ibrox Disaster Memorial. His latest work, a huge sculpture of a female figure designed to improve the public image of Cumbernauld, was erected last week and has attracted controversy. Locals have complained that the 250,000 cost could have been better spent. Two councillors resigned from the company set up to facilitate regeneration of the town over the decision to site the sculpture, known as Arria, outwith the centre.

When I meet Scott, he and his colleague Graeme Gilmour, with whom he worked on Arria, are putting the finishing touches to the sculpture. Far from being concerned by the controversy, Scott is busy rubbing a thumb over areas of "rust-bleed" and taking a heavy-duty file to the odd sharp edge of zinc. He wants to do everything possible to ensure Arria is well received by the public. "I'm pretty nervous," he says. "I suppose it's a bit like an actor about to go on stage."

He's also worrying about the whereabouts of the crane-driver who is supposed to be here to help assemble Arria. She is in 17 parts, four of which are arms. Her giant head, inspired by Jean Shrimpton, lies face-up to the rain that bounces off her silver eyes and collects in a puddle, reflecting the elegant arrangement of flat bar steel from which she has been built. Arria represents 18 months of work for Scott, and even lying in bits in the galvaniser's yard it is obvious how large she is.

Scott jokes that one of his friends, seeing Arria, proclaimed: "That's got to be the biggest sculpture ever built in Scotland by two blokes." And it's true that the sculptor has an ordinary-blokeness in his manner and looks. In carpenter jeans and welder's apron, he doesn't seem at all arty or flamboyant. He isn't tall. He's quite slender. He has close-cropped reddish hair. Passing him on the street, you might take him for a brickie, postie or spark.

• Part of the Arria sculpture is lifted into place

His slight physical presence is at odds with the monumental works he creates. Arria is ten metres tall. The Thanksgiving Square Beacon in Belfast, embraced by citizens as a symbol of the city's post-Troubles rebirth, is 19.5m. The Kelpies, two enormous horse heads that will form the centrepiece of the Helix eco-park near Grangemouth, will each be 30m – much taller than the Angel Of The North – when they are erected in 2012; they will also be functional, operating a lock on the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Many of Scott's works are associated with, and funded by, urban regeneration projects. As with the Cumbernauld sculpture, his pieces are often intended to symbolise and catalyse the renewal of parts of Scotland which have experienced deprivation and despondency. He has made sculpture for areas of Glasgow, Inverclyde, and a number of pieces for Clackmannanshire, where one can take an official "Andy Scott Sculpture Tour".

How does he feel about his works being used in that way? "Flattered. Humbled. It's fantastic that we live in a society where those kinds of things are considered and welcomed. When I left art school, if you'd told me I could make a living as a professional sculptor building large-scale pieces for places like Easterhouse and Cranhill, well, can you imagine that back in 1986? No chance. But now there is a genuine warmth of response to those pieces. Sometimes these can be fairly costly items, and it's fantastic that people are willing to find the funding and go through the whole process. It's a privilege to make them."

So, for him, it's not just about making money? "Oh no, it's something I absolutely believe in. And I don't make much money," he adds, laughing. "If it was only about making money, I'd be doing it the same way as some other artists and never getting my hands dirty. A lot of public art these days is more about project management than actual creation. I'm a bit old-fashioned and I like to craft these objects, physically make them with my hands.

"Most of the big sculpture you see all over the world these days hasn't been done that way at all. There's hardly any nutters like me left. Most of the stuff is cut by machines and assembled in factories. It's a massive industrial fabrication."

Interesting that he uses that word "fabrication". He means the process by which an object is produced. But fabrication can also mean a lie, and Scott probably wouldn't argue with that definition. He regards himself, by contrast, as an honest craftsman in the noble tradition of west of Scotland heavy industry. He works in steel as they worked in steel. He uses his hands as they used their hands. He is nostalgic for the glory days of Clydebuilt and his work, as a result, sometimes has a sadness and solemnity. His Heavy Horse, for example. It is a Clydesdale – a breed that were once valued by industry for their muscles and are now valued by tourism for their beauty. He sees, in this, a metaphor for his home. "Glasgow used to be a working city, but now it's a show city."

Scott was born in Springburn, in the north of Glasgow, and moved, while still very young, to a two- bedroom flat in Pollokshields. He was the eldest child of three. His father, Drew, worked as a draughtsman and encouraged his artistic inclinations. "He was in the building trade, and I remember him taking me, when I was a youngster, through Glasgow city centre, and he was always saying, 'Look up at the statues, look at the sculpture'. He would make me look at all the stonework and carved detail, the wrought-ironwork and all that. So that interest was always there from when I was tiny, and I suppose that fed into what I do."

Was his father trying to show him the beauty of Glasgow? "I think so. That was the 1960s when Glasgow was still a black, grimy place. He could see underneath all that."

Is he still living? "No. He died four years ago. It's still hard sometimes, but he's a great motivation and inspiration for me. I want to make him proud. That's very conscious in my mind. He was very proud of what I had done, and that fires me on to make him proud now. The Kelpies, for example, are in the Falkirk area, and my dad was from Falkirk, so there's a lovely synergy."

Drew Scott took his boy to see the paintings at the Kelvingrove, and showed him the buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Queen's Cross Church is in Maryhill, near where the sculptor has his studio now. Scotland Street School isn't far from where he grew up. Scott loved them both, and the Glasgow School of Art where, eventually, he studied.

I notice, when visiting Scott in his studio, that he has a small sculpture of Mackintosh sitting on a chair. This, it turns out, is a model for a larger work he wants to make. "We put together some proposals last year for a memorial to Mackintosh," he says. "I think it's an absolute travesty that there isn't a sculpture to commemorate the man in the city.

"We did a few different maquettes of it. They were very warmly received by the council, I'm glad to say, but money being what it is these days, they couldn't back it with any funding. It's a shame, but I've not given up on it. I'm still keen that at some point we could make a proper, serious bronze memorial."

Glasgow City Council, he says, was keen to site it on Sauchiehall Street between the School of Art and Willow Tea Rooms. It would be twice life-size and mounted on a plinth to keep it safe from Glaswegian drunks who consider it statutory to place traffic cones on the heads of statuary.

The Mackintosh memorial is just one of many projects Scott has in his mind and on his books. He puts in 12-hour shifts, often seven days a week. When his father died, he took it hard, but work was a consolation.

"I carry with me my dad's work ethic, the idea that you've got to work hard to do things properly. My upbringing taught me there was a certain pride in working hard and being rewarded for it. And that work should have the widest audience, and should appeal to people.

"There's nothing more ironic, for me, than people going on about making 'challenging' public art when they come from a very comfortable background. It's easy to be 'challenging' when mummy or daddy's going to bail you out at the end of the day."

This is a grand theme for him. He describes himself, early in our conversation, as "a well-balanced Glaswegian with a chip on both shoulders" – and he's not kidding. "You'll see that winning the Turner Prize one day," he says, pointing to some dull brown railings in the galvaniser's yard.

• Scott's Heavy Horse sculpture which overlooks the M* motorway at Easterhouse, Glasgow

Scott feels overlooked as an artist and thinks, sometimes, that his work should be taken more seriously. He isn't ever written about by the art press, and the galleries aren't exactly fighting each other to buy his sculptures.

He probably wouldn't relish the comparison, but like Jack Vettriano, his work has popular appeal without critical respect. Not that he's loathed by critics; simply ignored. His friends joke that he was born in the wrong decade or century, that he should have been working when public figurative sculpture was fashionable, and he's inclined to agree with them.

He is, essentially, a populist. Also, a pragmatist. He inhabits a world of tendering processes, logistics and structural engineering. While the great European civic sculptors once enjoyed making works for such elevated surroundings as the Piazza della Signoria in Florence or Saint Petersburg's Decembrists' Square, Scott's Arria is located "about a mile north of the Auchenkilns interchange on the A80".

He is, however, proud of the work, which is intended to evoke the sense of Utopia people felt about Cumbernauld when it was first planned and built. Scott is also bullish in defending Arria against those who say that spending a quarter of a million pounds of public money on art is an extravagance.

"I think it's more than an indulgence. It's the tangible evidence of where we're at in terms of the culture of the country. Maybe that sounds a bit grandiose, but I believe it. And from some of the responses I've had to previous pieces, I think they're a valuable part of the cultural landscape.

"Yes, 250 grand is a big sum of money. Damn right. But when you start going through the costs of the project in terms of the cranes, the trucks, the steel, the galvanisation, it's endless. Because I've made a very visible object, I'm going to get flak. But I hope that once the thing is bedded in and people grow to appreciate it, that'll all be forgotten. And see in the grand scheme of things – 250,000? Is it the end of the world?"

Scott feels his critics would be less hostile if they understood the work and passion that goes into each piece. The sculptures obsess him.

"I sometimes sit for bloody weeks looking at blank bits of paper, trying to figure out the perfect composition. I'm deeply serious about how I put these things together. It gives me sleepless nights, especially with that Cumbernauld one. I was trying to sleep and was seeing squares of steel in my mind, like some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. It absolutely rules your life. I'm lucky that my wife is so tolerant."

His wife is Hanneke, a Dutch architect. They have been married for two years, having met on a blind date in Amsterdam, set up by a mutual friend. "She's the anchor in my life. Keeps me grounded. And she gives me a lot of motivation to do the right thing."

By "do the right thing" he means work hard and well. But Hanneke also

provides a stable home life, a gift he has learned to value. His focus on work has damaged previous relationships. "I've made some spectacular mistakes by getting my priorities wrong. Time's the best thing you can give people. I should have made more time for people instead of chasing this dream."

Scott isn't especially given to self- reflection. He prefers to crank up Beethoven or BB King and crack on with welding. So he can be difficult to read. But the crucial point about him, I think, is that his foundations are sunk deep in Glasgow – in both his personal history and the values and traditions of the place. His life and work are built on that strata.

A couple of years ago, he found himself at the top of the Finnieston Crane, and he realised he could locate his childhood home, his school and the School of Art.

"I saw my whole life spread out," he recalls. "And I realised that I was rooted in this city. I had a lot of temptation to move when I was doing work in Australia, but there's something that keeps pulling me back. It's inexplicable, but I feel the bond very strongly. It runs through me."

Then he catches himself sounding a bit too much like an artist, and switches back to Andy Scott, ordinary bloke. It's like a welding mask coming down.

"Listen," he says. "I was never one for pontificating or chin-scratching. I'd rather be doing a hard day's graft."