Reformed killer reveals sculptural tribute to artistic woman who helped turn his life around

Hugh with his dog Blackie
Hugh with his dog Blackie
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SCOTLAND’s hardest criminal, a murderer notorious for attacking prison warders and with a battle scar from a meat cleaver etched on his face, pulled the bed covers around him and felt his heart break.

Hugh Collins, once a fearsome gangland figure now simply a grieving husband, had retreated to the comfort of the bed he once shared with his wife Caroline, and into the depths of depression where all he could do was wonder whether taking his own life might be a better option than the awful grief he now suffered.

Hugh Collins and his wife Caroline McNairn

Hugh Collins and his wife Caroline McNairn

Collins had once been feared on the mean streets of his home city. He’d rubbed shoulders with Barlinnie’s toughest and most violent – hard men just like him – he’d experienced and done dreadful things, but against the odds and thanks to the nurturing love of his wife had turned life around to embrace art, sculpture and a peaceful existence.

But the misery of losing Caroline was achieving what his one-time Glasgow gangland foes had failed to do – now he was battered and beaten, reduced to skin and bone, mind tormented and depressed, utterly broken.

“Losing her devastated me,” he admits. “I contemplated suicide several times. Deep down I wanted to be dead and to be with her.

“I lay in bed for weeks. I kept thinking she was at the shops and was constantly waiting for her coming back.”

So Collins refused to see anyone. He shut the door of the home they shared and stopped eating and drinking. “I was skeletal,” he adds, “and didn’t see the point in living.”

Cervical cancer had rapidly claimed the cultured woman from an upstanding Selkirk family, whose talent and looks had him falling head over heels in love the moment he saw her.

Caroline McNairn, one of Scotland’s most acclaimed artists, could have run a mile from this man, one of Barlinnie’s most infamous inmates. Instead, she cultivated his artistic talents, weaned him from prison life and introduced him to a world that couldn’t be further removed from the knives, gangs and meat cleavers.

Losing her aged just 55 crushed Collins. So much so that finding the strength to talk about his grief and pay tribute to the astonishing role she played in helping turn his life around has taken months of healing.

And while he’s mourned her loss, he’s also finally come to terms with the scale of grief inflicted by the senseless violence of his own murky past.

Collins, now aged 60, was a young man when a Glasgow gangland dispute with Willie Moodie sparked a fight. Both had knives, Collins struck with his and was given life for murder. Already raised in the tough borstal regimes, he entered prison in a blaze of rage that saw him stab three prison officers and serve long spells in solitary confinement.

What awaited him on release might have been more of the same. However, he spent the last years of his sentence at Barlinnie’s Special Unit, at the time an experimental process designed to rehabilitate Scotland’s most violent inmates through alternative means, such as art.

Dismissed by many at the time, in Collins’ case the unit produced one of the most successful prisoner rehabilitations possible. Not only did art transform him from a violent hard man, it helped set him on course to find the love of his life.

Collins was drawing and working on stone carvings at the special unit when Andrew Brown, former director of Edinburgh’s influential 369 gallery, viewed his work and set in motion life-changing events. “Andrew came to see me and said most of my work was rubbish, but that I had potential,” recalls Collins. “He said I should be mixing with other artists.”

Controversial arrangements were made for Collins to leave jail for the 369 gallery on day release. One day he arrived to see a solo show of Caroline McNairn’s work, instantly falling in love with striking paintings inspired by French modernism, Russian icon art and Scottish colourists.

“I was blown away, I’d never seen paintings like this in my life and I fell in love with her work,” he recalls. “Caroline was going through a divorce at the time and when we first met I said that it must be painful. I know it sounds romantic, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”

They were undoubtedly Edinburgh’s “odd couple”. Caroline had never had dealings with the criminal world of gangs and violence. She was from a respectable middle-class family, her parents were both artists.

Love-struck, Collins asked her out for a drink. Their relationship grew and with a year of his sentence left, he asked if she’d wait for him. On his release, he proposed. “I said she’d better think about it as I had a terrible past. She was in shock when she discovered the full extent of my history. She’d thought I’d just been in a fight.”

Collins was released under the Rehabilitation Act and placed under a life licence. “Coming out of prison was more traumatic than going in,” he adds. “When I was released everyone wanted me to apologise for the murder. Although I hated what I’d done, I refused to apologise. I’d done my time, I’d accepted my punishment.

“I was a very disturbed guy when I came out and Caroline still took me on. It was through her I changed. She encouraged me to sculpt and educated me in art.”

He laughs as he recalls her telling him straight: “Don’t think I’m here to make the tea and wash the dishes.”

“She supported me in things that I found very difficult to do, things people take for granted, like going to a bank or to the shops. I was a nervous wreck for years and Caroline was there every step of the way.

“She also made it clear that I had to learn to do things for myself and to be responsible for myself. If I got depressed, she would say ‘Are you going to sit on your backside all day or are you going to get moving?’.”

Today, Collins still strikes an imposing figure, the scar that runs from ear to throat left by that meat cleaver is highly visible. Once a regular figure on the High Street where the couple lived, home for the past five years has been a cottage in Walkerburn in the Borders, which he calls a “paradise”.

But in the months that followed his wife’s rapid demise, it was more like hell.

‘It’s hard to put into words how deeply we loved each other,” he says. “I hated it when she went away on commissions, I missed her so much. I’d make the tea and set the table, then couldn’t eat because she wasn’t there.”

Caroline was diagnosed with cervical cancer early last year and died at the Borders General Hospital in September. Collins pays tribute to the care she received: “The staff were magnificent and I’ll always be thankful to them.”

Her loss wrenched open a dark chapter in his life. Collins retreated under the covers, his health deteriorated and eventually he was admitted to hospital. When he returned home to the company of his border collie Blackie, it was with the realisation that suicide would be a dishonour to Caroline and all that she had done.

“I couldn’t let her down, she’d put in over 20 years getting me to where I was and to just snuff it out would have dishonoured her,” he explains.

Her loss prompted him to reflect on the impact of his own youthful actions on the family of his victim, and the grief they too had suffered.

“I took a life and have to live with that every day,” he says. “I realise now on a very fundamental level the pain I’ve inflicted on others in the past. Violence on all levels is sickening, it doesn’t solve anything.

“I was labelled a monster in jail, but in truth I was terrified, I acted from fear.”

Now in control of his grief, Collins plans a poignant tribute to his wife using a piece of Italian marble which he’ll use to create her image. “What really upsets me is that Caroline lost her life at an age when she was hitting her peak,” he mourns.

“If it hadn’t been for Caroline, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. I owe her my life.”