Issue 218
September/October 2021


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Sep 27, 2021

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Hugh Collins: 1951 – 2021

Photo: Frances Anderson

HUGH COLLINS was a 26-year-old with a reputation for burglary and violence before he killed William Mooney, a gangland rival, in the Luna pub in Glasgow in 1977. He had spent almost 10 years in young offenders' institutions and jails before being handed the life sentence. He became one of Scotland's hardest prisoners, attacking and stabbing officers, and kept in isolation and underground cells for long spells.

There followed a move to Barlinnie's progressive Special Unit, run by the art therapist Joyce Laing - at the time an experimental process designed to rehabilitate Scotland's most violent criminals through alternative means such as art, in preparation for life on the outside.

It was while attending Edinburgh's 369 gallery on day release, and creating works of art under the guidance of its director, the artist Andrew Brown, that he met, and fell in love with, the prolific Scottish painter, Caroline McNairn.

One month after his release, in 1993, having served 16 years of his sentence, the couple married and lived for a while in Edinburgh, before moving to a farm cottage in the Borders.

It was Caroline who provided what had been desperately missing all his life, a sense of normalcy, of belonging and of having a home. Her death from cancer in 2010, aged only 54, devastated him and it was only his beloved Border Collie Blackie that kept him going. A few days before his 70th birthday, Blackie was put down, and Collins died a few days later.

He carved in stone and his sculptures were big and bold, such as the controversial naked statue of Christ and the sinner and the carved stone animals for Edinburgh Zoo. He also wrote two volumes of autobiography and two crime novels.

I first met him in Edinburgh's famous 369 gallery – I was living there in a studio and he and Caroline lived temporarily in the studio next door. The 369 was full of artists and eccentrics and he wasn't seen as special or significant because of his past. He wasn't labelled a murderer, which gave him a freedom he'd never known.

During the decades I knew him I saw both sides to him, the charismatic and compassionate side and chilling glimpses of the side that had killed someone.

Before his death he had been engaged in legal battles: against the Scottish Government for compensation for alleged daily beatings in prison and against Edinburgh Zoo for, he claimed, selling two of his gorilla-head statues to a Salvage Hunters TV presenter.

Hugh Collins, born June 17 1951 - died August 5, 2021, aged 70.

FRANCES ANDERSON


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