Died: August 5, 2021.
HUGH Collins, who has died aged 70, was a convicted murderer who transcended his past while serving a life sentence at HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow to become an artist and writer.
This was enabled after Collins was taken under the wing of the Barlinnie Special Unit, the radical rehabilitation programme that ran from 1972 to 1994. Championing a progressive, therapeutic approach that was in stark contrast to the prevailing brutalisation of the penal system, the Special Unit enabled self-expression through access to art.
While Jimmy Boyle was the most high-profile figure to emerge from the Special Unit’s enlightened approach, Collins’s life was similarly turned around. He created sculptures both while still in prison and following his release after serving sixteen years of his sentence.
In 1983, he designed the set for a play, Death in Custody, and was allowed out to watch the production on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Collins was championed by curator Andrew Brown and his Cowgate-based 369 Gallery in Edinburgh, where he went on day release. It was here he met artist Caroline McNairn, who became a key influence on him. They married in 1993 following his release from prison, and were together until her death in 2010.
Collins’s sculptures were monumental in scale. He carved stone animals for Edinburgh Zoo, leaving them rough to the touch in order to enable blind people to visualise them. He made the sculptures made while still in Barlinnie, but at the time was not credited for the works.
Other works made while he was behind bars included a nine-foot statue of a nude Christ.
Collins wrote two volumes of memoirs, Autobiography of a Murderer (1997), and Walking Away (2001), and a novel, No Smoke (2001). The latter was set in the familiar terrain of a 1970s Glasgow in which he grew up.
He never shied away from his past, even as he expressed shame and contempt at himself for his killing of gangland rival William Mooney in a Glasgow pub in 1977. Nor was he sentimental about it.
In a 1997 interview with the Herald, he described Autobiography of a Murderer as “a book about violence and its about a murder. I’ve got to acknowledge that.”
Despite his own upbringing, Collins maintained that people didn’t turn to crime because of an impoverished background. He said that for him and others like him it was the appeal of a macho culture and a rebellion against a nine-to-five existence that was the attraction.
He had no time for the glamorisation of a gangster lifestyle, or the fetishisation of it by some who turned up at his book readings. In the book itself, he wrote, “What I’m describing here is the ugliness of gratuitous violence. Is there any other kind?”
In a Herald interview in 2000 he made a confession of dread: ‘’I’m aware of the fear inside me. I’ve become the fastest runner in Scotland. I see now my violence was the product of fear. I could never ride the fear. I was afraid of death, afraid of rejection, afraid of not wearing the right suit. I was never a gangster, only a bampot”.
Hugh Joseph Collins was born in Garngad, a poverty-stricken area of Glasgow, which later became known as Royston. He was the son of Betty Norrie and William ‘Wullie’ Collins.
With the latter in prison after an attack on a dance-hall manager, Collins was abandoned by his mother and brutalised by his schoolteachers at St Roch’s primary school. His grandfather died when he was eight, and he was brought up by his grandmother, “the only person who ever cared for me”, as he told the Sunday Herald in 2003.
After spending time as an altar boy, he was expelled from school aged 15, and became immersed in gang culture, receiving his first prison sentence before he was out of his teens.
Prior to joining the Special Unit, Collins had altercations with prison guards, and spent time in solitary confinement. He was later dubbed by the tabloid press ‘Scotland’s most dangerous prisoner’.
He was encouraged to write by Boyle, initially producing thousands of pages of what he called “neurosis on paper”. Following his release from prison, a 40-page manuscript was published in a Crime edition of the respected literary magazine, Granta. An expanded version of this formed the basis of Autobiography of a Murderer.
“It’s very easy to use a place like the special unit and become a celebrity,” Collins told the Herald in 1997. “But I honestly believe there are lessons to be learned out of this book if people are interested enough to read it.”
There were, he said, several reasons for writing the book.
“The main one is this book will allow me to move on, after acknowledging a very nasty past. I’m ashamed of it. But I won’t try and grab a new identity to deny it all….Anyone getting the tabloid image of me as a bloody psychopath… if they want to know what I did, it’s all here in black and white.”
Latterly, Collins had been pursuing two legal actions. The first was against the Scottish Government for daily beatings he claimed to have suffered in an underground cell while in Barlinnie. The second was against Edinburgh Zoo, after he discovered that the institution had sold two of his gorilla-head statues without his knowledge.
Collins remained living proof of how a more enlightened approach to the prison system can change lives. His success also suggested that if his social background had been different to the one he grew up in, and if he had access to artistic tools from an early age, the troubles of his early adulthood and the consequences of that might have been avoided.