AS AN exhibition of the work of the late Borders artist Caroline McNairn opens in Edinburgh, her husband, Hugh Collins, has been speaking of his debt to her.
Hugh, a former Glasgow gangster who served a jail sentence for murder, is coming to terms with the most significant loss in his life, that of his wife, who died of cervical cancer last year, aged 55 years.
Having found some peace, Hugh had his world shattered by the death of his wife, of whom he has said that he would not be alive today without her.
Raised in a world of violence, Hugh was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a gangland rival. He spent his last jail years in Barlinnie’s Special Unit, designed to rehabilitate violent criminals through alternative means such as art.
Hugh met his wife-to-be when he was on day release at Edinburgh’s 369 Gallery.
“I walked into the gallery and there was a show of Caroline’s work. I was blown away, I’d never seen paintings like this in my life and I fell in love with her work.”
After several months, Hugh plucked up the courage to ask her out for a drink and, shortly after his release, proposed.
“I told her 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.”
Hugh was released in 1992 and says: “Coming out of prison was more traumatic than going in. 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.”
Caroline had no experience of the criminal world. She was born into a respectable middle-class family in Selkirk, and her parents were both artists.
“Her parents were in shock at her decision to marry me, but they eventually welcomed me into their family,” Hugh said.
Diagnosed with cancer last year, McNairn died at the Borders General Hospital.
“Losing her devastated me, I contemplated suicide,” said Hugh. He refused to see anyone and stopped eating or drinking. “I was skeletal and didn’t see the point in living,” he said. He became seriously ill and ended up in hospital.
Returning home to his Border collie, Blackie, Hugh realised that committing suicide would insult Caroline. “She’d put in over 20 years getting me to where I was and to just snuff it out would have dishonoured her,” he said.
It also led him to realise the impact of his actions on the family of his murder victim, and what they had suffered as a result of that loss. “I took a life and have had to live with that every day,” he said.
Now 60, Hugh lives quietly in the Borders, where he and Caroline settled five years ago.
Caroline was considered by many to be the best Scottish painter of her generation and Hugh credits her with turning his life around.
“It’s hard to put into words how deeply we loved each other. What upsets me is that Caroline lost her life at an age when she was hitting her peak. If it hadn’t been for Caroline, I wouldn’t be alive today. I owe her my life.”
z The exhibition of Caroline McNairn’s work, One Foot in Eden, is at Bourne Fine Art, 6 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, till January 14 (0131 557 4050).