By Russell Findlay
Colin Higgins dreamt of becoming a stand-up comedian like his childhood idol Billy Connolly – the fact he survived to live that dream today is nothing short of a miracle.
While the best humour is often found in everyday life, he could be forgiven for staying silent about his own traumatic past in which he was abused by two of Scotland’s most notorious paedophiles – William Lauchlan and Charles O’Neill, who are serving life for murder.
Last night, while engaging a Glasgow crowd with his infectious energy and wicked wisecracks, Colin issued a warning that he was about to try something different, to use his own shocking childhood ordeal to make people laugh.
What followed was a darkly comic account of being locked up in an adult psychiatric ward after a teenage suicide attempt due to his abuse, only to discover a paedophile was also an in-patient.
The 36-year-old’s painful journey from damaged child victim to rising star is inspiring and in his first TV interview he explains why he has waived his anonymity to speak out.
Talking before the weekly Jesters at Jimmy’s show at the Park Bar, he told STV News: “I’m happy to talk about things if there’s something valid, if there’s humour in it. I think if you laugh you win. It takes the sting out it. But you need to get to a point where you’re well to look back and laugh.
“I want to show the world I’m doing better, I’m in control of it. It’s painful, it’s unjust, it’s horrific but you do it to take control of it, to take the power out it.”
Colin was a typical teenage school pupil in Cumnock, Ayrshire, when he was targeted by Lauchlan and O’Neill, prolific predatory paedophiles with a long history of abusing boys in Scotland and abroad.
The attacks began after Colin accepted a can of beer spiked with drugs and what followed was months of terror and abuse during which the pair used threats of violence to silence him.
The duo thought they were untouchable, casually bragging about getting away with murder the previous year. Mum-of-three Allison McGarrigle, 39, was killed in 1997 because she was set to report their crimes.
He said: “They fill you full of all these stories and what they’re capable of and they’d murdered this woman who was a ‘grass’. That’s how they would talk about her, this courageous woman and what she tried to do – I mean she’s a hero for what she tried to do and she paid for that heroic act with her life.”
When they threatened to do the same to Colin’s mum, he knew they were deadly serious. He said: “The biggest mistake they ever made was threatening my mother. I realised I can’t just endure this now, and the only way I can protect her is by speaking out.”
Plucking up the courage to visit his aunt during school lunch hour, he cautiously told her that some “friends” were being abused.
He said: “My aunt’s response was ‘okay darling, are you telling me they’re doing it to these boys, they’re not doing it to you?’. And in that moment, I just went ‘they’re doing it to me too’.
“And she flung herself onto her knees and grabbed me off the couch and just hugged me, broke her heart and then life was never the same ever again.”
Giving a statement to detectives at Kilbirnie police station, Colin told them about the murder of Ms McGarrigle, from Rothesay, and whose body has never been found.
He said: “I remember the two cops just looking at each other and ‘Allison McGarrigle?’ and I went ‘yeah’ … [they said] ‘what about her?’ and I said ‘well they murdered her’ and that was just shocking.
“But of course there was no body and as Charles O’Neill kept telling me, because he had spent a lot of time in Australia, ‘aye you are stupid in this country – no body, no crime’. And he was right at the time.”
The following year, Colin came face-to-face with his abusers in court and they were convicted and jailed for what they had done to him, but it took 11 more years before they were brought to justice for killing Ms McGarrigle.
The conviction of Nat Fraser in 2003 for the murder of his wife Arlene in 1998, despite the absence of her body, gave prosecutors the confidence to put Lauchlan and O’Neill back in the dock.
Colin, who suffered prolonged bouts of serious mental health problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), returned to court in 2010 and his evidence helped jail them for life.
Fully aware of how dangerous they are, he says: “These are not just two average little perverts huddled in front of a computer screen. They’re proper bad men, you know.
“They’re proper gangsters who have quite a colourful criminal career on top of the fact they’re two evil, murdering paedophiles. They actually took a hit out on the copper who took my statement. They took a professional hit out on him.
“So, you know, there might be a time when I walk off stage and I’ll meet an undesirable and there might be some kind of retribution now that I’m advertising where I am.
“But I don’t care anymore. I’ve lived my life long enough in misery and just horrific mental illness, a cycle of mental torture. You get absolutely sick of it and it’s like, ‘you know, do your worst’.”
Having only begun his stand-up career six months ago, Colin has come a long way to achieve what he regarded as the “totally unobtainable goal” while watching comedy hero the Big Yin in awe at the age of seven.
His first gig was in front of a “conservative Muslim” audience and when his material, including gags about gay porn, raised laughs, he knew he could make it.
But he is cautious about talking about abuse and is sensitive to people’s reactions, changing tack if they become uncomfortable, saying: “I start off by explaining to the audience ‘listen, I was attacked and I was sexually abused in my early teens but don’t worry, I’m alright, I’m here’.”
However, one word he rails against is that of “survivor” which he regards as patronising.
He added: “I think I’ve survived, obviously because I’m here and I’m on stage and I’m kind of making dreams of mine come true … so you kind of feel like you’ve survived but the words survivor gives me the shudders because I understand how painful and how impossible that mountain that you’ve got in front of you, that you need to climb.”
Colin’s path to recovery has been long and hard. The turning point was meeting a therapist, who can only be identified as TG due to the sensitive nature of her work.
He said: “When my PTSD and my anxiety and my depression and all the rest of it was at its peak I was in the house and I wouldn’t even leave to put the bin out. I just couldn’t get over the door, drinking too much and surrounded by empty bottles of vodka and Jack Daniels and what have you.”
He underwent 20 months of intensive and gruelling Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy which was “like something from a Stanley Kubrick movie, but it works”.
He said: “She [TG] just used to sit there and look over the rim of her glasses at me and unflinchingly and I’m telling her some horrendous stuff and she’s just sitting there ‘on you go, I’ve got you’.”
“Once you’re thoroughly sick and tired of being that way you’re willing to do anything.
“This has been 20-plus years it’s taken me to get to this stage and umpteen therapists who were hellish. And then I struck gold with the right therapist and she changed my life.”
Colin Higgins made the brave decision to speak publicly about his abuse thanks to the support of close friend Marion Scott, one of Scotland’s most experienced campaigning journalists.
The award-winning Sunday Post chief reporter, also an author, is an expert on abuse cases and has long championed victims who do not have a voice.
Colin said: “I was grateful to Marion and the fact I had her in my life and I could trust her and go and speak to her. She said it’s time to tell people who you are and what’s been going on in your life.
“It was a nerve-wracking one. It would have been impossible had it not been Marion. I would not have trusted anybody else because I’m a very skittish person and I’ve still got all these mental health issues – they’re not away, I just can manage them better.”
Colin’s next move was speaking to his mum and stepdad who backed the decision to go public, telling him ‘you’re taking control of this now’.
Having done so, he wants to use his platform to assure any other victims of Lauchlan and O’Neill, or any other abusers, that it is vital that they come forward.
He said: “If there’s anybody who hasn’t spoken out about who’s suffered at the hands of O’Neill or Lauchlan I would urge them to do so.”