Sitting in a darkened cinema as a teenager, recovering from an accident that almost cost him his leg, Ronnie Watt was wondering what to do with his life… when James Bond gave him the answer.
As he watched Sean Connery’s 007 battle the evil henchman Oddjob, Ronnie had a eureka moment – one that led him to a glittering career as a professional karate instructor and even forming his own acclaimed honours system, the Order of the Scottish Samurai.
Now the Aberdeen-based sensei aims to honour the screen legend who inspired him 55 years ago, by posthumously making Sir Sean a Scottish Samurai – a titled bestowed on those who excel or serve with distinction.
“We are thinking of creating a new OSS national treasure award because it is Sean Connery,” said Ronnie, founder, president and chief instructor for the National Karate Institute Scotland.
He beat Oddjob
It is a fitting tribute which would bring Ronnie – an elite 9th Dan in Shotokan karate, who has trained more than 20,000 students in his career – full circle in his journey, sparked by Sir Sean all those years ago.
“I had a serious engineering accident and nearly lost a leg,” said Ronnie. “I was just 16 and had to spend a year trying to walk again. I really missed sports, and wanted to get back into something but didn’t know what. I ended up seeing Sean Connery in Goldfinger and he fought Oddjob at the end of the film. The whole thing was amazing and thought ‘that’s fantastic’. I thought: ‘He beat Oddjob, I must be like Sean Connery’.
“The local judo club had opened a karate section and I was one of the first people to go along to it and that was in 1965. It was the whole thing of me nearly losing my leg, then seeing the film and being inspired to go along and train in karate. I have done it all my life now. For 57 years I’ve been training nearly every day.”
And that love of Bond, karate and Japan was cemented when Connery starred in You Only Live Twice in 1967. “It really brought home the culture of Japan and the whole mystical thing of learning the discipline of a martial art. It builds great character.”
But seeing Connery on screen wasn’t Ronnie’s only involvement with one of Scotland’s best loved sons – but his next encounter was nearly a very brief one. Ronnie thought a phone call from the Hollywood star was a wind up from a mate.
Hall of fame
“I had just got my first mobile phone, and I was driving and the phone rang,” said Ronnie, recounting the episode from 2001 when he was organising the first World Karate Federation Championships to be staged in Aberdeen, bringing 900 black belts to the city from about 45 countries.
“I thought it could only be my wife, Gail, but it was this guy saying he was Alex Salmond and asking if I wanted a trophy for the championships from Sean Connery. I said: ‘Right, enough’ but he kept insisting it was Alex Salmond, then he said he had Sean Connery there with him. I said: ‘Yeah, and I’ve got Oddjob here with me’.
“Eventually the penny dropped and Sean Connery came on the line and he said: ‘I’m going to give you a little award toward the championship’ and by this time I’m grovelling.
“He said a small award, but it was like a war memorial, about three tons of pink granite,” said Ronnie, adding it was won by a female competitor from Hawaii, where it has remained since.
When the Order of the Scottish Samurai is bestowed upon Sir Sean, his name will join a lengthy and prestigious hall of fame that has been building up since Ronnie first started the Scottish Samurai awards some 25 years ago. Luminaries include business leaders and third sector stalwarts in the north-east and further afield, as well as some high profile names, including Sir Billy Connolly and Joanna Lumley.
Character of a Scottish Samurai
The order marks achievements in sport, the arts, science, business and community, as well as celebrating the cultural ties between Scotland and Japan.
Ronnie created his awards after he was honoured by Aberdeen City Council for his work in promoting and teaching karate in the city, as well as building ties with Japan and its karate masters. He took the concept of being a Scottish Samurai, the name of the award he was given in 1994, and ran with it.
“I thought, this was a great idea and I could adopt this for our karate organisation, but also for people in different martial arts and sports who are not getting the recognition they deserve,” said Ronnie. He launched his own Scottish Samurai Awards in 1996, but backdated it to include 1995, too.
“The first award went to a wrestling chap, who was also a councillor, called Len Ironside, and a judo master called Bill Berry.
“It built up slowly. We were giving awards to karate people, judo people then it began to change and after 2001 we started delivering awards to other kinds of people. Then we changed it from the Samurai Awards to the Order of the Scottish Samurai, six years ago. Now we are presenting to top people from all walks of life.
“It’s a way of rewarding someone who has done a lot for society, for children, or their community or just showing the character of a Scottish Samurai – like Thomas Blake Glover.”
Glover was a Fraserburgh- born Victorian industrialist and entrepreneur who is revered in Japan. He became a key figure in the country’s industrialisation, helping found the shipbuilding firm which became Mitsibushi, as well as establishing what would become the Kirin brewery.
Honour to Billy Connolly
Ronnie said: “The awards are inspired by those Scottish heroes of the Enlightenment, the people who went out to the rest of the world and with character, developed something. It has become a vehicle for celebrating history and friendship across the world.”
It is that ethos which also drives the Order of the Scottish Samurai to celebrate and strengthen Scotland’s cultural ties with Japan.
Ronnie said: “In 2019, we went to Japan and left an award for Mr Abe (then the Japanese prime minister) as well as the mayor of Nagasaki and the head of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.”
The honour to Sir Billy came about when Ronnie, who has trained in Japan and also with the Scottish and British karate teams and competed internationally, met the Big Yin at the Lonach Gathering, where he was chieftain of the games.
“I said to him, ‘would you like to be a Scottish Samurai?’, and he said it would be wonderful,” said Ronnie, who has also been awarded the OBE and recognised by the Japanese government with the Order of the Rising Sun for his services to karate.
“He asked why did I think he should get this award. I said: ‘Billy, you were in The Last Samurai, but the only problem was you were Irish in the film… that’s probably why your character got killed’.
“He knew I was joking…”
Joanna Lumley was delighted
Joanna Lumley was honoured on a visit to Aberdeen while staying at the Marcliffe at Pitfoddels, run by Stewart Spence, himself a Scottish Samurai.
Ronnie said: “She had made a wonderful TV programme about Japan, so we approached her when she was staying at the Marcliffe at a fundraising event. Stewart left a note for her and her secretary immediately responded saying Joanna would be delighted to become a Scottish Samurai.
“She is really kind-hearted and a great person and sent us the photo of her with her award. She said she was delighted.”
The Scottish Samurai award has evolved over the years … a process that is still going on. The next step Ronnie plans to take is to dial up the heraldic nature of the order, with its own coat of arms.
“Next year we are going to put our arms forward to the Lord Lyon. They are being designed just now, with two Japanese cranes and a samurai figure.”
Ronnie says the Order of the Scottish Samurai is one of his proudest achievements in his amazing career, thanks to his passion for karate.
“I’ve been honoured by the Queen and the Emperor of Japan and last year I was given an honorary degree by Aberdeen University. That journey took me from a poor lad who broke his leg in an engineering works, saw Sean Connery in Goldfinger and wanted to come out the other end and achieve something through karate training.
“It’s been totally amazing.”