How Sir Sean Connery's charity helped Andy Murray and some of Scotland's brightest minds – Martyn McLaughlin
It should be no surprise that the reams of newsprint devoted to Sir Sean Connery have focused on his film career, but a long underappreciated aspect of his contribution to Scottish life is the way he helped to kickstart the careers of countless young Scots over the past 50 years.
They include leading political economists, celebrated artists, prominent academics, and one of Scotland’s greatest ever sportsmen. These two sides to Connery were not unconnected. Some of the late star’s biggest roles served the express purpose of bankrolling his philanthropic pursuits.
By the early 1970s, for instance, Connery returned to the Bond franchise after four years to star in Diamonds Are Forever. Its producers, deflated at the comparatively low box office takings from George Lazenby’s one and only Bond film – the marvellous On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – bent over a barrel to entice the Scot back to the role he had made famous.
Connery gladly obliged, striking a deal which saw United Artists finance his next two films, grant him a weekly $10,000 stipend, and give him ten per cent of the movie’s gross receipts. The main impetus, however, was a considerable, one-off, upfront fee for his return. Adjusted for inflation, it amounted to around £6.5 million.
Connery used the entire sum to found the Scottish International Education Trust, a charity based in Edinburgh’s Melville Crescent. From its inception to this day, it has been one of the most prolific and cherished grant-making organisations in Scotland.
Andy Murray paid funding back
Accounts filed with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator show that last year, it gave grants totalling £75,000 to young Scots pursuing an array of disciplines, such as medicine, music, and law, with budding filmmakers, scientists and linguists also receiving financial assistance.
Over the past 49 years, Connery and his patrons helped give over £2m to more than 1,000 young Scots making their way in the world. Some of those beneficiaries went on to reach the zenith of their chosen pathways, and like Connery, showcase Scotland on the world stage.
A young Andy Murray was among those to receive funding from the trust to help with coaching. When he began climbing up the rankings, winning significant prize money at tournaments, Murray paid the grant back. There was no stipulation that he had to. He simply thought it the right thing to do. Little wonder that Connery became one of his biggest fans, famously gatecrashing the celebrations with Sir Alex Ferguson when the boy from Dunblane won the US Open in 2012.
Lives changed for the better
But the greatest legacy of Connery’s trust is the way it helped change the lives of those out of the public eye. Naturally, there were other well-known recipients of grants, such as the internationally acclaimed saxophonist, Tommy Smith, but Connery’s vision for the trust went beyond helping those in the fields of the arts or sport.
In nearly every walk of life in Scotland, there is someone who has benefited from his philanthropy. In 1998, James Chalmers, then a young Aberdeen University graduate, received a significant grant from the trust which enabled him to pursue postgraduate studies at Tulane University law school in New Orleans. He is now regius professor of law at the University of Glasgow and one of Scotland’s sharpest legal minds.
Without Connery’s assistance, his career would have been altogether different. “I would most likely never have begun an academic career, much less reached the position I now hold,” he said. “I’m therefore very conscious of the difference which an award from the trust can make to a recipient’s life.”
‘Never looked back’
Mark Blyth, the William R. Rhodes professor of international economics at the Watson Institute for international and public affairs at Brown University in Rhode Island, is another recipient. He is now one of the world’s most respected political scientists, and the author of a series of best-selling books and he credits Connery’s charity with making it all possible.
"The trust transformed my life,” he said. “I graduated from Strathclyde University in 1990 and was admitted to Columbia University in New York for my PhD the following year. I was awarded my fees but was given no stipend for living expenses.
“The trust stepped into that breach and helped finance my first year of studies. I then picked up internal funding and never looked back. From a Dundee council house to the Ivy League is possible. But what made it actual was the faith placed in my abilities by the trust, for which I am forever grateful."
An outward-looking, internationalist nation
Another recipient, the award-winning artist Margaret Hunter, whose work has been exhibited in London, Berlin, and New York, was able to study in Germany thanks to the trust. It was an experience which changed her life. While there, she witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and was among those artists who painted a mural on a stretch of its previously forbidden east side.
She was a single mother of two, and said that Connery’s charity not only offered financial support, but provided a “moral endorsement and confirmation” of her ambition.
The roll call of others who received grants is near endless, but it includes: Ewan McCaig, a judicial assistant at the Supreme Court; Steve Murdoch, a history professor at the University of St Andrews; Amy Mackinnon, an award-winning reporter with the US site, Foreign Policy; Alistair Somerville, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Washington DC’s Georgetown University; and the architect, Allan Murray.
All have helped contribute to Scotland’s idea of itself as an outward-looking, internationalist nation. The fact they have been able to do so thanks to the largesse of a Fountainbridge boy who left school at the age of 13 makes it even more special.
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