Scots orphan studied martial arts to beat trauma

Don Mackenzie found a way to help bullied children by training in Korean martial arts. He now has 200 pupils. Picture: Neil Hanna
Don Mackenzie found a way to help bullied children by training in Korean martial arts. He now has 200 pupils. Picture: Neil Hanna
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AN orphan raised in a Scottish care home in the 1970s has ­become a leading ­martial arts expert after ­turning his life around.

Don Mackenzie was just nine months old when placed in care after his mother died of cancer.

As the smallest resident at Thurso Children’s Home, life could be brutal for the youngster, who grew up feeling lost and without even knowing the names of his parents

Mackenzie, now 44, said he was bullied on a daily basis and it was that experience which led him to train to become the highest ranked Scottish instructor in the Korean martial arts of Kuk Sool Won.

Now Mackenzie is using 
his skills to boost the confidence of other bullied children in the hope he can help transform their lives in the way 
his own has been turned around.

“I had the worst upbringing you can imagine. Everything [bad] you have heard about children’s homes in the 1970s is true,” he said. “I was the smallest there and was bullied and battered almost everyday.

“I have a son now who is ten years old and wants for ­nothing, the complete opposite of my life.

“I remember one time during a French class at school all the pupils had to say the names of their parents, I felt so ashamed because I didn’t even know my mum and dad’s names. I remember the teacher punishing me for not doing it, but I was too embarrassed to tell them the truth.”

As was the custom in the 1980s, as soon as Mackenzie turned 16 he had to leave the children’s home.

He headed to the small market town of Halesworth, in Suffolk, where he hoped to find a long lost sister.

He said: “All I knew was my sister’s first name, the name of the village, and that she owned a wine shop. I walked for two days – it was awful, sleeping in ditches at the side of the road. A passing minister took pity and drove me for the last part of the journey.

“When I reached Halesworth I went to the first door I could find and thankfully they sent me to the right house.”

Without any education or training, it was while living with his sister, Anne, that Mackenzie noticed a poster for Kuk Sool Won. It was a chance encounter that would change the rest of his life.

“As I was bullied as a child I was looking for something that I could use to defend myself. The origins of Kuk Sool Won are over 1,000 years old and it is the systematic study of all the ancient martial arts.”

Inspired, Mackenzie trained hard and moved back up to Scotland, where he squatted in a Thurso flat, surviving hand to mouth, before getting a part-time job at a gym in Edinburgh, all the time training at his newfound discipline.

“There were times when I didn’t eat for three or four days in a row. People I grew up with in Thurso would bring me food. After getting my education in Edinburgh I managed to get a part-time job in a gym, before becoming a personal trainer,” he recalled. Mackenzie finally achieved his dream, setting up his own martial arts training school, where among his specialities he takes pride in helping children who are bullied.

“I had a woman recently contact me, her daughter had been bullied for two years and stood up for herself for the first time after coming to my classes,” he said.

“Children can slip through the school system, and being bullied in school can affect you for life. I speak to people I grew up with in Thurso who still find it hard to get over things that happened to them when they were seven or eight, and that’s really tragic.”

Mackenzie, who lives in ­Edinburgh with his fiancée Pauline and son Jay, is the only master in Kuk Sool Won in Scotland and was the first ­person in the country to have a black belt in the deep-rooted ­discipline.

He now runs two martial arts training schools in Edinburgh and Falkirk, teaching around 200 pupils.

One of them, Connie Deacon, 37, from Falkirk, said: “Don is one inspiring man. I’ve only trained with him since August and he has told us how he started off and it’s an amazing story, completely inspirational.

“Learning Kuk Sool Won has helped me physically and mentally.”

Kuk Sool Won teaches pupils to combine established Korean fighting arts and body conditioning techniques, with ­mental development and traditional weapons training.

“Sometimes my pupils say to me, ‘How do you know this can change things for me?’ but I tell them my story, and say: ‘Look where I came from.’

“I truly believe that you ­always have choices and even in the worst situations you can do something positive,” he added.