From Scotland to Shaolin kung-fu shrine

IT IS the most ancient of martial arts, which has instilled in its practitioners a blend of spirituality and physical prowess.

Now, the historic Chinese discipline of Shaolin kung fu has welcomed its first Scottish disciple, after a painter and decorator from a Highland town was welcomed into its tight-knit clan.

Paul Nicol, from Nairn, has been made a disciple of the famous Shaolin Temple, the 5th-century monastery which has become a shrine for aficionados of kung fu the world over.

One of only five Britons to receive the accolade, Mr Nicol, 39, said it was the realisation of a “childhood dream” to be made a disciple at the temple in Henan Province, in eastern China.

He took up karate at the age of nine before going on to master the complexities of Shaolin kung fu – made famous by international film stars such as Jet Li – and eventually became a teacher of the fighting style.

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He has made three visits to the temple, and on 28 April, he was given the disciple name, Shi Yan Lan, part of which translates as “Scotland”.

Mr Nicol said: “It was a childhood dream come true for me. I think the abbot gave that name to me because I’m the first disciple in Scotland. There are around four in England, but I’m about the only person from Scotland that’s been over there so often.”

During his visit to China last month, Mr Nicol was joined by two of his Scottish students, Calum MacDonald and Steven Wilkie, who trained alongside the monks at the temple.

The ten-day trip saw the three men put through a rigorous training programme, practising non-stop for five hours a day. While the temple has become a major tourist attraction, Mr Nicol said he was able to train at the site alongside masters in the ancient art.

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“We trained in the training hall with the other martial monks in the mornings and under the moonlight in the temple courtyards in the evenings,” he said.

“This was so special because there was no tourists at all and it was just us and our masters training in a temple with over 1,500 years’ history.”

Every year, about 60,000 students aged from five to 40 come to Shaolin to hone their fighting skills, but the temple has been the subject of criticism in recent years. In order to achieve Unesco World Heritage status in 2010, several buildings surrounding the temple were demolished, and there has been condemnation of the commercialisation of the spiritual site, where tourists pay about £10 to catch a glimpse of the monks’ way of life.

However, Mr Nicol said the opportunity for those under his tutelage to practise Shaolin kung fu in its historic birthplace helped open their eyes as to the skill and discipline of the warrior monks.

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He added: “My two students had the time of their life. The training is really strict, the monks are really harsh. You go over there thinking you are pretty good and you’re terrible compared to them.”

Both Mr MacDonald and Mr Wilkie have trained with Mr Nicol for the past decade since he set up a Nairn branch of the Songshan Shaolin Wushu Association, posting videos on YouTube of his classes. He has been forced to close the school due to work commitments, but has continued to give private lessons and hopes to re-open the school later this year.