Hollywood’s tribute to a Hawick teacher

Actor Mel Gibson
Actor Mel Gibson

Hollywood legend Mel Gibson is word perfect in a new blockbuster film in which he plays the role of a Denholm-born headteacher who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary.

The last time the controversial Aussie actor played a Scot was 21 years ago in the film Braveheart.

His accent in that film fell on deaf ears with many Scots describing it as somewhat dodgy.

But novelist Simon Winchester, whose book The Professor and the Madman has been adapted for the big screen, says that this time around the actor’s accent is perfect.

In the film, Gibson plays Sir James Murray, the Denholm teacher who, with the help of a convicted killer, helped establish the world-famous Oxford English Dictionary.

The story revolves around Murray discovering that his contributor William Minor was a murderer and patient in the Broadmoor criminal asylum.

Mr Winchester, from Massachusetts, USA, who has seen the film set for release in the new year, said: “It’s so long since I saw Braveheart. I think it was the action and not the accent that gripped me in that film. But I think the Scots will approve of Gibson’s dialect.”

A precocious child with an appetite for learning, Murray left school at the age of 14 but went on to become a teacher at Hawick Grammar School when he was only 17, becoming its headteacher just three years later.

A founder of Hawick Archaeological Society in 1856 he moved to London with his wife, fellow teacher Maggie Scott, in 1863 and took work in banking administration.

Soon afterwards he was struck by tragedy with the death of both his wife and their young daughter Anna.

He later remarried and went on to have 11 children with his second wife Ada Ruthven.

In 1873 he gave up his job with the Chartered Bank of India and returned to teaching at Mill Hill School in London and published his book, The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland.

In 1878, he was invited to Oxford to meet the delegates of the Oxford University Press, with a view to editing a new English dictionary.

And as he embarked on the work he formed a working relationship with a man called William Minor, played in the film by American actor Sean Penn.

Mr Winchester said: “Murray had thousands of contributions from Minor and he assumed he was the boss or the doctor at the asylum. They struck up a friendship over their shared love of words that lasted 25 years.”

During filming, Mr Winchester met both Gibson and Penn and dialect coach Adrian McCourt, who helped Gibson perfect his accent.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of Murray’s death and Ruberslaw Church, in association with Hawick Archaeological Society, staged a series of events to commemorate it.

There was a service at the church followed by a commemoration at Murray’s birthplace, 3 Main Street, where he came into the world on February 7, 1837.

The celebrations also included an exhibition of his work in the church.

When Murray began his work on the Oxford English Dictionary back in 1879 it was expected to take a decade to complete and be some 7,000 pages long, in four volumes. In fact, when the results were finally published in 1928, it ran to 12 volumes, with 414,825 words defined and 1,827,306 citations employed to illustrate their meanings.

Murray continued his work on the pioneering dictionary into the 20th century and despite failing health never lost his enthusiasm for it.

He died of pleurisy on July 26, 1915, and was buried in Oxford.