King Arthur and Merlin

Guys, I am in the land of ancient kings and castles. Naturally, I’m taking a class that is essentially a crash-course in the last millennium of Scotland’s history. We finished the Wars of Independence last week (far more dramatic than even Braveheart paints them) and went over the entire Scottish Reformation in one lecture. Fun fact, apparently kings from Robert the Bruce to James VI (centuries later) quote the unbroken line of 113 Scottish kings. One hundred and thirteen at the time of Robert the Bruce, and no more or less during James VI’s reign.

Questionable as that statement is, it illustrates the sheer power of the mythology of this ancient kingdom. Edinburgh Castle is still an active  garrison, and rally leaders for the second Independence Referendum quote the 700-year-old Declaration of Arbroath. In its self-checkout stations and contactless payment options, Scotland is very modern, but in other ways, it’s ancient to a level that is hard for my American mind to grasp.



Meanwhile, it’s been a while since I posted. It’s a gap I didn’t intend before lectures swept me up into a whirlwind of note-taking and then buried me under a pile of reading. On top of that, there’s the realities of being in another country, as well as my dreams of hiking the Highlands and spending nights at trad music sessions. This madness has made me very aware of my personality and limitations.

For example, I can only really attend one, at max two, social events a day. This includes choir rehearsals and even the tutorials required for my courses. Otherwise, a variety of things can happen. I can end up feeling like my nervous system is frizzing. Often I zone out and stare blankly without really hearing or saying anything. Sometimes I get so tired that everything is extremely funny. This overwhelm has been a constant ever since I can remember, but I’ve always wondered, why do I respond this way?

For a long time, I thought I got overwhelmed so easily because I’m an introvert. Introversion explains why I love to sit quietly and research and why I prefer to socialize in small groups. That makes sense. But all of my research into introversion revealed that while large crowds and a rapid series of events can drain introverts, it did not indicate that these situations could overwhelm one’s entire body.

I found my answer in the university library. A few years ago, my dad mentioned the idea of a highly sensitive person (someone who happens to sense and feel everything more intensely) in passing. So when I saw a book titled – you guessed it – The Highly Sensitive Person on the shelf, I was drawn to it – especially since the subtitle was “how to thrive when the world overwhelms you.” Jangled by a day of walking up and down bustling Byers Road, I curled up in my quiet room to read it.

Elaine N. Aron’s book, backed up by years of scientific and psychological research, assured me that I am not, in fact, crazy. Fifteen to twenty percent of the population shares the same intense sensitivity that seems to dominate my life. More people than I could have imagined have the same tendency to pick up on the mood of every person in the room, take criticism to heart, and bounce off the walls after one cup of coffee.

I’ve often considered a career as a hermit. Some of us HSP’s do end up retreating. However, some of us brave the huge world of crowds of people, of drama that affects us intensely, and even scents that overwhelm our consciousness. Sometimes we go on to do great things.

In her psychological framework, Elaine refers to us as the king’s advisors. Behind the scenes of the reigns of kings like Malcolm I and Robert the Bruce, and even the legendary King Arthur, there were the Merlins, the people who would stop and check and guide their brave king to victory. Behind the great revolutions (and the not-so-great ones) of the last four centuries are those to whom the injustice to the people cannot be ignored, and they must understand it, they must write the great texts, they must change the world.

I don’t claim to know the neurological makeup of every great writer and thinker of history, nor do I necessarily commend all of their actions. However, it’s really exciting to find people like me in a historical record full of great adventurous men. My high sensitivity now seems more like a superpower – like a Spidey Sense!

Granted, I’m still a little annoyed that the mere passing of a motorcycle makes me flinch. It’s rather disappointing to be knackered after only an hour walking around Edinburgh Castle. However, I have a greater understanding of my strengths. My thin skin means I can empathize intensely. My acute hearing means that when the fire alarm goes off down the block, I hear it. And, least practical but best side effect, I can taste everything in my favorite mocha.


Alice Major


Alice Major is studying at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland. She is a double major, focusing mostly on music and adding history because history is cool. Study abroad is Alice’s first time out of the country, and she hopes to come home in one piece and with a wicked Scottish accent.

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Gallus Alice?

Bin your crisp bag and ‘mon in, because we’re going to learn a new dialect today. Academically speaking, Glasgow patter is the Scots dialect spoken in Glasgow. Practically speaking, it functions as Not English to my American ears. Even though I have to ask Glaswegians to repeat themselves three or four times, I find every new term fascinating.

“Gallus” is a Scots adjective, the last in a long slideshow presented by a helpful professor at our welcome talk. Ages ago, he said, to do something gallus was to be seeking the gallows. In modern days, the connotation is more positive. To be gallus is to be daring, to do something not outrageous and illegal but edgy and brave.

A picture accompanied every preceding term on the slideshow, but the screen for “gallus” was blank. This, he said, was because he wanted to apply the term to us. We, the students spending a semester in a foreign country, are gallus.

At the time, I wasn’t feeling particularly daring. I’d entered the “cultural confrontation” stage, or EVERYTHING IS WEIRD AND I WANT A NAP. In the last week, the shock has worn off a bit, I’ve figured out how to cross the street, and I have a far better understanding of the daring of studying abroad.

In the past week, I have:

  • Managed to enroll in classes (despite the process involving five days, several emails, and many time conflicts)
  • Gone grocery shopping (again)
  • Braved my first giant lectures
  • Run five miles along the River Kelvin
  • Gone to my first cèilidh

My ears are ringing from the many accents I’ve encountered, and I’ve only run into a handful of Americans. I am confused and don’t know where or even what everything is. I’ve relearned how to read street signs and pass people on the sidewalk, and every time I relearn something simple gives me the feeling of stepping off a curb I didn’t know was there.

It is kind of stressful and rather exhausting, and I am a little homesick, but that’s nothing compared to what a glorious, eye-opening adventure this is. For one thing, I’ve planned and dreamed and schemed for years to go to the British Isles. I’m now smack dab in the middle of what feels like a Doctor Who episode, and a mere hop, skip, and a jump away from the green hills and ruined castles of the legends that are told to the accompaniment of skirling bagpipes.

Strangely, the glamour of it isn’t what I treasure most about right here, right now. Rather, I treasure the aforementioned mess of confusion. Why am I so grateful for the fact that I can’t find baking soda in any shop? Because it makes this real. Rather than floating around in a dream, I’m actually living and growing.

More importantly, my confusion has clarified just how difficult life is for the international students back at DU. I’d have classmates who didn’t know about Walgreen’s, or who asked me to explain things like how to check out a book from the library. I took these nuggets of knowledge for granted and didn’t understand why my peers from France, Pakistan, and Taiwan were so confused.

Now, I get it. I’ve walked the mile in their proverbial shoes. We international students don’t have to figure out just a new campus map, we have to learn everything from scratch. Yes, we get the glamour of seeing a new country, and it’s awesome. But we have to live here. We are lonely and confused and stuck in a foreign place for the next three months. We have no choice but to learn on our feet.

We are travelers. Our massive undertaking of studying in a new country is truly gallus, and we’re going to take advantage of it. We are going to see the sights, explore the coffee shops and museums, but also make this place our home.

Just tell me how the subway works first.

Alice Major


Alice Major is studying at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland. She is a double major, focusing mostly on music and adding history because history is cool. Study abroad is Alice’s first time out of the country, and she hopes to come home in one piece and with a wicked Scottish accent.

Link to Posts