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Halifax student spends a semester in Scotland

Climbing the 3,553-foot tall mountain Schiehallion while dressed as Sherlock Holmes was not part of the plan when William & Mary junior and South Boston native Graham Bryant studied abroad in Scotland as an exchange student at the University of St. Andrews, but it proved to be just one of many adventures he had along the way. 

 “My time in Scotland was by far the greatest horizon-broadening experience I’ve had – it was a perfect blend of academics and exploration,” he said.

Bryant’s journey began last fall when he applied to the semester exchange program between W&M and St. Andrews. 

 “This particular program is W&M’s most competitive tuition exchange program as there were only three spots available,” he said.

Because W&M offers a joint-degree program with St Andrews, allowing participating students to receive a diploma from both institutions after spending two years at each, the single semester exchange program is popular among students eager to take advantage of the unique relationship between the two schools. 

In mid-October, Bryant learned that he would be one of the lucky three students going to Scotland on the tuition-exchange program.

 “I was ecstatic — I remember visiting a friend who also was accepted on the exchange program. We jumped up and down in her room with excitement for a good five minutes,” he said.

Bryant spent the Christmas break packing and planning for his time abroad. He would be at St. Andrews from Jan. 29 to May 26, a period including the normal semester, a two-week Easter break, and a three week exam period. After arriving in Scotland, Bryant had some adjusting to do, but not as much as one would expect. 

 “St. Andrews is a remarkably Americanized town. There are surprisingly few Scots attending university there, with the bulk of the population being made up of English students followed by the American contingent, both full-time and exchange. The biggest difference I noticed was the sense of history,” he said.

St. Andrews has quite a history. The town has been an important church center since the 8th century, while the university has been around since 1413. Beyond the university, St. Andrews is also home to the Old Course, the oldest golf course in the world and the location where the game was created.

 “Attending St. Andrews during the celebrations surrounding its 600th year was fascinating. In a place ruled by tradition, big events like the anniversary are occasions for even more pomp and circumstance,” he said.

Like many British schools, St. Andrews students participate in many traditional activities. Students routinely walk around town clad in scarlet gowns — perhaps garish anywhere else, the gowns are one of St Andrews’ most recognizable symbols. Every Sunday at noon, following the university chapel service, gowned students walk along the town’s stone pier in commemoration of John Honey, a student who in 1800 dove into the North Sea from the pier to save five drowning men after their fishing boat foundered off the town’s rocky coast, dying from injuries sustained in the rescue.

St. Andrew’s location on the Fife peninsula, surrounded by the frigid North Sea on two sides, colors much of university life.

 “It seems like most of the student traditions revolve around somehow getting drenched in freezing water,” Bryant said.

In addition to soaking graduating seniors as they leave their last exam, St. Andrews students also perform a “pier jump” at least once in their academic careers. The pier jump is exactly what it sounds like — students jump off the pier into the harbor’s cold waters.

Perhaps the oddest of these traditions is the “May Dip.” During the wee hours of the morning on the first day of May, the student population descends on one of the town’s beaches and lights bonfires around which to huddle while awaiting first light. As the sun begins to brighten the horizon, thousands of students — in varying stages of undress — race into the North Sea, symbolically washing away any academic sins. 

“Yes, I did do the May Dip. It was slightly colder than you would imagine. My pier jump, however, was quite comfortable — thanks to some unseasonably warm weather, the swim was pleasant. The jump from the pier to the sea is surprisingly far, though, and it scared me the first time,” Bryant said.

There’s more to a semester abroad than just studying, however, and Bryant made the most of his substantial free time by traveling all around the United Kingdom.

“At W&M, it’s normal to have four hours of classes in a day. At St. Andrews, I had four hours of class for the entire week — my last class for the week ended at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. As such, I tried to finish all my work before the weekend so I could spend it exploring Scotland and beyond,” he said.

St. Andrew’s location on the Fife peninsula places it just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. A direct bus ride connects St. Andrews to Edinburgh, a trip Bryant compares to traveling to Lynchburg from South Boston. 

Edinburgh is one of Europe’s most rapidly growing cities and a festival center. During his visits to the capital, Bryant toured Edinburgh Castle, had tea at the Elephant House café where J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, climbed Arthur’s Seat, an 823 foot mountain overlooking the city, and he even sat in on a session of the Scottish Parliament.

“It’s hard to pick a favorite Edinburgh moment, but my trip to parliament is on up there. I made a special trip there one day and was able to sit in the gallery while the members of parliament debated the upcoming independence vote. Having been a page in the Virginia Senate, seeing a foreign legislative body in action was fascinating, especially in such a momentous period in Scottish history. For the first time since 1707, Scotland stands a significant shot at becoming independent from England,” Bryant said.

Becoming involved in university societies enabled Bryant to see more of Scotland than he would have been able to see alone. In particular, he became involved with Breakaway, St. Andrews’ hiking society, which traveled to picturesque spots all around Scotland and offered multiple different walks at each destination. 

“Joining Breakaway may have been the best decision I made at St. Andrews. Without them, I never would have seen some of the far-flung locales I walked. Besides, if you really want to see Scotland, you have to walk it. Bus-based tours simply don’t cut it,” Bryant said.

Bryant traveled with the group to the Isle of Skye for a three-day jaunt at the beginning of his spring break. Skye is the most heavily traveled of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, an archipelago of 79 islands just off the country’s west coast, and with good reason — the island is home to stunning geographical features such as the rugged Cuillin Hills in the south and dramatic vistas from the Storr and Quiraing pinnacles on the northern Trotternish peninsula. Bryant hiked through all of these locales during his time on the island.

“Skye was simply astonishing. I’ve never seen so much raw natural beauty concentrated in such a small area before. From the backpackers hostel nestled at the foot of the Cuillin Hills, we traveled around to the isle’s best hikes. One of my favorite memories from Scotland will be climbing the Old Man of Storr by way of a steep, slippery gravel slope hundreds of feet above ground level – it was scary, but so fulfilling,” he said.

It was with Breakaway that Bryant found himself climbing a mountain dressed as Sherlock Holmes. 

“It was the last hike of the year, so we decided to have a costumed walk with the theme of heroes and villains,” he said.

Clad in an Inverness cape and the detective’s signature deerstalker hat, Bryant climbed all the way to Schiehallion’s snow-covered peak, an environment that led to an interesting descent.

“We walked up along a path, but since the town we were aiming for was on the other side, we descended down the mountain’s pathless far side. The deep snow at the top combined with the steep angle of descent caused most of the others to stumble their way down, but I had an idea. Since I was wearing a slick rain cape as part of my costume, I realized I could use it as a sled. And that’s how I found myself sliding head-first on my back down a snowy mountain in Scotland – that’s definitely on the list of life moments I’ll never forget,” he said.

Bryant’s travels were not limited to Scotland, however. Throughout his time abroad, Bryant explored parts of England, Wales and Ireland as well. His first trip out of Scotland was to York, Northern England’s most historical city, where he toured Yorkminster Cathedral and saw an orchestral concert of Brams, Bruch and Bruckner in the cathedral itself. Bryant’s most ambitious travels took place over Easter break when he joined two other W&M students studying at St. Andrews for a tour of the UK capitals. 

“After Skye, I took the train down to London and met up with my friends. After spending a few days there, we went to the Welsh capital of Cardiff, then took a ferry to Dublin, Ireland where we stayed three days before taking a train up to Belfast in Northern Ireland,” Bryant said.

Along the way, Bryant saw the British Museum, whose Anglo-Saxon collection directly tied into his medieval history class at St. Andrews; Cardiff’s Millennium Center; and Newgrange Passage Tomb in Ireland, which is 500 years older than the Giza Pyramids, among many other sights. 

“The goal in our Easter break travels was to gain as much knowledge as possible about the British Isles’ history and culture. We managed to see the national museums of each country making up the United Kingdom and Ireland, along with several other cultural sites along the way. The real fun from this trip, however, came in making it back to St. Andrews,” Bryant said. 

The ferry Bryant was scheduled to take back to Scotland from Belfast was delayed for nearly two hours, he said, putting the later train connections from Glasgow to Edinburgh and Edinburgh to St. Andrews in jeopardy. 

“If we couldn’t make our connections, we would have been stranded in either Glasgow or Edinburgh for the night with no place to stay. Luckily, there was one train we didn’t know about that would enable us to make our connections, but it involved sprinting across central Glasgow with all our luggage to change stations. Despite having only 10 minutes, we caught the train and made it home. If I hadn’t been to Glasgow several times before in daylight, I don’t think I would have known the way well enough to make it,” Bryant said.

In order to keep a record of his time abroad, Bryant used nearly every form of media available. In addition to journaling and taking nearly 6,000 pictures, Bryant also wrote a blog about his travels, which can be found at www.twotwampsinscotland.wordpress.com. 

After returning to Virginia on May 26, Bryant began preparing for the next stages of his life. He will be spending the summer doing research at W&M and in the fall will begin his senior year at the college. He plans to attend law school following graduation.

Bryant, who graduated Halifax County High School as valedictorian of the class of 2010, is the son of Don and Paula Bryant of South Boston.