Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer



When Pittenweem becomes an Art Gallery

2017-03-16 15:06:56

Pittenweem is a small fishing village on Scotland’s east coast. It is found in that lovely part of Fife known as the East Neuk(corner) of Fife.

Behind the village, the land is fertile and the farms have long had a reputation for producing good food now including raspberries and blueberries.

From Pittenweem High Street, a few steps will take you to the top end of one of the steep wynds that lead down to the harbour. Look out over the red pantiled roofs. In the distance, across an expanse of the Firth of Forth, you might be able to make out the Isle of May, the Bass Rock and on the opposite shore, East Lothian stretching away from Edinburgh.

Red or orange pantiled roofs on white painted houses are a common building style in this part of Fife. As trade developed with the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, the tiles would originally have arrived as ballast on the boats that sailed back across the North Sea, first towards England then up the east coast. Pittenweem people soon found these tiles made excellent roofing material.

Crow stepped gables embellishing some of the buildings are another architectural feature that were first seen in the Low Countries.

It has been suggested that the name Pittenweem is derived from, ‘pitt’ a Pictish word for place and from a Scottish Gaelic phrase na-h-Uaimh, translating to ‘the place of the caves’.

On this rocky coastline there are a number of cave-like indentations and there is a cave in the village known as St. Fillan’s Cave which has served various purposes over the years including as a home for hermits and monks.

Pittenweem has been a fishing port since the days when the earliest Fife fishermen found the stretch of safe sandy shore where they could haul out their boats.

Sadly, since the shoals of herring have moved elsewhere, the east coast fishing industry is no longer as busy as in the past. However, Pittenweem remains an important shellfish port and market in the East Neuk of Fife. Some fish is also landed, but mostly as a by-catch and much of that is carried off in refrigerated trucks for export to France, Spain and Holland.

You’ll have to be up very early to see the catches of lobster, prawns and crab being landed and sold in the market.

There may also be a few artists out and about, attempting to capture on canvas the effects of the dawning light as it strikes the village and boats tied up in the harbour.

If you’re tempted to join them, you may be moved to sketch or paint a scene in the winding streets and alleyways that seem to have grown haphazardly over the centuries.

There are some professional artists living in the village while others, along with a number of craft workers, live and work nearby in the East Neuk.

Local art work is exhibited in a few permanent galleries in Pittenweem, but it would be fair to say that most visitors and art lovers come to see the works on show during the village’s Arts Festival in August.

At the official opening ceremony down at the harbour, there will be a ceilidh with music and dancing. Later in the evening, to mark the occasion, local people will add extra sounds and bursts of colour to the sky by setting off fireworks from their gardens.

Many of these gardens have been brought to their best at this time, with flowers cascading down walls, tumbling from umpteen pots and hanging baskets and from the large troughs set out along the sea front.

One elderly lady who tends her very small, ‘secret garden’ behind her house, gives visitors the chance to look around and should they want to, make a donation to the charity ‘Help for Heroes’, for the privilege.

But probably the most intriguing feature of this festival is that the artwork on display is shown in people’s attics, living rooms, conservatories, garden sheds and garages as well as in the ‘proper’ galleries.

There can be around 90 of these very different exhibition spaces. A large white number on a blue board at each door shows where visitors can view and buy the art work.

You’ll find every conceivable form of artistic endeavour including sculpture, paintings, ceramics and textiles.

The local artists and artists from much further afield are often present, manning the stalls and walls and talking to visitors.

Because of its reputation for artistic excellence and its unique festival setting, many well-known Scottish and internationally acclaimed artists have accepted the invitation to be guest exhibitors at Pittenweem festival over the last 30 years.

As well, in recognition of the importance of encouraging young artists and undergraduates to establish themselves on leaving art school, the Festival offers two bursary awards each year to students in their final year or graduates from the previous five years, from any Scottish school of art. Candidates must also show a connection to Fife.

Like its much bigger cousin across the Firth of Forth, the Pittenweem Arts Festival continues to expand and now includes talks from visiting artists and musical performances.

You could also go on a guided walk along the coast with a knowledgeable geologist or take part in a sewing session. You might also enjoy the upholstery or enamelling workshops, a play or a storytelling session.

To get the most from this festival, you really need to be there for more than one day. Children will particularly like finding the numerous bicycles decorated with shells and flowers that have been dotted round the village.

The old fashioned sweet shop is another attraction. Here, from the sweet jars on display, you might be tempted to buy some Sherbet Lemons or Rhubarb Rock. If the sun is shining, treat yourself to an ice cream.

The villages of the East Neuk of Fife have always been competitive and though the larger ones, including Pittenweem have their own fish and chip shop, arguably, the Anstruther Fish and Chip Bar and Restaurant is the most famous.

Like the tradition of fireworks being set off at the start of Pittenweem’s Art Festival, it may become your good habit to go for a walk after a day at the galleries.

Take time to stroll the mile or so along the Fife Coastal Path from Pittenweem to Anstruther. The path follows the sea shore along the edge of Anstruther golf course. Look out for the small bay filled with millions of white shells. Now find a flat rock and add your own mini environmental artwork made of shells to the others on display.

There may be a queue at the restaurant but your fish tea will be a splendid finale to a grand day out in Pittenweem and the East Neuk of Fife.

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The Orkney Isles

2017-03-07 19:36:14

The earliest settlers arrived at the Orkney Isles some 6000 years ago. They had travelled slowly, west and northwards, driving sheep and cattle before them, part of a migration that had begun somewhere around the Mediterranean. Their progress along the way is still marked by the stone structures they left behind.

Orkney was a sort of terminus for these Stone Age people. With so many of their megaliths a feature of this landscape the islands can be thought of as a very large archaeological site.

Some buildings are particularly special. Maeshowe on Mainland Orkney is regarded as the best example anywhere of the ancient stone builder’s art. From outside, the grass covered, upturned pudding bowl shape hardly merits attention. But all who venture inside along the low, paved passageway can’t help being impressed.

The passage walls are constructed of solid blocks of smoothed stone weighing around 30 tons each. Inside the chamber, the walls taper upwards, to end in a skylight that was closed over with a single slab of stone. Recessed compartments in the thick walls were possibly used as tombs.

The huge lumps of stone used in the building were transported from a quarry about seven miles away. How were they moved, lifted, placed so accurately? Could they really have been shaped using stone axes?

Its purpose, so one theory goes, is that Maeshowe was designed and constructed as a sepulchre for priestly kings or kingly priests. However, no sign of burial has ever been found.

Later, in the mid 12th century, Vikings, possibly seeking treasure, broke in through the ceiling. Their runes, the graffiti of the times, can be seen carved into the walls. Probably most notable, is the carving in the shape of a dragon that has since come to be known as the Maeshowe dragon. Present day Orkney jewellery makers have been inspired by this ancient, small work of art and use it in designing their own pieces.

In a field nearby there is a standing stone that throws up all sorts of other questions. At the winter solstice, around 22nd December, as the sun sets over a nearby hill, the last rays shine on the Barnhouse Stone and along the passageway of Maeshowe to illuminate the far wall. How did these Stone Age people come to notice such a phenomenon and get the alignment just right?

A mile and a half away, across a spit of land separating Stenness Loch and Loch Harray, you can stroll around the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar. The ring is incomplete but there are still 27 of these undressed lumps of natural rock, (originally there were probably 60), each one about 10 feet tall.

The stones encircle an area of rough heather. Why this particular patch of moorland was especially dignified is not known. There have been many suggestions including for burial ceremonies, in worship of the sun or the moon, as some sort of clock, or calendar. We can only wonder.

At the Ness of Brodgar, between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, archaeologists are now digging out even more astonishing finds that may prove people were arriving on these islands even earlier than previously thought. A raised platform allows visitors to look out over the site, see the archaeologists and hear about the painstaking work that is taking place just below.

It’s not far from the Ring of Brodgar to the village of Skara Brae overlooking Skail Bay. The settlement was discovered by accident when it was uncovered by a fierce storm in 1850. The story goes that William Graham Watt, the 7th local laird, was out walking with his dog. The dog sniffed, dug, and fell down a hole - straight into a stone-age living room.

The stone beds are surprisingly small but it’s thought the people slept in a half-sitting, half-lying position. Though visitors are not permitted to walk through the rooms, you can see from above, that a stone dresser was deliberately placed to face the front door. One theory suggests that the household’s best possessions were placed where they could be seen, to impress the neighbours.

Nearby, the local laird’s mansion, Skail House, is now a visitor centre. An interesting display laid on a table is the blue dinner service used by the late Queen Mother on her last visit there. The visitor book reads, ‘signed Elizabeth R August 24th 1983’.

Marvellous in a different way is the little church of Lambholm, which has come to be known as The Italian Chapel. With its statue of St. George nearby, this modest church is a last reminder of Camp 60 where several hundred Italian prisoners were housed in the later years of the Second World War. Under their hands the Nissan hut became a thing of beauty that still inspires countless visitors today.

Most of the material available was second hand and apparently worthless scrap. Inside, the unlovely corrugated iron of the hut was hidden by plasterboard and painted to resemble brickwork. The altar, altar rail and holy water stoop, all beautifully designed, were moulded in concrete. The tabernacle was fashioned from wood obtained from a wrecked ship.

Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner with great artistic ability, painted frescoes on the sanctuary vault. The rest of the interior was painted to resemble brickwork with a dado along the base of the curved walls to imitate carved stone. Another prisoner fashioned an intricate screen and a gate from wrought iron.

These men, captured during the North African Campaign, had been send to Orkney to work. Their job was to establish a series of concrete barriers to seal the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow, a sheltered area of sea used as a British Naval anchorage. The order came from Winston Churchill, so ever since, the barriers have been known as the Churchill Barriers.

Until then, four channels between islands had been blocked with sunken ships and it was considered that attack from that direction by sea was impossible. Early in the war however, in October 1939, a brilliant U-boat commander, Lieut - Commander Prien, took advantage of a gap in the defences and an exceptionally high tide. He penetrated the Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak and managed to get out again safely. In the Royal Oak, over 800 men perished and the Navy, having learned a hard lesson, left its anchorage until the entrances could be securely sealed.

The massive barriers of stone and concrete on the seabed became causeways and are now part of Orkney’s road network. They have proved to be a boon, but at the time, some of the construction workers were dismayed by the seemingly futile task of “filling in the sea.”

Boat trips out into Scapa Flow take people to see wildlife such as seals and seabirds. For the scuba divers coming from all over the world, the wrecks on the seabed are a great attraction. These wrecks are part of the German High Seas Fleet interned at Scapa Flow pending Armistice negotiations. On 21st June 1919 Admiral von Reuter gave the command for seventy German battleships, cruisers and destroyers to be scuttled rather than fall into British hands.

All roads on mainland Orkney lead back to Kirkwall, a sizeable seafaring town with a busy harbour. Dominating the centre is St. Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137, whose red sandstone glows in the sunshine. The walls are adorned with plaques commemorating Orkney poets and painters, explorers and saints. A large wall tapestry, gifted by the King of Norway, was given to the late Queen Mother on 19th August 1987. Symbolising a sail, it expresses the friendship between Norway and the people of Orkney.

St. Magnus Cathedral was part of the Norwegian arch -diocese of Trondheim for most of the pre - Reformation years. Orkney only became part of the kingdom of Scotland in1468 and in 1486 the Cathedral was given into the care of the people of Kirkwall by the Scottish king, James 111.

Across the road are the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace built in the mid 12th century and the Earl’s Palace begun in 1600, by Earl Patrick Stewart. Using forced labour to quarry and ship in the stone required, Stewart planned to build a dwelling that was unrivalled in design, comfort and beauty. His palace was finally completed in 1607 but shortly afterwards Patrick Stewart was arrested and work was abandoned. After his execution in 1615 the portion of the Palace already built became the residence of Orkney’s bishops.

Across Broad Street, the Orkney Museum tells the story of life in these islands from the Stone Age to the present day. Amongst the many fascinating exhibits, a display gives details of the Ba’(ball) game that is usually played by men on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Imagine a game of rugby without rules. The ball is football shaped, though slightly smaller and filled with cork dust. Play rages along the main streets. Shops are barricaded with stout planks for the duration. The ball can even be smuggled inside a coat or baggy sweater. The object is for one team, the Doonies, to land the ball in the sea at the harbour or for the other team, the Uppies, to land the ball at a certain piece of wall, up the town.

It rains often in Orkney. For the whisky makers at the distillery in Kirkwall, this is a blessing. Visitors escaping a downpour can enjoy a guided tour with a film and a dram. A plaque in the visitor centre shows some thoughts on whisky from James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. It reads, “If a body could just find oot the exac’ proper proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk everyday and keep to that, I verily trow that he might leeve forever, without dying at aa, and that the doctors and kirkyards would go oot o’ fashion.

At Orkney’s distillery they obviously agree.

Further information: A stroll around Kirkwall Harbour and through the garden behind Orkney Museum are both well worth a wander. Close by, there are café/restaurants making use of Orkney produce. To hear local, traditional Orkney music try visiting The Reel pub/café/meeting place.

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Monterey and Robert Louis Stevenson

2017-02-22 11:39:33

Big Sur is a spectacular 90 miles of Californian coast. Henry Miller, the late American author, artist and one time resident, described it as "a region where one is always conscious of eloquent silence...the face of the Earth as the Creator intended it to look." It”s a protected habitat. Sea otters frolic where once they were trapped for their fur, while whales pass close by the shore on their annual migration.

Pacific Highway 1 snakes across and around Big Sur”s ocean battered headlands. In places, the seaward side of the road is bitten into by deeply gouged boulder strewn inlets. Sheer rock faces of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range threaten the landward side.

Negotiating the bends in this road fairly concentrates a driver”s mind. Passengers meanwhile, from car or touring coach, gape open-mouthed at the dramatic scenery or the sight of surfers delighting in the challenge of huge waves, which surge up the few small beaches.

When travelling this route from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a hired car we stopped off in Monterey. This was once a sleepy, Mexican Spanish town which developed important whaling and sardine industries. Now these businesses are defunct but the natural harbour and bay, the original attractions, still draw visitors.

Boat trips to catch fish, to scuba dive for ever closer encounters, to commune with sea birds or whales, sea lions and sea otters are on offer. While hang gliders and balloonists choose to drift in the sky above the blue water, other thrill seekers prefer free-falling with a parachute that allows a slowed down descent. For more mundane pursuits, the traffic free recreational trail bordering Monterey Bay appeals to joggers, cyclists, and those favouring roller blades.

We were content to build sandcastles on the beach and work up appetites before enjoying dinner with locally produced wines. Fisherman”s Wharf offers a choice of restaurants guaranteeing seafood “as fresh as it gets” from the catch of the day.

With the sea in front and mountains behind, Monterey seems to have been agreeable and inspirational for great literary figures. John Steinbeck, a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner in 1962, moved the few miles from nearby Salinas to Monterey in his early twenties. There, he gathered material for his novels, Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row. Where he once observed and wrote about the canning factories, the workers, the winos and other characters, there now stands the Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the world”s finest. Cannery Row is now renamed Steinbeck Plaza, complete with a bust of the great man. It houses up- market shops, restaurants and art galleries. Steinbeck would probably not have been impressed.

Robert Louis Stevenson also travelled to Monterey. From Greenock, Scotland, “The Devonia” steamed down the River Clyde on 7th August 1879 to cross the Atlantic. "I am in fair spirits but a little off my nut," he wrote from the ship and was glad to arrive in New York some 10 days later.

He then crossed America by train from Jersey City to San Francisco. Yet another train, on a narrow gauge railway, took him south to Salinas. Finally, in ill health, worsened by the rigours of his journey, he was delivered by stagecoach to Monterey.

He endured all of this for love, or so he thought, thinking he was on his way to be married. But there would be no immediate fairy tale ending for Stevenson. His bride to be, Fanny Osbourne, was having second thoughts.

It was some time before Stevenson was well enough to appreciate his surroundings, saying - “on no other coast that I know shall you enjoy, in calm, sunny weather, such a spectacle of Ocean”s greatness, such beauty of changing colour, or such degrees of colour in the sound”.

Stevenson only stayed in Monterey for a few months, but left his mark. A private school is named after him and at nearby Pebble Beach, golfers playing the Spyglass Hill course tee off towards a hole called Blind Pew, fictional names from perhaps his most famous novel Treasure Island. Today, the town is much changed but some of the historical buildings remain from Stevenson”s time. The two storied adobe house where he lived is fronted by a flower garden. The property has been preserved in his memory and it”s enlightening to join a tour led through the house by a knowledgeable enthusiastic guide.

Seeing the author”s velvet jacket lying on his own bed alongside his other everyday furnishings is quite an eerie experience.

The "French House", as it was called locally was owned by a French-Swiss hotelier. He and his wife had a large family, so adding parts to the building to accommodate them all was an ongoing affair. Stevenson gave English lessons to some of the children in lieu of rent and also produced articles for the local newspaper. When he was not working he would roam the woods around the town or go further into the redwood canyons, still a popular pastime with hikers today.

Our guide through the French House was thrilled to learn we were Scottish and actually knew Stevenson”s Edinburgh haunts. She gave us directions for following another part of the author”s journey, to San Francisco.

From Monterey, Pacific Highway 1 northwards becomes progressively busier. The city”s one-way system is baffling, the lack of parking spaces maddening and the thought of wheel clamping or impounding, even worse. So, it was a great relief to be rid of the rented car and end that part of our journey.

RLS also concluded one journey and began another there. He finally married Fanny Osbourne in May 1880. A few months later, Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson began a return trip to Scotland by train and boat.

Hours before our own return to Scotland, we sat beside the galleon-topped memorial to the writer in Portsmouth Plaza on the edge of San Francisco”s China Town. In a chance meeting with a Chinese – American man, we discussed the author”s early life (born in Edinburgh in 1850) his Scottish influences including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott and the fact that his books are still being read today.

First published in The Glasgow Herald

Further information: Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of his trip toAmerica”s west coast is called The Amateur Immigrant.

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The Isle of Skye

2017-02-20 10:33:08

The Isle of Skye off the north west of Scotland is sometimes referred to as the Island of Mist, or Eilean a’ Cheo in Gaelic.

Until the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995, vehicles and passengers would cross the fast moving stretch of water between the villages of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin on Skye aboard a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry.

It was a short crossing, an adventure, especially in winter when driving down the ferry ramp and up the slipway was not without a few anxious moments. Yet I’m willing to bet though it had absolutely no relevance to the situation, that thousands of people, as they sat in their cars, would have lustily sang a few lines of the song they learned in school,

‘Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing over the sea to Skye.’

Now if the mist is low enough travellers may not even realise they have made the same crossing, high above the waves, on the smooth shallow curve of concrete that is the Skye Bridge.

Most of this traffic by-passes Kyleakin. Yet, for good views of the bridge it is worth turning into the village and driving along the shore road. At the far end, close to the once busy slipway, a building that was unremarkable is now the lively Bright Water Visitor Centre.

The name is taken from the book, Ring of Bright Water written by the late Gavin Maxwell. In it, he tells the story of his life with various otters. The book was hugely popular. It was translated into many different languages and made into a film of the same name starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.

When Maxwell’s house in Glenelg on the Scottish mainland was destroyed in a fire he came to live on Eilean Ban, the White Island, which can be seen easily from Kyleakin. Two of the pillars supporting the Skye Bridge stand on this small island.

From the Bright Water Visitor Centre, a community asset run by volunteers, visitors can buy a ticket for a guided tour of Eilean Ban. The tour starts from the gate on the bridge above.

A path leads through trees, passed a garden maintained by the Women’s Royal Institute, to a rock carved with a date and the name ‘Teko.’ This headstone commemorates Maxwell’s last otter who outlived its owner by some months.

There’s a sentimental tale told that Teko died of a broken heart but in truth the creature grew cranky and bad tempered and died of old age. Stand with your back to the stone and look out to sea and you may be lucky enough to spot an otter swimming in the bay. For our group there was not a whisker not a sight, but a flight of five grey herons taking off nearby, their large wings flapping slowly, was most impressive.

The path leads to the cottage where Maxwell lived for two years until his death. To create his last home, two lighthouse keeper’s cottages were converted into one long low building. Virginia McKenna OBE, an award winning British stage and screen film actress offered advice when it was decided a room should be kept as a kind of museum in Maxwell’s memory.

Visitors can see some of his furniture, including his desk where he worked and would sit with binoculars looking out to sea. The walls are decorated with some of his possessions, a large ornate mirror, two harpoons from an earlier business venture, paintings, photographs and a small collection of his books.

The tour moves on to Eilean Ban lighthouse which is no longer lit, but as a daytime marker, must still be kept in good condition. Reached by an iron walkway, the white, seventy foot tall tower was designed by David Stevenson and his brother Robert, father of author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Many islands have been suggested as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s well- known novel Treasure Island. Was Eilean Ban a part of that creative process, I wonder?

The lighthouse was first lit by sperm whale oil which was smoky and smelly then as time went on, with paraffin and later from cylinders of acetylene gas. The lamp is long gone but the windows with green and red sections are still intact. Keeping them clean was one of the lighthouse keeper’s duties and whatever the weather, the lamp had to be kept lit between sunset and sunrise.

Climb a flight of stone stairs and two vertical ladders and you’ll arrive in the room where the lamp would have been tended. A side door opens to the platform encircling the lighthouse tower which is dwarfed by the nearby massive pillars bearing the Skye Bridge overhead.

From the lighthouse it’s no distance along a path edged with orange monbretia and purple heather to the wildlife viewing hides. The wooden buildings, thatched with heather, have proved popular with primary school groups and older students who come here on environmental studies outings.

I like to think Gavin Maxwell would have approved!

On a day of heavy rain when even the wildlife was taking shelter I opted for an easy drive from the bridge to the village of Broadford which is a convenient base for exploring the Strathaird peninsula.

From the main A850, the road down this particular peninsula becomes narrow with passing places. As well as sheep nibbling the roadside verges or sleeping on the sun-warmed tarmac, there are dips, bends, inclines and on-coming traffic to negotiate. Meanwhile the views of mountains and sea become ever more arresting.

Over the years, tourists arriving at the village of Elgol at the end of the peninsula then usually leave from the jetty aboard the Bella Jane. Wildlife sightings are guaranteed.

The on-board guide points out the island of Soay, off to the west. It appears as a low lying lump in the water. Basking whales have been seen around there.

After his horrifying experiences during World War 11, Gavin Maxwell bought Soay and set up a business to harpoon basking sharks. At the time, shark oil was a much sought after commodity.

Maxwell was not to know that one day, people would be happy to pay handsomely for the privilege of observing these incredible creatures and other wildlife in their natural habitats.

On my trip aboard the Bella Jane we got close-ups of cormorants, gannets diving into the sea from a great height and seals that appeared to be keeping a wary eye on us, the intruders.

Passengers leave the boat at a landing stage at the head of Loch Scavaig, a sea loch which cuts deep into the Cuillin Mountains.

Walkers then make their way along a path by the riverside to the inland Loch Coruisk. It’s a soggy walk in places but this dramatic landscape of water and rock that gleams in sunlight, of mountains reaching ever upwards to end in jagged peaks that pierce the clouds, makes up for any discomfort.

Back on the Bella Jane, a complimentary tot of Talisker, the locally distilled malt whisky adds an extra cheer to this trip.

When you have to leave Skye and have no second thoughts about negotiating narrow twisting mountain roads, you might consider the drive to Kylerhea and the crossing to the mainland aboard the M.V.Glenachulish, a vessel with a turntable that is possibly the last of its kind.

Finally, as you drive through Glenelg where Gavin Maxwell lived with his otters until his house burned down, remind yourself to dig out and read his books written about the places you’ve just visited.

First published in The People’s Friend 08.02.2014

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