H.Y. Hanna
H.Y. Hanna
H.Y. Hanna
H.Y. Hanna

Ghillies and spiky booby traps... (Book research in Scotland - Part 2)

(If you missed Part 1, you can catch up here: Romantic sleepers and hairy cows…)

***

The start of my research trip to the Scottish Highlands was so packed with excitement – from romantic rail journeys to mythical monsters, hairy cows to breathtaking waterfalls – I didn’t think things could get any more memorable…

…but that was before I went out for a day with a Scottish ghillie as my guide!

A “ghillie” – in case you’re wondering – is an ancient Gaelic term stemming from the 16th century which literally means “lad” or “manservant”. But this was no ordinary servant. No, a ghillie was a highly-respected, skilled, knowledgeable attendant to the Highland chief himself, no less.

No one knew more than the ghillie about the best places to fish, the best way to stalk a deer, the best times to hunt, the best weather to take shelter from… Ghillies were the perfect personal attendants for the Scottish lairds and chieftains of old – in fact, it’s even said that one of their duties was to carry chiefs across rivers so that they wouldn’t get wet!

Of course, times have changed a bit since then. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But ghillies do still work on estates in certain places in the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. Today, though, they’re more like a land manager, hunting escort, gamekeeper and wilderness guide… all rolled into one. And I was very lucky to get to spend a day with one!

To help me with book research, learn more about the local flora and fauna, and get a feel for the “atmosphere”, I’d arranged to meet up with the lovely Andy, a ghillie from the Achnacharry Estate. The seat of the chiefs of Clan Cameron, Achnacharry Estate encompasses over 70,000 acres of Highland countryside, tucked in between lochs and rivers, forests and mountains.

It’s also home to hundreds of red deer, as well as other Scottish wildlife, like birds of prey, grouse and pheasants, wild boar, pine martins and more. The estate offers professional hunting tours and takes shooting & fishing parties out regularly, but the only stalking I was planning to do was with my camera!

Naturally, the Scottish weather put on a warm, sunny welcome as we set off… hah!

But I didn’t really mind the grey clouds and rainy weather. To be honest, I preferred it – I thought the mist, especially, lent a wonderful, brooding atmosphere to the landscape. To me, Scotland with blue skies and sunshine would just seem a bit wrong and weird!

Our first stop was by the shores of the loch, to see if we could spot any ospreys. There were no guarantees as it was all so dependent on the weather and the unpredictable behaviour of wild animals, but with Andy’s knowledge of the area and of wildlife habits, we hoped to have a good chance…

I have to say, it took some patience to learn to use the binoculars: not moving too fast in any direction and adjusting your focus to distinguish meaningful shapes out of the blur… but in the end, I spotted them!

A pair of ospreys had built a nest in a tree on the other side of the loch and were raising a family. I couldn’t make out the chicks but it was exciting just seeing the parents.

It’s funny how – with all the lavish technologies and sophisticated entertainments of the modern world – there’s still an unmatched thrill in just being able to spot an animal in the wild with your own eyes. Perhaps it’s because it’s something that’s not readily available on subscription or with the swipe of a credit card, or just conjured up by a Google search or scroll of social media. Yes, you could pay to put yourself in the right place but you couldn’t pay to control nature or manufacture a wild creature to willingly, naturally share its private life with you…

Well, I would have gone home happy that day just to have got that picture in my first half hour (and in case you’re wondering, that was captured just with my phone camera – a Samsung Galaxy – held up to the eyepiece of the telescope. No fancy DSLR or zoom lens or anything!) – but Andy still had a bigger treat in store for me…

Yes, with a bit of careful stalking, we managed to spot some red deer stags too! There was even a hind with a little fawn, but unfortunately, I didn’t catch that on camera.

After the excitement of the deer encounter, you wouldn’t have thought I’d find anything else to match – but I found myself equally enchanted by the estate’s Highland ponies. One of the 3 native ponies of Scotland (the others being the better-known Shetland Pony and the rare Eriskay Pony) Highland ponies – like Highland cattle – are well-adapted to the harsh climate and environment of their home. In winter, they grow a long, thick coat of hair over a dense undercoat, which enables them to live outdoors in all weathers. The ones I met, though, were in their short summer coats and, in fact, were suffering a bit from the heat and the flies.

(The crazy heatwave which had hit the southern parts of the UK this summer hadn’t quite made it up to Scotland but it was still unusually warm for the time of year and the ponies certainly didn’t like it!)

These ponies are tough characters, adaptable to all sorts of jobs, from ploughing fields to pulling carriages, and were apparently even used by clan warriors to carry them into battle. At Achnacharry, the ponies are used to haul the deer carcasses off the hills, after the hunting parties have finished their shoots.

I was a bit surprised at this – I asked Andy how the ponies coped with carrying the dead deer. Wouldn’t the smell of blood and the proximity of a dead body draped over their saddle freak them out? But Andy told me that the ponies are slowly acclimatised and trained, until they become comfortable with carrying their grisly loads.

And talking about “grisly”… after our successful stalking session, Andy showed me the outbuildings where the carcasses are taken to, including the room where the deer are hung up until the blood has drained dry. The room was scrubbed spotlessly clean, of course, and smelt fresh and airy – (in fact, I don’t think I would have guessed at its function if I hadn’t been told) – but showing a crime writer a place like that is like placing a big bar of dark chocolate caramel in front of a chocoholic…

‘Imagine if you walked in and found a human body hanging from one of those hooks, instead of a deer carcass’, I thought, staring at the gleaming rail of hooks hanging from the ceiling. ‘Imagine if… Imagine if…’

Ooh, what a deliciously creepy place!

Okay, maybe a bit too “dark” for any of my existing series ๐Ÿ˜‰ (don’t worry, cozy mystery fans, I’m not going to inflict this on you in the next Oxford Tearoom Mystery!) – but hey, I did originally come on this trip to research some other book ideas I had… hmm…

Well, the rest of the outbuildings tour wasn’t quite so sinister, although it was just as fascinating. I have to admit – I’m not one of those who supports hunting or killing for “sport”, but it was interesting to hear Andy explain that things weren’t so black and white.

For example, there is a valid reason for the regular shoots too: it keeps the deer population at a healthy level for the resources available in the land. With all their natural predators (such as bears, wolves and lynxes) now extinct in the UK, deer numbers would explode and there wouldn’t be enough food for the whole herd. They would all starve and/or grow ill from disease. So the hunting parties act as a sort of necessary “cull” as well and it is usually the weak, the old and the unhealthy that are chosen for the kill.

For stags, one of the easiest way to tell their condition is to look at their antlers, and Andy showed me an impressive collection of stag skulls – all from animals culled during shoots and each showing deformities of some kind, which indicated weakness, injury or illness that would probably have shortened the animals’ natural lives.

***

It had already been an exciting day so far, but now, Andy was ready to show me that the limelight didn’t just belong to the animal residents of the estate. As we got back in his four-wheel drive and headed into the forest, he began telling me about the wealth of local flora.

Now, I’m one of those people who loves identifying plants when out walking or driving in the countryside, and learning the names of those I can’t identify. I don’t necessarily want to do anything with the knowledge – I just like to know. It’s a bit of a nerdy hobby, an insatiable thirst to collect the information.๐Ÿ˜‰

So sitting next to Andy on that drive was heaven, as he pointed out trees and plants by the side of the road and rattled off names with a speed that had me giddy with glee…

Did you know that there are several types of heather? From the deep purple “bell-heather” (Erica cinerea) – so named because of its bell-shaped flowers – to the more common “ling” (Calluna vulgaris) with its haze of pale pink/purple blooms. They all looked equally pretty, carpeting the hills and moorlands, and from the loud hum of buzzing that constantly enveloped them, they were obviously equally beloved by the bees!

And the humble sphagnum moss – those tiny little star-shaped plants that covered vast areas of the Highlands – did you know that it can absorbย  over 20 times its weight in water? Or that it makes a fantastic natural antiseptic dressing for wounds? Yup, it was used to save hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War I.

And – according to Andy – one of the best survival tricks, if you’re lost in the Scottish wilderness, is to find some sphagnum moss. You can then squeeze it to provide safe drinking water and use it on cuts to prevent infection. (Hmm… more interesting tidbits to be filed away for future use in a story!)

As for that famous prickly weed – the thistle – Andy told me a lovely story of why the Scots have embraced it as their emblem…

Legend has it that when the Norse army arrived on Scottish shores to invade this new territory, they decided to ambush the clans under the cover of darkness. But as they crept barefoot across the moors, one of the Norse warriors stepped on a thistle and shrieked in pain – and the Scottish clansmen were awakened in time to charge into battle and defend their country.

Thus Scotland was saved from invasion and the thistle adopted as its national flower – celebrated for its fierce tenacity in bleak climes and its admirable ability to defend itself against attack.

In fact, the Order of the Thistle, founded by King James VII and representing the highest honour that Scotland can bestow on an individual, has the following as its motto: Nemo me impune lacessit, โ€˜No one provokes me with impunityโ€™.

Having only seen thistles in stylised logos, I was surprised to find the real plant much bigger than I thought. The ones I saw were hefty bushes, bristling with vicious thorns and crowned with flowers in a fuchsia purple so vivid, they looked almost artificial. And all somehow incredibly arresting and beautiful in their own strange way. I could see why the proud Scots would choose such a plant to represent them!

***

My time with a ghillie had been a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting experience and my head was swimming with all the facts I’d learned, the stories I’d heard, the sights I’d seen…

…and what better way to end the day than with a single malt whisky at a pub in nearby Fort William?

(That’s whisky, by the way, without the “e” – as my proofreader is always fond of reminding me when I make the typo in my manuscripts! It’s the correct spelling when referring to the Scottish version, whereas “whiskey” is used for the American (and Irish) versions.)

I don’t drink, actually – like the heroine Gemma of my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries, I’ve never really learned to acquire a taste for alcohol, like a proper grown-up! ๐Ÿ˜‰ It always tastes bitter and sour, and burns unpleasantly down my throat.

But when in Scotland, as they say… and in fact, I enjoyed the whisky far more than I expected to. It did burn but in an almost “nice” way, leaving a lingering warmth that spread through my limbs and to the tips of my fingers and toes.

I could certainly see how – in the chilly realities of Scotland’s harsh climate – this was known as the “water of life”!

(The 3rd – and final – part of my Scottish adventures is coming soon!)
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Sar
Sar
4 months ago

Enjoyed reading this very much!!!

Kathrin
Kathrin
4 months ago

Dear Hsin-Yi, it is so great to read about your trip. I haven’t been to Scotland in a few years and reading this reminds me of all the things I love there. My husband and I visited Ackergill Tower a few times (unfortunately it is now closed to public) and stayed there. It is such a beautiful old building that basically has three sides to the North Sea. You could have High Tea there and look at the sea or the fireplace which would be lighted for you. You could explore many rooms in the building and even open cupboards and drawers. We had a look at an explorer’s report about Egypt in the 20’s I think! The rooms you could sleep in where so different from each other, I really loved the smaller ones high up in the tower. The view was stunning and it was so cozy! I think we met a Ghillie there, too. We don’t hunt but they offered clay pigeon shooting there. It was a lot of fun and it was only us two and the instructor. I think you would have loved it there!

hColleen
hColleen
1 month ago

So, I went to Scotland in 2003 with a friend from college. We flew into Edinburgh and drove around the Trossachs, stopping at Loch Lommond because it seemed like a rule to do so, as well as Castle Donne, though it was closed, to Glasgow. We spent the day looking around downtown Glasgow and then went back (the short way) to Edinburgh to meet up with a friend who retired from the BBC and whose parents were in on the hiding of the Stone of Destiny. He told us a lot of cool stories while we toured the castle and the downtown area (even laid down on the sidewalk to get a good picture of the castle for us). It was the middle-end of March, so it was chilly for someone used to the deserts of the American Southwest, but it was a lovely trip and I have a lot of pictures and nice memories. I even got my first digital camera for the trip ๐Ÿ™‚

Faith
Faith
1 month ago

Thank you so much for your posting of pictures and comments on Scotland. My hubby and I have been to Scotland since that is where his ancestors are from. It is such a beautiful country. Looking forward to reading your newest book. I love all your Oxford Tearoom Mysteries. They are so enjoyable.

Trudy
Trudy
1 month ago

I find myself looking forward with great pleasure to reading anything that you have authored. Both your plots and your language use are most enjoyable. 

Jo C
Jo C
1 month ago

I plan to retire to Scotland. One reason is the weather ๐Ÿ˜‰ Also love the plant info. Nature is amazing.

Lisa
Lisa
1 month ago

What an amazing trip Hsin-Yi, thank you for sharing your pictures! my husband is English, and although we go back to the UK fairly often, weโ€™ve never been able to make it up to Scotland-reading your descriptions makes me want to remedy that! iโ€™m really looking forward to reading how you incorporate your knowledge from this trip into the next book!

Alicia
Alicia
1 month ago

Iโ€™ve never been to Scotland but I want to go someday. It sounds lovely. Canโ€™t wait to see what tidbits from your trip end up in your books!

Vibeke
Vibeke
1 month ago

It was so great to read your experience of visiting Scotland. I am from Norway and have visited Scotland a few times and I absolutely love tv-series and books set in this area and the rest of the UK. I love your books and are so looking foreward to see what Gemma and Muesli and the rest of the gang is up to next while visiting Scotland!!

Mary Preston
Mary Preston
1 month ago

If you are going to visit Scotland none better than a ghillie to be your guide. A fantastic post.

Heidi K
Heidi K
1 month ago

Iโ€™ve always wanted to visit Scotland. How wonderful that you get to do so in your research so we can visit in your books.

HollyAnn
HollyAnn
1 month ago

My husband and I wanted to get married in Scotland but the legalities were somewhat complicated, so we got married in his painting studio in NYC instead. Hard to believe that this was 35 years ago! Your photos and descriptions of your time in Scotland are beautiful and so evocative of the spirit of that wonderful country. Thank you for sharing all of this with us!

Nancy/Schwenkner
Nancy/Schwenkner
1 month ago

Iโ€™ve never been to Scotland, but I sure felt like I did after reading this blog! I know your excitement when spotting the osprey. Years ago, I went hiking in a national park known for a favorite spot for blue herons to nest in the spring. We didnโ€™t see any herons, but we saw a young black bear cub, up in a tree. We new that mama no doubt was watching us, so we left. Best Hike Ever! Looking forward to where your experience takes your writing.

Michelle
Michelle
1 month ago

We are Australians but Scotland is our special place. We got married not far from Balmoral Castle.

Carol K
Carol K
1 month ago

Thanks for sharing your trip, Hsin-Yi, I am so jealous. The pictures are wonderful!

Denise
Denise
1 month ago

Your mention of the Highland ponies growing a winter coat brought back happy memories of my favourite childhood pony, Mark. Mark was a chubby, swayback back, short pony. I can still picture him with his shaggy winter coat to cope with our Canadian winters. I am surprised you have never seen Scotch thistle before. They grow all over our farm. I cursed them last spring when I went to weed my garden, because they were especially prolific last year

Kristee
Kristee
1 month ago

I love your books and really enjoyed reading about Scotland. I’m going on a cruise to Scotland (a transatlantic cruise that includes England and Ireland and other Northern European countries),
I’ve read all of your Oxford tearoom mysteries on Kindle Unlimited but would love to own them so here’s hoping I win the whole set.

Joyel Crawford
Joyel Crawford
1 month ago

This was a wonderful blog post and it took me back to my two visits to Scotland. Once while I was in college and another time to witness a friendโ€™s wedding. I learned that my ancestors were from Scotland and then made the visits more magical. I loved the highlands too. Your photos are gorgeous!

Kristin E
Kristin E
1 month ago

When my family went to Scotland, we visited Edinburgh. We found the tartan that is from my Moms side of the family, the Busby clan. We also wandered around the castle. I really enjoyed Scotland and wish we could have stayed longer!
Iโ€™d love to go back but for now Iโ€™ll settle for reading about Gemmaโ€™s adventures there. ๐Ÿ™‚

Laurie
Laurie
1 month ago

Sounds like you had a wonderful trip! I live in the south of England (though I am an American) and in November went on a driving tour in the south of Scotland with friends. It was fun, but cold! We really only went to cities, but I think I would have enjoyed a trip into the countryside as you did! Thanks for your wonderful stories, I always look for a new one coming out!

Lori Jo
Lori Jo
1 month ago

Loved this post about Scotland! You’ve made me feel like I was actually there.ย  Love your books and hearing about your adventures and writing process.

Lindsey
Lindsey
1 month ago

Thank you for taking us on your journey

Ber
Ber
1 month ago

Your blog is so inspiring to me. I was supposed to take my students to Scotland in 2020 but then COVID hit and our trip was canceled. We were very sad but by the time we could reschedule the same kids were already in college. I hope to go there someday but looking at your blog is showing me we need to go soon!

Lindsey
Lindsey
1 month ago

I love this!! Although I’ve never been to Scotland my son and I have been doing Conqueror challenges. One of his recent ones was North Coast 500.
It’s our way of traveling during covid and when financially it’s not doable! We have come across Highland cows (our fave๐Ÿ˜), sheep, a few amazing waterfalls, and stunning scenery! Some of your photos remind me of our little ‘adventure’ and I cannot wait to hear the rest of yours!

Jojo
Jojo
1 month ago

Hi! My grandparents lived in Scotland when I was a baby. They had 2 dogs for most of my childhood, Nichola who was a rescue, that sort of adopted them, and then there was Ghillie! I always wondered about his name, but never asked, but after reading your blog his name makes perfect sense! Thank you! Best, Jojo

InishowenCailin
InishowenCailin
1 month ago

Scotland is on my list to visit so hopefully I will get there soon! It’s only a short flight from Ireland, so really there’s nothing stopping me. Your blog has given me a few ideas of things to do and see.

tjk
tjk
1 month ago

I find myself looking forward with great pleasure to reading anything that you have authored. Both your plots and your language use are most enjoyable.

Kelli
Kelli
1 month ago

I laugh at the thought of the Ghilly hearing you sumise how you could use the deer cleaning room in one of your mysteries. ๐Ÿ™‚

Georgia B.
Georgia B.
1 month ago

What a lovely blog. It’s the first time I’ve stopped by, and I can see I’ve been missing some wonderful chats! I loved reading your descriptions of the people, places, and plant-life in Scotland. All the responses to your post are fun to read. I’ve always loved mysteries set in the UK, but I’ve never ventured there; you made some it come alive for me. I’m afraid I’ve only been outside the continental US in my imagination! Is this Scotland research for the English Cottage series? I didn’t see you mention it in your newsletter, and I was hoping you had not ended that series as I enjoy those tales so much. Thanks for the informative tour of the Scottish Highlands. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the information on the pages of your novels.

Dominique Riddick
Dominique Riddick
1 month ago

Thank you for taking us on this journey with you. First you started with those precious pictures of your Mom. My Mom has left me in body 2015, I remember no matter where is was, I always had a desire to kiss her and talk with her. I would call her from 700 miles away to tell her how I miss her, and when I’m in the same state as her, I bring her flowers, just to see that smile. God gave me a gift a week before she passed, I had such a urge to kiss her and see her smile, not knowing it was the last time with her. What a blessing.
Next, I absolutely loved how shared your Scotland journey. The pictures were breathtaking, it’s like I was there with you. I have always held to the belief, that God has provided everything we need to survive, trive and live on this planet. Why would He not?
Such bueaty, even in the thistles, with it’s many variations, all having it’s different benefits.
I love your books which also take us on an adventure. I so love the Bewitched by Chocolate series, I hate to see it go, but I trust you will end it well. I’m a person who rereads books away, I always see something I missed the first time.
As I wait the the next in the English Cottage Garden mystery series, I have a chance to read other books you have written.
Thank you once again.

Lacey
Lacey
1 month ago

I would love a mysteries that had bodies hanging. I like a dark and twisted mysteries ever now and then. The moss was very interesting. Scotland is right after Norway on my places to visit.

Alice
Alice
1 month ago

I fully enjoyed hearing about your travels. Scotland is one of my very favorite places in the world.. It may be my Scottish heritage but I know that the 1st time I went to Edinburgh it felt like I had come home. And how fortunate that you had such a wonderful guide

Julie Powers
Julie Powers
1 month ago

Iโ€™ve been to Edinburgh in Scotland and soon Iโ€™ll be going to the โ€œEdinburghโ€ of the southern hemisphere in Dunedin! Love your books!

Marilyn Mittelstadt
Marilyn Mittelstadt
1 month ago

I loved reading about your time in Scotland. Your photos are beautiful. Scotland is one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit, although at my age, I doubt that will ever happen. My husband would have enjoyed being with you at the pub. He is a scotch whisky lover …. particularly single-malt scotch. He loves Glenfiddich, but his favorite is Glenmorangie.

Deborah Ortega
Deborah Ortega
1 month ago

Sounds fun I would love to visit Scotland, I bet they did drink to keep warm.

T L M
T L M
1 month ago

Very much enjoy your writing style, no graphic descriptions are refreshing.

Diane Manbeck
Diane Manbeck
1 month ago

Scotland looks beautiful and Iโ€™m so glad you had fun with Andy

Alexis
Alexis
1 month ago

You look like your mom! Youโ€™re both so beautiful!

Charissa N.
Charissa N.
1 month ago

Your trip sounds like it was quite the adventure. I have a friend from Scotland. He always shares the most amazing scenic pictures whenever he goes back for a visit.

Linda Herold
Linda Herold
1 month ago

You did a wonderful job writing this blog! I’m wondering how many photos you took while you were there?

bn100
bn100
1 month ago

looks like fun to visit

Kimmi97
Kimmi97
1 month ago

Dear Hsin-Yi,
I loved looking through your wonderful pictures from your Scottish adventures, while I have never been to Scotland myself it is somewhere I hope to visit in the future. I am a huge fan of your Oxford Tearoom mysteries series and can’t wait to read the next one, I would have to say the old biddies are my favourite characters and I always look forward to reading what mischief they will get up to next!๏ปฟ

Michelle R
Michelle R
1 month ago

I would love to visit Scotland one day! Thanks for the giveaway entry

Michele
Michele
1 month ago

Thank you for sharing your adventures through Scotland. Someday my husband and I will make our over there. Take care!

Susan
Susan
1 month ago

After such a wonderful tour, maybe you have material for another country house mystery – The Mousse Wonderful Time of Year is one of my favourite Oxford tearoom mysteries thus far!

Rose-Katherine
Rose-Katherine
1 month ago

Absolutely over the moon to see your adventures in Scotland. It’s such a unique, special place, and your evocative writing really does it justice.
I had never heard of gillies, so thank you for providing us all with a little education!

Did you try any butteries or macaroni pies on your trip?

Karen S
Karen S
1 month ago

I loved reading your post about your travels and research in Scotland. My Dad’s side of the family hails from Scotland, but the lowlands, Paisley, Aryshire, coming to the US in the 18th century. But I did get a chance to visit Scotland in 1980 as a child when my Dad was stationed in Germany. My Mum was English so I have a lot of roots in that island. I remember my brother and I looking in earnest for Nessie as we drove around Loch Ness. We never saw her, much to our disappointment. I plan to max out my visa in the Highlands sometime in the next few years to show my almost grown child its amazing beauty and history. Love your books! My Mum bought them and I got them in late 2021 when she died and they gave me a lovely escape. Can’t wait for to read your new one!

Chrissy
Chrissy
1 month ago

What great fun! I enjoyed reading about your aventure! I have always wanted to go to Scotland. Maybe one day when my health is better I can. I did travel to London when I was younger. I worked there for 3 months after college. Thanks so much for sharing. <3

Adrian
Adrian
1 month ago

Hello,
This is a nice read–like a read/learn adventure. It’s nice of you to share about all the things you’ve learned from Andy.
I didn’t know that the Red Deer natural predators in the area were all extinct–is that due to hunting? Also didn’t now about the antlers as a way to view the condition of the animal.
The sphagnum moss was an interesting read. So many benefits. I wish I knew more about these kind of things in the wild. I would most likely not survive long in the wild–not knowing what is safe/not safe for the human body.
Love the pictures–were there any videos of the trip that could be shared–if any? I’ve never been to any part of Europe. Would love to go someday.
Looking forward to the next Oxford Tearoom Mysteries book. Would there be a box set of the current volumes go on sale. I only have the digital/audio versions but if there were box sets–would love to get my hands on one.

Kathy
Kathy
1 month ago

Scotland is another place on my bucket list and your pictures and story make me want to go more. I went to Ireland right before Covid started and kissed the Blarney Stone and Iโ€™m now ready to start traveling again thanks in part to reading about your adventures!

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