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Scottish Reminincenses
Chapter XII


Scottish humour in relation to death and the grave. Resurrectionists. Tombstone inscriptions. ‘Naturals’ in Scotland. Confused thoughts of second childhood. Belief in witchcraft Miners and their superstitions. Colliers and Salters in Scotland were slaves until the end of the eighteenth century. Metal-mining in Scotland.

A notable feature in Scottish humour is the frequency with which it deals with death and the grave. The allusions are sometimes unintentionally ludicrous, not infrequently grim and ghastly. The subject seems to have a kind of fascination which has affected people in every walk of life, more especially the lower ranks. But like most of the national characteristics, this too appears to be on the wane, and one has to go back for a generation or two to find the most pregnant illustrations of it. Dr. Sloan of Ayr, about forty years ago, told me that a friend of his had gone not long before to see the parish minister of Craigie, near Kilmarnock, and finding him for the moment engaged, had turned into the churchyard, where he sauntered past the sexton, who was at work in digging a grave. As the clergyman was detained some time, the visitor walked to and fro along the path, and at length noticed that the sexton’s eyes were pretty constantly fixed on him, to the detriment of the excavation on which the man should have been engaged. At last he stopped, and addressing the gravedigger asked, ‘ What the deil are you staring at me for? You needna tak’ the measure o’ me, if that’s what ye’re ettlin’ at, for we bury at Riccarton.’

Mr. Thomas Stevenson, father of the novelist, told me that when the gravedigger of Monkton was dying his minister came to see him, and after speaking comfortable words to him for a while, asked if there was anything on his mind that he would like to speak out. The man looked up wistfully and answered, ‘ Weel, minister, I’ve put 285 corps in that kirkyard, and I wuss it had been the Lord’s wull to let me mak up the 300.’

When Chang, the Chinese giant, was exhibited in Glasgow, an elderly country couple went to see him. After gazing long at him, they retired without making any observation. At last, as they were going downstairs, the wife first broke silence with the remark: 'Eh, Duncan, whatna coffin he wull tak.’

All over Scotland, and more especially in the lowlands, memorials remain of the time when graves were opened and coffins were rifled of their dead, to supply the needs of the dissecting rooms of the medical schools. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Shen-stone, in protesting against this sacrilege, contended that the bodies of convicted malefactors should suffice for the needs of the medical profession—

If Paean’s sons these horrid rites require,
If Health’s fair science be by these refined,
Let guilty convicts, for their use, expire;
And let their breathless corse avail mankind.

But though the bodies of executed murderers had for two centuries been handed over to surgeons for dissection, the supply of evildoers must have been still too scanty, even at a time when theft and robbery were capitally punished. The growing success of the medical schools in Scotland increased the demand for human bodies to such a degree as to offer strong temptation to the enterprise of bold and reckless men. So frequent did violations of the tomb become as to lead to extraordinary precautions to prevent them. The graves were protected with heavy iron gratings securely riveted above them, many of which may still be seen in the churchyards of Fife and the Lothians. Watch-houses were likewise erected in the burial-grounds to serve as shelters for the men who in turn every night took their stations there, with guns loaded, on the outlook for any midnight marauders. In a commanding position in the graveyard around the parish church of Crail, one of these houses may still be seen, bearing the suggestive record—

Erected for securing the Dead Ann. Dom. mdcccxxvi.

The trade of the ‘resurrection-men’ was finally destroyed by an Act of Parliament passed in the year 1832, in consequence of the murders committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, and Bishop and Williams in London. This measure, by permitting the unclaimed bodies of paupers, dying in poor-houses, to be taken for dissection to the medical schools, provided a suppjy of subjects which, if not abundant, at least prevented any further violations of the grave.

Of the monumental inscriptions in Scottish graveyards various collections have been published, and to these many more might be added. They have seldom any literary excellence, and their chief interest arises from their oddities of spelling and grammar, and their conceptions of a future state. As an illustrative example of them, I may cite one from the kirkyard of Sweetheart Abbey, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.

Here lyes The body of Alex ander Houston son of Matthew Houston and Jean Milligan in Parish of New Abbay born August ye 12th 1731 died July ye 15th 1763 Non est mortale quid opto Farew'll my obedient Son of Neighbours well belov’d and an Exempler Christian near thirty two remov’d Farewell a while my parents both Brothers and Sisters all I’ll at the Resurrection day obey the Trumpets call.

The insertion of a few words of bad Latin (probably unintelligible to the grieving family), the farewell to the departed, his farewell in response, and the sacrifice of grammar to the exigencies of verse, are characteristic features on the gravestones earlier than the beginning of the last century. Some of these peculiarities are further illustrated by a more ambitious piece of versification which I copied from a tombstone in the churchyard of Berwick-on-Tweed. Though not strictly within the bounds of Scotland, the stone lies at least on the north side of the Tweed, and in its defiance of grammatical niceties is not unworthy of the pen of a northern elegist.

1. The peaceful mansions of the dead
Are scattered far and near
But by the stones o’er this yard spread
Seem numerously here

2. A relative far from his home
Mindful of men so just ‘
Reveres this spot inscribes this tomb
And in his God doth trust

3. 1’hat he shall pass a righteous life
Leve long for sake of seven
Return in safety to his wife
And meet them both in heaven

4. God bless the souls departed hence
This church without a steeple
The king the clergy and the good sense
Of all the Berwick people

In connexion with tombstones, I may refer to the frequently rapid decay of the materials of which they are made, in such a climate as that of Scotland. Nearly five-and-twenty years ago I investigated this subject among the old graveyards of Edinburgh and other parts of the country, and found that while some varieties of hard siliceous sandstone retain their inscriptions quite sharp at the end of two centuries, as in the case of Alexander Hendersons tombstone in Greyfriars Churchyard, no marble monument, freely exposed to the elements in a town, will survive in a legible condition for a single century. As an example of this disintegration I cited the handsome monument erected, in that same churchyard, to the memory of the illustrious Joseph Black, who died in 1799. It consisted of a large slab of white marble, let into a massive framework of sandstone. Less than eighty years had sufficed to render the inscription partly illegible, and the stone, bulging out in the centre and rent by numerous cracks, was evidently doomed to early destruction. Three years ago I returned to see the condition of the tomb, and then found that the marble had disappeared entirely, its place being now taken by a sandstone slab, on which the authorities had with pious care copied the original inscription. Here the marble, though partially protected by the overhanging masonry of the monument and by a high wall that screened it in some measure from the western ruins, had fallen into irreparable ruin in less than a hundred years.

A curious attitude of mind towards one who has died, but «s still unburied, is shown by the use of the word ‘ corp,’ which is popularly supposed to be the singular of ‘corpse.’ This usage may be illustrated by an incident told me by the late Henry Drummond as having occurred in his own experience. While attending the funeral of a man with whom he had had no acquaintance, he enquired of one of the company what employment the deceased had followed. The person questioned did not know, but at once asked his next neighbour, ‘I’m sayin’, Tam, what was the corp to trade?’

An old couple were exceedingly annoyed that they had not been invited to the funeral of one of their friends. At last the good wife consoled her husband thus: ‘A weel, never you mind, Tammas, maybe we’ll be haein’ a corp o’ our ain before lang, and we’ll no ask them.’

A gentleman came to a railway station where he found a mournipg party. Wishing to be sympathetic, he enquired of one of the company whether it was a funeral, and received the reply: ‘We canna exactly ca’ it a funeral, for the corp has missed the railway connection.’

At a funeral in Glasgow, a stranger who had taken his seat in one of the mourning coaches excited the curiosity of the other three occupants, one of whom at last addressed him, ‘Ye’ll be a brither o’ the corp?’ ‘No, I’m no a brither o’ the corp,’ was the prompt reply. ‘Weel, then, ye’ll be his cousin?’ ‘No, I’m no that.’ ‘No! then ye’ll be at least a frien’ o’ the corp?’ ‘No that either. To tell the truth, I’ve no been that weel my-sel’, and as my doctor has ordered me some carriage exercise, I thocht this wad be the cheapest way to tak’ it.’

It has often been remarked how great an attraction funerals have for some half-witted people. There used to be one of these poor creatures in an Ayrshire village, who, when any one was seriously ill, would from time to time knock at the door and enquire, ‘Is she ony waur (worse)?’ his hopes rising at any relapse, and the consequent prospect of another interment.

A great change for the better has come over the usages connected with burials in Scotland. In old days, as already mentioned, the ‘lyke-wakes ’ were often scenes of shocking licence and debauchery. By degrees these painful exhibitions have become less and less objectionable until now, except that there is still sometimes too liberal a dispensing of whisky, there is little that can be found fault with. In country places, where the mourners have often to come from long distances to attend a funeral, refreshments of some kind are perhaps necessary, but it is unfortunate that the average Scot would think such refreshments decidedly ‘ wairsh ’ (tasteless) if they did not include an adequate provision of the national drink. Accordingly, it is still too common to think first of seeing that whisky enough has been obtained, even where the claims of pedestrians from a distance have not to be considered. Thus one of the family of an old dying woman was asked, ‘Is your Auntie still livin’?’ ‘Ay,’ was the answer, ‘she’s no just deid yet; but we’ve gotten in the whusky for the funeral.’

I remember the first funeral I saw fifty years ago in the Highlands. It was in the old graveyard of Kilchrist, Skye, where a large company of crofters had gathered from all parts of the parish of Strath. There was a confused undertone of conversation audible at a little distance as I passed along the public road; and as soon as I came in sight two or three of the mourners at once made for me, carrying bottle, glasses, and a plate of bits of cake. Though I was an entire stranger to them and to the deceased, I knew enough of Highland customs and feelings to be assured that on no account could I be excused from at least tasting the refreshments. The halt of a few minutes showed me that much whisky was being consumed around the ruined kirk.

In former days most parishes in the country possessed one or more ‘naturals,’ whose lives w'ere embittered by the persecution of the children, though they might be kindly enough treated by the elders, whom they amused by the oddities of their ways and the quaintness of their expressions. Since the establishment of the Lunacy Board, however, they have been mostly drafted into asylums, much to the increase of the decency of the communities, though a little of the picturesqueness of village life has thereby been lost. One of these ‘fules’ was seen marching along quickly with a gun over his shoulder. Its owner knew it not to be loaded, but he called out, ‘Archie, where are you going wi’ the gun? You are no’ wantin’ to shoot yoursell? ’ ‘No,’ said he, ‘I’m no’ jist gaun to shoot mysell, but I’m gaun to gie my-sell a deevil o’ a fleg (fright).’

Many years ago a half-witted but pawky attendant, perhaps as much knave as fool, was a well-known figure at the old inn of Brodick, in Arran. He was employed in miscellaneous errands and simple bits of work about the inn or the farm, such as suited his capacity, and he was noted for having a specially pronounced love of brandy. One day he was seen by two visitors at the hotel, pushing a boat down the beach and getting the oars ready. They accosted him and asked where he was bound for. He answered that he was going across the bay to Corriegills for a bag or two of potatoes. Their request to be allowed to accompany him was all the more willingly complied with, inasmuch as they at once proposed that they should pull the oars if he would steer. Sandy had not much English, but he employed it to the best of his ability in the hope that it might be the means of gaining him some of his favourite liquor. Having crossed the bay, the boat was pulled towards the large granite boulder that forms so notable a landmark on that part of the shore. He directed the attention of his crew to it, and said:

‘D’ye see that muckle stane? Weel, maybe ye’ll no’ be believin’ me, but it’s the truth I’m tellin’ ye. If onybody wad be climmin’ to the tap o’ that stane and wad be roarin’ as loud as he likes, there’s naebody can hear him.’

‘Nonsense; we don’t believe a word of it.’ ‘But I wad wager ye onythin’ ye like it’s true. I wad be wagerin’ ye a bottle o’ brandy, if ye like.’

‘Very well, we’ll try. You jump ashore and get on the stone and roar.’

Sandy with great alacrity sprang out of the boat, and was speedily on the great grey boulder. He opened his mouth and swung his body, as if he were roaring with the strength of ten bulls of Bashan, until he grew purple in the face with his apparent efforts to make a noise. But though he stooped and gesticulated, he took care that never a sound should escape from him.

‘Wass you hearin’ me?’ he asked with a triumphant face when he had come down to the boat again.

‘You rascal, you never gave a sound.’

‘Ochan, ochan, wass you not seein’ that I was screamin’ till I couldna scream ony more, whatefer?’

‘Very extraordinary, to be sure. Well, we’ll try ourselves.’

So saying they jumped upon the beach, and, with rather less agility than Sandy had shown, clambered up the stone, while he stood beside the boat. When they were both on the top, they proceeded to shout with such vehemence that they might have been heard on the other side of the bay. Sandy, however, as if intent on hearing the faintest sound, put his hand behind each ear in turn, and bent his head now to one side, now to the other. When the two strangers had had enough of this performance, they came down, and indignantly demanded: ‘Well, Sandy, do you mean to tell us that you did not hear?’

‘Hear ye! ’ said he. ‘Wass you roarin’ at all. I was never hearin’ wan bit.’

He had a remarkable power of expressing astonishment by his mere looks, and put on a face of child-like innocence when he protested that no sound at all had been heard by him. Feeling that„ they had been ‘sold’ by this apparent ‘natural,’ they left him to fetch his potatoes and pull the boat back himself. But he had his brandy that evening.

Removed into asylums, the village idiots lose the opportunity of giving expression to the memorable sayings which free contact with their kinsfolk and the irritation caused by their young persecutors used to produce. But even there their oddity of phrase comes occasionally forward. My old companion, John Young, already referred to, used to tell how, when he was one of the assistant physicians in the Morningside Asylum at Edinburgh, he was one morning reading prayers. The weather being raw and chilly, he had a cough, which interrupted him at the end of the petition,

‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ During the pause, one of the patients, sitting in front of him, added in an audible voice, ‘and butter.’ The second childhood of old age among people who have been sane all their lives sometimes gives rise to confusion of thought and language such as no half-witted creature can rival. I knew an old Scottish lady who used to make curious lapses of this kind. Her nephew met me one day and said, ‘I must give you auntie’s last. She was in bed, and, calling her maid, said to her Jenny, if I’m spared to be taken away soon, I hope my nephew Thomas will get the-doctor to open my head, and see if anything canna be done for my hearin’.”

The belief in witchcraft, though it still maintains its hold in the remote districts of the Highlands and Islands, may be regarded as practically extinct in the non-Celtic parts of the country. Yet it flares out now and then in the lowlands, as if it were still smouldering underneath the surface, ready to be awakened once more when the occasion arises to revive it. Forty years ago, in the valley of the Girvan Water, there were some old colliers whose grandmothers had been reputed witches, and who, though they professed to disbelieve the report, had evidently a deep-grounded respect for it. One of these men described to me some of his own .experiences in the matter. When still a lad, he was walking one Sunday evening along the road near Kilgrammie with a companion and a fox-terrier. The dog had jumped over a low wall into a field, and they were attracted by its loud barking. Looking over the wall they , saw that it was chasing a hare, wdiich, instead of making its escape, seemed to be enjoying the game, and was racing to and fro across. the field. The two lads soon leapt over the .wall to .join in the sport. . At last the hare, tired apparently of the exercise, made for a low part of the far wall and scrambled over it. When they got up to the place they were just in time to see the animal lie down on the doorstep of his grandmother’s cottage, pass both its paws across its nose, and disappear into the house. It then flashed upon him that as his grandmother was believed to be able to take the shape of a hare, he might really have been chasing her all the while. He added that he went home as fast as he could.

Another old woman in the neighbouring village of Dailly, who had been long bed-ridden, was at last near her end. On the afternoon of the day she died, the boys of the place were busy with their games in the street, when a hare appeared from the country and tried to pass them. They at once gave chase, and the animal retreated along the road by which it had come. Again, a little later, it returned, and once more attempted to get into the village, but was again chased away. A third time, however, when their game had carried the boys further along the street, puss was successful, and before her enemies could reach her, gained the outside stair that led up to the old woman’s garret, and disappeared inside the doorway. The invalid died that evening, and the hare was believed to be either herself or one of her accomplices who had come to be with her at the last.

Let me try to repeat in the vernacular of the district the tale told by the grandson of one of these helpless and harmless old women. ‘My grannie was weel kent to be no’ canny. She had ways of doin’ things and kennin’ things that naebody could mak oot. At last she deeit, and she behoved to be buryit i’ the Barr, that’s a village on the ither side o’ the hills, laigh doon by the Stinchar. When the funeral day cam’, we carryit the coffin up the steep road, and when we were gettin’ near the tap, and hadna muckle breath left, for the coffin was nae licht wecht, a fine-lookin’ gentleman, ridin’ a fine black horse, made up to us. Nane o’ us kennt him or had seen him afore. But he rade alangside o’ us, and cracked awa’ maist croosely, and cheered us sae that we gaed scrievin’ doon the brae on the ither side. Weel, you may jalouse we were a wee bit forfeuchen when we cam’ to the kirk-yard, and some o’ us thocht we wadna be the waur o’ bit drappie afore we gaed on wi’ the buryin’. Sae we steppit into the public-hoose. Weel, ye mauna think we bydeit lang there, but losh me! when we cam’ oot the coffin wi’my grannie in’t was awa’, and sae was the man an’ the black horse. And to this day I canna tell what cam’ ower them.’

Miners are generally a superstitious race. Their subterranean occupation, with its darkness and its dangers, fosters the inborn human instinct to credit the supernatural. Hence old beliefs that have died out in the general community may still be found lingering among them. A miner who meets a woman, when he. starts for his work in the morning, will turn back again, as the day has become unlucky for him. Any unexpected event in the mine is sure to awaken all his old-world ‘freits.' If any of his comrades should, by the falling of part of the roof of the mine, be crushed to death, he dreads to continue his ordinary work so long as a corpse remains in the pit, and will spare himself no labour until he has tunnelled through the fallen roof. A memorable instance of this devotion has been already alluded to as having taken place in the little coal-field of Dailly, where one of the miners was shut off from all communication with mankind by the crushing down of the roof between him and his fellow-workmen. They toiled day and night to cut a passage through the material, with the view of reaching and removing his body, and they found him actually alive, after being shut -up for twenty-three days without food. He died, however, three days after his rescue. Such an incident could not fail to awaken to life all the dormant superstitions and fears of the collier mind. For a long time after, strange sounds and sights were imagined in the mine.

A more ludicrous recollection of that time was narrated to me by a survivor of the tragedy. One of his comrades had returned unexpectedly from work in the forenoon, and, to the surprise of his wife, appeared in front of their cottage. She was in the habit, unknown to him, of solacing herself in the early part of the day with a bottle of porter. On the occasion in question the bottle stood toasting pleasantly before the fire when the form of the ‘gudeman’ came in sight. In a moment she drove in the cork and thrust the bottle underneath the blankets of the box-bed, when he entered, and, seating himself by the fire, began to light his pipe. In a little while the warmed porter managed to expel the cork, and to escape in a series of very ominous gurgles from underneath the clothes. The poor fellow ran outside at once, crying ‘Anither warning, Meg! Rin, rin, the house is fa’ing.’ But Meg ‘ kenn’d what was what fu brawly,’ and made for the bed, in time to save only the last dregs of her intended potation.

It is strange to reflect that many people now alive have known natives of Scotland who were born slaves. The colliers and salters had, from time immemorial, been attached for life to the works in which they were engaged. They could not legally remove from them, and if they escaped, could be lawfully pursued, arrested, and brought back to their proprietors. Their children, too, if once employed in any part of their work, became from that very fact bondsmen for life. In my own boyhood I have seen old men and women who were born in such servitude, and worked in the mines of Midlothian. The women were employed in the pits to carry up heavy baskets of coals on their backs from underground to the surface—a laborious and degrading occupation from which they dared not try to escape.

It is related by Robert Chambers that Bald, the mining engineer, about the year 1820, came upon an old miner near Glasgow who had been actually bartered by his master for a pony. When the famous decision was made by the Court of King’s Bench in June, 1772, that slavery could not exist in Great Britain, the Court hardly realised that at that very moment there were hundreds of slaves in Scotland who were bought and sold as part of the works on which they and their forbears were employed.

By an act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed in 1775 (15 George III. cap. 28) the villainage of colliers and salters was meant to be finally abolished. The act, which took effect from 1st July of that year, decreed that all colliers under 21 years of age were to be free in seven years from that date. Those between 21 and 35 were to be released after a further service of ten years from the date of the act, and those between 35 and 45 after a service of seven years, provided that these two classes, if required, should find and sufficiently instruct 1 in the art and mystery of coal-hewing or making of salt,’ an apprentice of at least 18 years, and on the perfection of such instruction, should then be free from further bondage. All persons above 45 years of age were to be discharged in three years.

Nothing could apparently have been more precise than these stipulations. Unfortunately, however, they were saddled with a provision chat before any collier or salter could claim the benefit of the act and gain his freedom, he was compelled to obtain ‘a decree of the Sheriff Court of the county in which he resides, finding and declaring- that he is entitled unto his freedom under the authority of this act.’ It may readily be understood that only a small proportion of the workmen had the means of defraying the cost of such an action at law. As narrated in the subsequent act of 1799, there was ‘a general practice among the coal-owners and lessees of coal, of advancing considerable sums to their colliers, or for their behoof, much beyond what the colliers are able to repay; which sums are advanced for the purpose of tempting them to enter into or continue their engagements, notwithstanding the sums so advanced are kept up as debts against the colliers.’ Hence, in spite of the legislation, the provision for emancipation remained a dead letter in regard to the great majority of the colliers, who continued to be slaves until their death. It was not until the act of 13th June, l799 (39 Geo. III. cap. 56) was passed that the shackles were finally broken, and the colliers of Scotland were ‘declared to be free from their servitude.’

But though no longer legally bound to these collieries, women continued to be employed in the same laborious and degrading occupation within the coal-mines. Quarter of a century after the act of emancipation was passed, Hugh Miller, when working as a stone-mason at Niddry, in Midlothian, found the women-toilers still at their task, and he has left the following account of them: 'The collier women of the village, poor over-toiled creatures, who carried up all the coal from underground on their backs by a long' turnpike stair inserted in one of the shafts, continued to bear more of the marks of serfdom than even the men. How these poor women did labour, and how thoroughly, even at this time, were they characterised by the slave nature! It has been estimated that one of their ordinary day’s work was equal to the carrying of a hundredweight from the level of the sea to the top of Ben Lomond. They were marked by a peculiar type of mouth. It was wide, open, thick-lipped, projecting equally above and below. I have seen these collier-women crying like children, when toiling under their load along the upper rounds of the wooden stair, and then returning, scarce a minute after, with the empty creel, singing with glee.’ Some of these women were still at work when, as a child, I first visited the district. It was not indeed until ioth August, 1842, that the act (5 and 6 Vic. cap. 99) was passed which declared it to be ‘unfit that women and girls should be employed in any mine or colliery,’ and absolutely prohibited any mine-owner from employing or permitting to be employed underground any female person whatsoever.

Their mole-like operations underground do not wholly eradicate a sense of humour in the colliers. When engaged in a study of the Borrowstouness coal-field, I had occasion to see some of the miners at Kinneil House. One of them remarked to me that they had lately found ‘ Mother Eve ’ in one of their pits. I was thereupon shown a large concretionary mass of sandstone, having a rude resemblance to a human head and bust. Seeing that this counterfeit presentment of our first parent did not greatly interest me, a younger member of the band, with a sly twinkle in his eye, whispered that besides Eve, they had found the Serpent, and that he was sure I should wish to see that. I was then taken to the back of the house where the 'serpent’ lay extended for a length of some ten or twelve feet. The specimen proved to be one of the long tree-roots known as Stigmaria, and common among the fossil vegetation of the Coal-measures. Not content with having found the tempter of the Garden of Eden, the miners had resolved to beautify and preserve his remains, and had accordingly procured some black lead with which they had burnished him up like a well-polished grate. Of greater interest to me at the time was the remembrance that this same Kinneil House had been the retreat of the illustrious Dugald Stewart during the later years of his life, whence he gave to the world those essays and dissertations which mark so notable an epoch in the history of Scottish philosophy.

Metal-mining, save that of iron, has on the whole, been unsuccessful in Scotland. The experience of Lord Breadalbane in this direction has been that of most proprietors who have sought to discover  what earth’s low entrails hold.’ The mines of Leadhills and Wanlockhead are the only examples that have long been worked, and can still be carried on. The history of the metal-mining industry in Scotland is well illustrated by the story told by Chambers of one of the old lairds of Alva, on the flanks of the Ochil Hills. Walking one day with a friend, he pointed to a hole on the hillside, and said he had taken fifty thousand pounds out of it. A little further on he came to another excavation, and added,

‘I put it all into that hole again.’


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