Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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In mid-July 2013 Edinburgh was crowded with foreign tourists. Two nationalities stood out as anecdotal proof of the phenomenon of “Emerging Economies”: the Chinese who came in groups and the Indians who came in extended families. On the Royal Mile of the Old Town, the hand–held signs for the city’s new Chinese and Indians restaurants competed with the iconic bagpipe players for attention. In the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, nearby, bleachers had already been set up for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo,  with “massed pipes and drums,” which is performed by the various international military bands every August as a part of the wider three-week long annual Edinburgh International Festival. This town claims, with some justification, that its Festival is the best in the world. “It is also the biggest,” the bagpiper on the Royal Mile bragged. I was grateful to have come now when it was still possible to see the less ephemeral exceptional sights of this ancient city where history is writ large.

We were on Castle Rock where it all began. This is the 300 million year old stump of a volcano worn by glaciers. The massive basalt rock dominates the landscape, looking impregnable from below. It was the most easily defensible hilltop on the invasion route from the south. Hence, it naturally became the “capital” of the Gododdin people who called it Dun Eiden (Fort on the Hill Slope). The Gododdin had followed their ancestors, the Votadini, the ancient Britons who established their settlements on Castle Rock and, on the other end of this hill ridge, Arthur’s Seat. When the Angles from northeastern England defeated the Gododdins and captured Dun Eiden in 638, they tacked onto the Celtic Eiden their own Old English word for fortified town, burh, dropping the prefix din, making it Edinburgh.

I stepped into the oldest surviving structure on Castle Rock, Saint Margaret’s Chapel. It was a small simple Romanesque building dating from around 1140, built by King David I, in memory of his mother, Queen Margaret. The wife of King Malcolm III of Scotland, Margaret was a pious woman who was canonized by the Pope in 1250. This Royal couple founded a dynasty of Scottish rulers beginning in 1057. Their home remained Dunfermline just across the estuary of the river Forth (Firth of Forth) which is now the border of Edinburgh, but they regularly came to their Edinburgh castle on the Castle Rock. Holding court at the castle began with David. He also founded an abbey in 1128 near Arthur’s Seat. The abbey, the ruins of which still exists, is named Holyrood, after a part of the True Cross (rood in Scottish), believed to have been brought to Scotland  by Margaret. A settlement that thus grew in David’s time, extending east from Castle Rock, became the town of Edinburgh.

What I could now see in Edinburgh, however, was built from the 14th century on. The Royal Palace on Castle Rock was constructed during the 15th and 16th centuries. Across it is the Great Hall, built as a ceremonial chamber for King James IV (1488-1513) which later served as the meeting venue for the Scottish Parliament until 1639. Castle Rock dominated the plain below, all the way to the Firth of Forth in the distance. Big guns aimed through the turrets at the attacking enemy below. The one at the very top of Castle Rock, a 15th century gun, stood next to Saint Margaret’s Chapel and was called Mons Meg, after a different Margaret; Mons was where it was first tested .

There are many other cannons, as well as vaults and prisons on Castle Rock but what makes the Scots most proud is the collection called the “Honours of Scotland.” I saw them in the RoyalPalace. They consist of a Crown, Sceptre and Sword. Each has a colorful history and, together, they are the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe. The Crown was made in 1540 from the gold of Robert the Bruce’s 14th century coronet. He is considered a national hero as the King who successfully led Scotland in the Wars of Independence against England. The Sceptre was a gift to King James IV from Pope Alexander VI in 1494. It is embellished with several Christian symbols, including an image of Saint Andrew, the patron Saint of Scotland, holding a saltire (St. Andrew’s Cross) which is the national flag of Scotland. The Sword was a gift from Pope Julius II sent to Scotland’s King James IV in 1507. In 1652 it was broken into two halves in order to be concealed from the invading English troops of Cromwell.

When the Act of Union in 1707 dissolved the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England and established instead the Parliament of Great Britain sitting in London, it ended Scotland as a separate kingdom and left the Honours of Scotland with no symbolic role to play. They were locked away in a chest at EdinburghCastle. They were practically forgotten until 1818 when a group, led by Edinburgh’s Sir Walter Scott set out to find them. Upon being discovered the Honours of Scotland have been put on public display ever since.

Next to the Honours of Scotland in RoyalPalace one can also see the Stone of Destiny, even a more potent symbol in the complex relations between Scotland and England. On this stone, believed to have come from the Holy Land, Scottish kings had placed their feet as a part of their coronation ceremony. In his invasion of 1269 King Edward I of England took the Stone from the Scone Abbey to England. It was kept there as a reminder of Scotland’s subjugation, inside the case of a throne upon which British monarchs, including Elizabeth II in 1953, sat for their coronation. The Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland in 1996 by the ruling Conservative Party in London as a gesture which it hoped would boost their sagging popularity before a general election.

The Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny are located in the first floor of the former Royal Apartments in the RoyalPalace. On the ground floor is a small room where Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1566 gave birth to her only child who would become King James VI of Scotland a year later and King of England as well in 1603. Mary, whose portrait is on the wall of the Royal Apartments among those of other Stuart monarchs of Scotland, is “the most famous, most intriguing and most studied of all Scottish monarchs” according to the official tourist site of Edinburgh.

That is probably no exaggeration, as I later learned. Born in 1542, Mary became the queen of Scotland six days later when her father, King James V, died. King Henry VIII of England soon proposed a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary in order to create an alliance with Scotland. Thwarted, Henry launched a war with Scotland (1541-1551) which was continued after his death in several English invasions of Scotland. The infant Queen Mary was protected in EdinburghCastle for several months in 1548 before her French mother sent her for security to a castle most accessible to France. In fact, Mary spent most of her childhood in France and in 1558 married the French Dauphin (Crown Prince) Francis who, upon the death of his father, became king as Francis II almost immediately, thus making Mary the Queen Consort of France while she was also Queen Regent of Scotland. Francis died in 1560.  Five years later Mary wedded her cousin, the English nobleman Henry Stuart (Lord Darnely) who was now proclaimed Henry, King of Scots. James VI was their child. Mary soon became disenchanted with her husband who also made enemies of some powerful nobles. When King Henry was found strangled to death in 1567, it was said that Mary knew of the nobles’ plot to kill him.  A few months later, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, a Scottish nobleman to whom she had turned for support against Henry. Mary’s subjects who suspected Bothwell’s involvement in the murder of their King were outraged and turned against Mary. She was forced to abdicate and fled to England for help. Her cousin Elizabeth was the Queen of England. She imprisoned Mary, perceiving her as a threat since Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own based on the support of many English Catholics. After 18 years of trying to gain her freedom Mary was charged and found guilty of participating in a plot to kill Elizabeth. She was beheaded in 1587, at age 44.

The Palace that Queen Mary used as residence in her 6 years in Edinburgh (1561-67) is at the other end of the ridge of Castle Rock. Called the Palace of Holyroodhouse, it was built by her father, King James V, at the site of the abbey that King David had founded four centuries earlier. This Palace has played a central role in Scotland’s history ever since. To begin with, it was here that some of the most dramatic events of Mary’s reign took place, culminating in the murder in the palace of her secretary, David Rizzio, in 1566.  Mary’s husband, King Consort Henry, is said to have believed the rumors that David Rizzio was Mary’s lover and had made Mary pregnant, and joined the nobles to murder him. The murder was the catalyst for Henry’s downfall with the serious subsequent consequences for Mary’s fate.

Palace of Holyroodhouse retained its role after Mary and is now the official residence of British Queen Elizabeth in Edinburgh. On the side of its entrance door there is a prominent marker of the symbols of the United Kingdom: the Lion and the Unicorn which are the heraldic supporters appearing in its Britain’s Royal coat of arms. The unicorn represents Scotland and the lion stands for England. The combination originated in the beginning of the 17th century when Kings James VI of Scotland became King James I of England as well.

Royal Mile

The distance of a little more than a mile between the RoyalPalace on Castle Rock and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which also passed by all the changing sites of the Parliament, has been used by various kings and queens as a processional route.  Hence it has been called the Royal Mile. This gently snaking road was the only street of Edinburgh until the 1760s. The oldest house still standing here is the one John Knox occupied from 1561 for eleven years.  He was the minister at the nearby St Giles’ Cathedral (called after the patron saint of Edinburgh) which is more properly named the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and is known as the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. The crown spire on the top of the Cathedral dates back to the 15th century, but the Cathedral as it stands today was constructed in 1883.  Many of the other buildings lining the Old Mile are six to eight stories tall 17th to 19th century tenement buildings. Indeed, on the Royal Mile one finds the largest concentration of surviving 17th century buildings in all of Britain. Renovated and restored, today this single avenue of Old Town with its many narrow alleys (closes and wynds) and stairs houses a thriving resident community. The street level, however, is given to shops, bars and restaurants catering to the tourists.

The souvenirs that the shops sell are primarily knitwear clothing for which Scotland has been famous, especially wool and cashmere scarves and sweaters. This despite the fact that on the days I was there, Edinburgh was experiencing an unprecedented hot summer. Prices were almost the same in all stores. The higher-priced cashmere, I was told, were manufactured in Scotland, unlike the lower-priced cashmere merchandise which had been made in “other countries such as Nepal.”  In the bars the overwhelmingly favored drink was beer. A bartender reminded me that in the 19th century, Edinburgh ranked in the same league with Munich as a brewing center and that in the early 1900 it had some thirty breweries. The Scots were, of course, quite happy to tell you about the drink that is named after them, Scotch whisky.  “Single malt Scotch is one that is made only from barley that came only from one of the four main regions of Scotland -Lowland, Highland, Isles, and Speyside- and distilled in only one distillery,” I was told. The geographic source of the barley determines its taste:  “lemon, grass, smokey, and banana” relating, respectively, to the four areas mentioned. Blended Scotch is the “mixture of several single malts or one mixed with scotch made from wheat.” Not far from the Castle one can see “the largest collection of Scotch bottles in the world, which started by six bottles given in the 1950s as a gift to its Brazilian collector.”  Each bottle in the collection is different, some “bottles” are in unusual shapes such as a golf club. “None of these bottles has been opened.”

Royal Mile, of course, had other monuments. They were accessible only through the throng of tourists that snapped pictures indiscriminately, and by stepping over the younger visitors spread on the sidewalks in front of their hostels.  In the century between the mid-1700s and mid-1800s Edinburgh nurtured the flourishing of a unique cultural and intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment.  Among its many philosophers, scientists and artists, two were especially honored on the Royal Mile near the Cathedral. A sitting statue of David Hume (1711-1776) celebrates this “Man of Enlightenment’s” many accomplishments as a philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist.  Situated before Edinburgh’s High Court Building, Hume is oddly depicted half-naked in a Roman toga. His toe is shiny from the local students’ rubbing it for good luck in their exams – an irony given Hume’s strong critical views on superstition.  Hume’s collaborator in the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith (1723-1790), famous for his The Wealth of Nation, is depicted in a standing statue nearby with contemporary clothes, not idealized, to emphasis “his concern for the practical matters.”  Smith’s hand is hidden under a gown to hint his famous economic metaphor of the market’s invisible hand . Adam Smith is buried in the Canongate Church yard which is just a few blocks away. Also buried there is Robert Fergusson , a young Edinburgh poet (1750 –1774) during the Scottish Enlightenment who became highly influential, especially because of his impact on another poet, Robert Burns.  Burns (1759-1796) is “the national poet of Scotland,” I was told in Edinburgh’s oldest pub which boasted that it was where “Burns stayed during his last visit to Edinburgh.” Affectionately called Rabbie Burns, he was chosen as “the greatest Scot” in a poll recently conducted in Scotland.

Parliament Building

Canongate is a section of the Royal Mile which was once the abode of the Augustinian cannons (monks) of Holyrood Abbey.  Today it is home to the ScottishParliament Building. The choice of this site, near the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the Palace of Holyroodhouse was symbolic. For more than one thousand years this was the seat of power, religious and royal. The Scottish Parliament’s powerful influence was most dramatically demonstrated in 1560 when it created a Protestant church, the PresbyterianScottishChurch that was independent of Rome and of the monarchy.

That church’s belief in a personal bond with God which saw no need for mediation through priests was the basis of a Covenant of  defiance in 1638 against attempts by King Charles I to impose the rule of bishops on Scotland. This led to a civil war with those who supported the king. As the war ruined the country and its economy, the wealthy Scottish merchants concluded that their only hope for making money in the profitable market of developing colonies was through union with England in its emerging empire. The 1707 Act of Union which brought Scotland and England under one sovereign and one flag resulted also in one parliament.  The removal of the Scottish Parliament lasted three centuries, but the separatist feelings persisted. They grew especially in the 1979 to 1997 period when Scotland was ruled by a Conservative Party government in London against which most of the Scots had voted.  When the Labour Party won in a landslide in 1997, a referendum was held on the resurrection of a Scottish Parliament. The Scots voted overwhelmingly in favor. In July 1999 Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the new Scottish Parliament.

To building for the new Parliament was designed by the then little-known Catalan architect Enric Miralles, chosen in an international competition. Its doors were opened in 2004, and it won Britain’s 2005 Stirling Prize for the year’s best new architecture. While the ScottishParliamentBuilding is lauded by architectural academics and critics as a superb example of “postmodern deconstructivism” which created an artistic union between Edinburgh and the Scottish people, culture and landscape, the project has been controversial. It went way over the initial budget and schedule and used some non-indigenous materials such as granite from China instead of Scotland.

I took the new ParliamentBuilding as the representative of the aspirations of the recently politically aroused people of Scotland. On the day of my visit, the annual Great Edinburgh Run was scheduled on the Royal Mile. It would pass by the ScottishParliamentBuilding. This portion of the Mile, High Street, was closed to traffic. The runners were walking to the start line. Several volunteers were stationed for assisting as “Stewards.” This gave me an opportunity to ask several residents about their views on the Parliament Building.

The Canongate Wall of the building which runs along the Royal Mile was especially eye-catching with its carvings, inlaid stones, and decorative attachments. “I like the lower section of that wall,” a woman who was volunteering for the Run, told me.  “The drawings on it remind me of the ScottishHighlands and Edinburgh’s Royal Mile; and it has quotes from famous Scottish people.” She said: “But I don’t like the upper part with the woods. I don’t understand the reason for the woods.” She was also critical of the choice of site of “this modern structure an area of old historical buildings, and the fact it had “cost too much.” The quotations on the wall were inscribed on the inlaid stones. I got closer to read some. “Who possesses this land? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?  / False questions, for this landscape is masterless and intractable in many terms that are human.” That was signed by the contemporary poet Norman MacCaig. Another from the middle 20th century poet Sir Alexander Gray read:  “This is my country/the land that begat me/ These windy spaces are surely my own/and those who toll here/in the seat of their faces/ are flesh of my flesh/and bone of my bone.” A third was a Scottish proverb: “To promise is ae thing/ to keep it is another.”

I spoke to a man in front of the side entrance to the Building which had clean lines . He said he liked “such simplicity.” He was puzzled and critical of “the jumble of wood, metal, fences, windows and casts” on a side wall nearby. His friend said he was satisfied with the unusual shaped protrusions on the next wall which he called “thinking pods” for the Members of the Parliament.  He also explained that the latticed forest of wooden poles on the wall at the front of the Building represented “Scotland’s birch trees or fields of barley.” He even defended the cost of the Building: “The fact that the Parliament is here has helped reduce unemployment in Edinburgh.”

No one denied the political value of the Parliament. The unicameral system with 129 elected members led by a first minister now has authority over matters which have been “devolved” from the United Kingdom: domestic affairs such as education, health, housing, transport and economic development. It can lower or increase the rate of income tax in Scotland by up to 3%. London has retained the power over “reserved matters,” including defense, foreign affairs and social security.   (Edinburgh’s local government is run by an elected City Council.)

For some Scots that is just the beginning of separation from England. Alistair, a Steward at the Run, said “people would now vote for full independence from the U.K.” A referendum on that question is scheduled for 2014.  “Scotland is different from England,” Alistair said.

“In Scotland, the people were always sovereign, so we had a ‘king of the Scots and not Scotland!’ In England the king was sovereign.” He was concerned, however, about the influence of “the propaganda from the BBC.” on the Scottish voters. “We have no real broadcasting counterpart to BBC.  Also the Scottish establishment is against independence.” He said “Energy industry is the way to re-industrialize Scotland.” He said “England relies on hydro-electric power of Scotland.” Alistair expected renewable energy to satisfy all of Scotland’s need by 2020. He laid claim to most of the U.K.’s oil as they came from “Scottish waters.”


Alistair’s views were basically shared by the musicians I met that evening. As I walked passed the Waterloo Bar , Allen was standing just outside taking a break. He invited me in: “Go in and grab a beer.” He was the leader of a group of musicians who were playing the guitar, banjo, and Celtic drum.  They sang Scottish folk songs. The ones who introduced the songs sometimes made comments expressing their pride in Scotland which were not without political overtones. “Scotland is a kingdom in its own right,” Allen said. “The English want our natural resources,” another added later. This was a jam session. Allen told us about the world wide influence of Scottish music. “American blue grass music comes from Scotland.” In his audience there were visitors from different lands. To my right sat a Norwegian couple. This was their first visit to Scotland. “What took you so long,” Allen joked with them alluding to their Viking ancestors who had come centuries before. Rita and Martin from Bristol, were spending the weekend here “to avoid the July 12, St. Patrick’s counterpart in Northern Ireland.” Martin said “We are not all bigots,” before insisting to buy me a drink. I asked for just a beer. He said no “you must also have a scotch to drink with the beer.” Martin told me to go to Clifton on my trip in Ireland for real good music. “Come visit us when in Bristol; give your address to Rita!”

New Town

Waterloo Bar is in Edinburgh’s New Town. The statue of the hero of Waterloo, Duke of Wellington, dominates the plaza in the next block. It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in the June 1815 Battle of Waterloo, Belgium, that ended his rule as Emperor of the French. Wellington was not a Scot; born in an Anglo-Irish Protestant landowning family, he was a 19th century British soldier and statesman. The New Town, unlike Edinburgh’s Old Town, mostly celebrates the British.  Its most prestigious shopping street is named after George III, King of Great Britain (1760-1820). It is north of Princes Street (named after the King’s two oldest sons) and south of Queen Street (named after the King’s wife). Of the three other streets that complete the main grid of the New Town, one is named after the King’s father, Frederick, and another after his royal family, Hanover. The statue of King George’ son, George IV, towers over George Street which ends in Charlotte Square (after the King’s Queen).

Not only in name but also in architecture and town planning the New Town is all King III’s legacy. It is considered the world’s most complete surviving example of Georgian town planning and architecture, styles named mostly after him (but also the three other King Georges -who together ruled less than him- his son and the two other English King Georges, I and II, who preceded him). It abounds in elegant terraces,  porticos, pediments and columns. Some of the best examples of such elements of the “neoclassical” (Georgian) architecture are on the north side of Charlotte Square, with the official residence of Scotland’s first minister in its center.

The Old Town had come to have a few Georgian buildings too, notably the City Chambers, now housing the City Council, which was built in 1753-1761, but by then the Old Town had become too crowded and uncomfortable for its wealthy citizens. Indeed, it was now referred to as Auld Reekie (Old Smelly) because, lacking a proper sewage system, residents “just dropped all their garbage out of windows into the valley below,” as the tour guides tell you. In the valley to the north of the Castle Rock was a boggy depression called the Nor’ Loch (North Loch). The Castle Rock on which tenements had gone up as high as they could -“creating the Medieval Manhattan,” the guides would say- had run out of space as it could not be expanded.

The North Loch has since been drained and replaced with PrincesStreetGardens, now Edinburgh’s best public park with the greatest number of visitors, residents and tourists alike. This project which began in the 1770s was a part of the larger one to build a new town. In the competition for this town, the plan submitted by an obscure, self-taught 23 year old, James Craig, won. His plan was laid out in the 1760s. The earth dug out for buildings in the New Town was dumped onto a part of the North Loch to provide a road link with the OldTown which is now called The Mound, splitting the PrincesStreetGardens into two.

Walter Scott

New Town played a significant role in uniting the Scots. The statue of George IV (on George Street) celebrated his exceptional visit to Edinburgh in 1822, the first by a reigning monarch in more than 150 years. Complying with the King’s stated wishes, the city of Edinburgh asked Sir Walter Scott to manage that visit.  Scott (1771- 1832) was a famed Scottish writer. King George IV had been a fan even as the Prince Regent and had invited Scott to dinner in 1815. Walter Scott was already a celebrity as a poet when he began turning his research in the oral tradition of Scotland into historical novels, pioneering that genre . The first was Waverley, published anonymously in 1814, followed by several other novels under the name of “Author of Waverley,” as Scott wished to maintained anonymity.

Scott was an advocate of the Union with England. This was evident in Waverley which could not be but pleasing to the British monarchy.  In that novel, the English protagonist, Edward Waverley, serving in the British army visits the Highlands in Scotland and, meeting Bonnie Prince Charlie and her group of rebellious Jacobites (who supported the cause of the old Scottish Stuart dynasty), goes over to their side, but eventually Waverley (true to the name reflecting his divided royalties) resolves in favor of living peacefully under the rule of the House of Hanover.

The popular appeal of Scott’s exploration of Scottish history also impressed the British Prince Regent. He was the one who gave Scott permission to search for the long-lost Scottish Crown Jewels, and granted him the title of baronet on his success in 1818. Scott used George IV’s visit as a way to heal the rifts that had long afflicted Scots society. He staged the event’s welcoming ceremony as a “Gathering of the Scottish Clans” with “acres and acres of tartan.” He persuaded the King himself to dress in tartan. This was a remarkable show of “Highlandism”.  Dressing up in tartan (a pattern consisting of multiple color, crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands woven in multiple colors, each associated with a region but since the mid-19th century adopted by specific clans) and wearing the kilt (the knee-length garment with pleats at the rear which originated as the dress of men and boys in the Scottish Highlands of the 16th century)  were becoming fashionable among the Scottish middle and upper classes. The urbanized Lowland Scots who had formerly long despised the Highland rural people were now adopting their dress, proscribed after the 1745 rebellion against the English, as a way of distinguishing themselves as Scots from their fellow-British in England. Paradoxically, King George VI’s visit and Walter Scott’s novels came to play an important part in making Scotland fashionable in England.

The Victorian craze for all things Scottish among the British royalty was in no small measure due to Scott’s novels.  His being a Lowland Presbyterian, rather than a Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlander, of course, had made him more acceptable to a conservative English reading public. In 1854, the North British Railway named its new Edinburgh’s central train station Waverley. The citizens of Edinburgh had honored Sir Walter Scott in 1844 by building a Victorian Gothic monument that dominates the south side of the PrincesStreetGardens at 200 feet 6 inches -the highest monument in Europe, as they tell you.  Inside that ScottMonument sits a statue of Sir Walter Scott. Nearby, a bridge over the railroad tracks called Waverley is a main road connecting New Town to OldTown.

New Town which began as a residential suburb soon became a magnet for shops and businesses. Princes Street attracted retail stores such as Jenners Department Store (founded in 1838) which is Britain’s oldest department store. Today those shops’ specialties are kilts with different setts or tartan patterns. I was told that the most popular patterns are the Royal Stewart and the Black Watch which includes Old Campbell.  The naming of the tartans after clans has been promoted by weaving companies which recognized its mercantile benefit. Sales clerks told me that although the tartan originated in woven wool, is it now equally liked in cashmere.

New Town’s George Street, on the other hand, turned into Edinburgh’s financial district with banks and office buildings. The big financial firms have since relocated to Edinburgh’s new Exchange district. The old banks’ spaces have been taken over by trendy bars and restaurants, such as Dome Grill Room.  Its elegant dinning space was crowded with well-dressed guests on the Saturday night I visited it. Not far from it, Rose Street hosted the more casual customers in its many pubs -seventeen of them by my count- where amateur musicians played.

Whether Old Town or New Town, historic Edinburgh offered so much to visitors that one had to agree with UNESCO which declared both World Heritage Sites in 1995.

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