A Fatal Christmas: In Tribute To James Main
A Fatal Christmas: In Memory of James Main

by William Sheridan

Ever since it began in the nineteenth century, football in Scotland has stopped for nothing or no man. Even World Wars were incapable of throwing up enough obstacles to halt our dual determination to both play and to support the auld game. If the calendar dictated that Saturday fell on the Christmas day, then a round of League fixtures was scheduled, that was that. There were even several occasions where we went out of our way to specifically schedule matches for Christmas day, but these were relatively few and far between. This was in contrast to our neighbours from down South, who had full fixture cards annually for several decades up until the late 1950s.

A Fatal Christmas
● A typical Christmas match day scene of the era. (FFT)

A decent level of Sunday-style public transport services operated on Christmas Day all the way into the mid 1980s (before deregulation), so it was still reasonably possible for most folks to get to games. One can only speculate as to whether those responsible for the cooking were quite happy to go along with the arrangements for the sake of peace and quiet whilst getting on with preparing the turkey. Before I get into any bother on this subject I shall refrain from further elaboration, and skip straight ahead to the next bit…

Thistle went into the game on 25th December 1909 on the back of our all-time worst home League run. It had been more than a year since we'd won at home in the League. Can you believe it? (Actually, perhaps you can. At the time of writing the Partick Thistle supporters of 2013 vintage have similarly been starved for eight and a half months!) Even at that, our last “home” win had come at Ibrox, where we defeated Morton by 5 goals to 1 on the 5th December 1908. Since then, we had played 14 League games without a home win, although this glum stat can always partly be excused by the fact that several of these fixtures were played on the grounds of our opponents. We were, of course, temporarily, of no fixed abode, having been caught out in between our domiciles at Meadowside and Firhill. The latter had yet to be termed a Fortress, and we had now played 5 League games without a win in our brand new home.

Going into the game, Thistle were 16th (3rd bottom) and our opponents, Hibs, were 5th. Jags were without the services of three key men – Alec Raisbeck, Maurice Parry and Thomas Callaghan – all of whom had picked up knocks in a bruising encounter against Rangers at Ibrox the week before.

In the circumstances, this was not a game we were expected to win. However, in keeping with the truly unorthodox tradition of the Partick Thistle, we overcame the odds, halted the record run and bagged our first ever League win at Firhill into the bargain. And all of this on a Christmas day.

In normal circumstances, all of this would have given us much cause for celebration but, as this tale unfolds, it will become apparent that our superficial joy was momentary and that, soon, our mood would turn to despair. Post-match events were set to cast a depressing shadow over all at Firhill, Easter Road and, indeed, the Scottish football community at large.


A Fatal Christmas
● Christmas day at Firhill, 1909, although it's impossible to gauge conditions from the cheap photo. (SR)

In a bid to overcome the frost bound surface, Firhill had been heavily sanded for this one. The directors of both clubs agreed that the game could be played – these were the days before the referee held all the power. Somewhat ominously, Sam Allan, the acting Hibs captain for the day, twisted his knee in the pre-match warm up.

Hibs started the match with only ten men as they assessed the damage to Allan. In his absence, it was James Main who was handed the captain’s armband – the first time he’d been bestowed with the honour. Despite this initial handicap, the visitors managed to grab the lead in 5 minutes when John Sharp opened the scoring. In the meantime, Sam Allan’s participation was ruled out and Callaghan was thrust into the action after 10 minutes, levelling the numbers of those competing in both sides to eleven. Within seconds, Thistle equalised through Willie Gardiner. It had all been a very strange start to a very strange game.

A Fatal Christmas
● Frank Branscombe (left) and James Main (right), two fine young men. (SR/SSC)

Thistle had the better of the play in the first half and Gardiner netted again to put Jags 2-1 ahead as half-time approached. Just before half-time was called, our outside left, Frank Branscombe, slid into James Main, the Hibs back, resulting in a studs impression being left on the stomach of the Hibs defender. Interviewed years after the event, John Sharp, Hibs’ goalscorer that day, was firm in his belief that it was a simple but freak accident, recalling that: “Branscombe slipped on the treacherous surface, his foot catching Jamie in the groin as he fell.” After receiving attention on the field, Main was in no fit state to continue, and he was assisted back to the Firhill changing room.


Main did not reappear for the second half and Hibs played out the game in the same way that they’d started – with only ten men on the pitch. Our visitors were backs to the wall for the duration but were resolute until the very end before Fred Robertson was finally able to put the seal on Thistle’s first ever League win at Firhill, a victory by 3 goals to 1. The history-making Thistle team: Willie Howden, Archie McKenzie, James Bennett, Robert Wilson, William McDonald, Robert Lyle, Tom Ballantyne, Robert Graham, Fred Robertson, Willie Gardiner, Frank Branscombe.

A Fatal Christmas
● West Calder, as it was known to James Main in the 1900s. (SSH)

In the dressing room after the game Main appeared to have recovered and he was able to take tea with the rest of his team-mates. The injured player felt fit enough to travel to his home at West Calder by rail and, after arriving at the station, was capable of walking the half mile or so to his home.

Nonetheless, on Monday 27th December, the Scotsman was reporting alarming developments, namely that the player had been rushed to hospital on the Sunday morning and that he had undergone an operation due to a ruptured intestine: “Main came through the operation successfully, but his condition afterwards became so serious that his relatives were summoned, and at an early hour this morning his condition was very low.


On Wednesday 29th December 1909, at 10:40pm, James Main died as a result of his injury.

It was reported in The Scotsman thus:


ACCIDENT TO EDINBURGH FOOTBALLER ENDS FATALLY. James Main, the well-known Hibernian player, died in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary last night as the result of the accident which befell him in the match at Glasgow on Saturday last between the Hibernians and Partick Thistle. The mishap occurred as the result of a collision between deceased and Branscombe, the Partick Thistle outside left, Main being injured about the stomach. The injured player seemed to have recovered after the match, and was able to proceed to his home at West Calder. On Sunday morning one of the doctors who had been in attendance, fearing a rupture of the bowel, had him removed to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where an operation was performed. On Monday and Tuesday slight improvement was reported, but last night deceased’s condition was very low again, and death resulted. Main was a native of West Calder. He was in his twenty-fourth year, and he joined the Hibernians, his only senior club, when he was eighteen, and since then has been connected with the club. Main was one of the best club backs in the country, and his services have been so much sought after that the Hibernians have invariably had some difficulty at the end of each season in getting him to stay with them. He twice played in international matches, once against the English League for the Scottish League in 1908, and once for Scotland against Ireland last season.

The following week, Thistle were at Hampden for the New Years derby against Queen’s Park. Frank Branscombe was initially listed in the Thistle line-up, but couldn’t bring himself to play. He also sat out the following game at Pittodrie.

The funeral for James Main was held at West Calder on Monday 3rd January, and the Hibs contingent were joined by representatives from most of the leading clubs in the country, including a large contingent from Partick Thistle. Since Thistle were in action at Pittodrie that day, it can be assumed that most of the regular first team were unable to attend. It is not known if Frank Branscombe was among those present.


As for the playing of football on Christmas day, Thistle played their 17th and final such game in 1971, the recent League Cup winners going down to a surprising 1-0 loss at home to Ayr United. This was the last year in which a full Scottish card was played out on Christmas day. When Christmas Saturday rolled around again in 1976 there was a bit of a “mutiny on the bounty”. As normal, a full fixture list had been scheduled by the SFL, but many of the clubs decided to start altering dates in response to supporters feelings, and, no doubt, with half an eye on the never ending quest to maximise those all important revenues. Some games fell victim to the weather, but most clubs, including Thistle, switched to Monday 27th (We drew 0-0 at Rugby Park). Hibs came up with the whacky plan of scheduling their match for 7.30pm on Christmas Eve. 3,875 turned out for their match against Ayr but this was half their average for the season and the plan had clearly backfired.

Clydebank and St Mirren get the honour of being the last of the senior Scottish clubs to have played on Christmas Day. Their First Division top of the table clash, kick off 3pm, drew an excellent crowd of 7,675 to Kilbowie on 25th December 1976. Earlier, Alloa had entertained Cowdenbeath in a game which kicked off at 11am. These were the only two games that did not partake in the “revolt of ’76!”.

As a result of the reaction of the clubs in the Winter of ’76, by the time of the next Christmas Saturday in 1982, the SFL decided to abandon the tradition. The 25th was ignored and all games were scheduled for Monday 27th December. Suitably flexible arrangements have been made to avoid Christmas day ever since.


In the circumstances, I can only finish this story by reverting my thoughts back to James Main, known as Jamie or Jimmy to his friends. The next time you’re at a match and the referee abandons the game due to adverse weather, you should think of the promising young 23-year-old, cut down in his prime in just such conditions. There should be no mumping and moaning. History taught us a harsh lesson on Christmas day 1909 and we should take heed.

If you’re ever passing West Calder cemetery you can pay your respects. There you will find a 9ft granite memorial which stands in salute of the lad to this day.

I dedicate this piece to the memory of James Main.

A Fatal Christmas
● At West Calder cemetery, James Main R.I.P. (MWM)
A Fatal Christmas
● For the centenary of Main’s tragic passing in 2009, Hibs honoured the player with this plaque, fitted in the concourse of the Famous Five stand at Easter Road. (PIN)
James Main gallery

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A Fatal Christmas
● James Main at Easter Road. (PIN)
A Fatal Christmas
● From the Smith's cigarette card issued in 1909. (SSC)
A Fatal Christmas
● James Main, 1909. (DC)
A Fatal Christmas
● At Easter Road in 2009; relatives of James Main beside the plaque dedicated in his memory. (MWM)

Publishing date Originally published on 25-Dec-2013 (WAT).
Thistle Archive publishing date Republished here on The Thistle Archive, 25-Dec-2022.
Latest edit date Latest edit version 25-Dec-2022.

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