With BBC Alba legend Hugh Dan MacLennan’s help, the famed ‘Littlejohn Album’ has returned to the University’s Special Collections
Alexander Littlejohn was something of a character: a Londoner of Scottish origins, he was an economist who made his fortune in late 19th century finance and stock broking. He would later move up to Aberdeen at the dawn of the 20th century and fashion himself as Victorian Scottish laird: he bought a massive estate, began to style himself as ‘of Invercharron,’ and admittedly did a lot of good for the community, funding various initiatives in the Highlands. Yet his greatest legacy would end up in a different field: the ancient sport of shinty.
In 1905, a letter addressed to the Principal of Aberdeen University arrived at the University’s court: Littlejohn was willing to provide a cup for an annual shinty competition, bringing together teams from Scotland’s four ancient universities. The Aberdeen University Shinty club gladly accepted the offer, though they did not expect what ended up arriving: a beautiful, richly decorated trophy, modelled after a fourth century Roman vase, complete with an extensively illustrated album outlining the history and culture of shinty, or camanachd in Gaelic.
Notably, the album, which also acted as a Trust Deed for the trophy, included an outline of the history and some of the unique Gaelic terminology surrounding the sport, collated by the famous Gaelic scholar Alexander MacBain. The album can be favourably compared to the quite different Book of the Club of True Highlanders (which, amongst other things, posits that shinty was first played by Noah on his Ark, and likely by Adam too). Along with that original version of the book came several facsimile copies, to be held by the other ancient universities.
Since then, the Littlejohn tournament has become a staple of the shinty calendar, nowadays held in St Andrews, following the conclusion of the regular university league. The trophy itself, which is thought to be the second most valuable in Scotland, has been the subject of various goings-on through the ages, once supposedly kidnapped by the Glasgow University shinty club, which resulted in a series of stern letters to the University court from the Aberdeen principal, before the trophy returned back north.
A version of this story, which was thought to be mostly concluded, was delivered by retired BBC Alba legend, shinty scholar, and UofG graduate Dr Hugh Dan MacLennan at the Royal Celtic Society a couple of years ago. Following the lecture, he was told there was someone on the phone looking to speak to him: an elderly woman from the Black Isle, who insisted that she, too, had a copy of the Littlejohn Album in her possession. MacLennan had some doubts, since all known copies of the album were thought to have been tracked down, although the Inverness Gaelic Society was also known to have a copy, so who knows – he decided to pay her a visit.
Following initial cordialities, he stepped into her sitting room, and lo and behold, a Littlejohn Album was right there on her dining table, in all its glory. Apparently, the woman’s late husband, a cricket enthusiast, who had died the year before, bought it at a Dingwall antique shop a few years prior, perhaps confusing the cover page’s camans (the stick used in shinty) for cricket bats. The album had since spent its time at the bottom of a wardrobe in her home.
The woman gave MacLennan the copy for further research and safekeeping purposes: while he originally intended on passing the album on to either the Royal Celtic Society or the National Library, it soon turned out that in all likelihood the album was instead Glasgow’s original facsimile copy, which at some point had become misplaced.
And so, at a special event on November 15 at the Glasgow University Union, co-hosted by the Shinty Club and the Communn Oiseanach (Ossianic Society), following a lively and fascinating talk by MacLennan, the Littlejohn Album made its grand return to the University’s Special Collections, marking, for now, the end of yet another chapter in the trophy, and album’s history.