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Famous Dogs in History : The Story of Greyfriars Bobby

Updated on November 23, 2022
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I'm a graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde, a former Edinburgh Tour Guide and resident of the city.

"Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all'

The subject of not one but two movies, including a Walt Disney production, the story of Greyfriars Bobby has entertained people all over the world.

His statue in Edinburgh on the King George IV Bridge is a magnet for tourists and their cameras.

In fact despite all the worthies immortalised in bronze and granite around the streets of the Scottish capital the small statue of Bobby is the most photographed in the city.

But what of the story, indeed the folk-tale perhaps, of the little Skye terrier of the mid-19th century? How much is true and how much is legend?

The story goes that Bobby was owned by Jock Gray who was a night-watchman with the local Police force. In particular he would watch over the graveyard of the Greyfriars Kirk. This is how little Bobby earned his future nickname.

In 1858 Jock died of tuberculosis and was buried in the graveyard. Thereafter begins the story of how for the next 14 years Jock's faithful pet guarded over his grave. Every day Bobby would sit at the grave loyally and steadfastly to be next to his late master.

He would only leave the site when he was hungry and thirsty. In a spectacular example of Pavlovian conditioning Bobby is said to have left only on hearing the firing of the one o'clock gun from Edinburgh Castle. This thunderous timepiece was his cue to walk round to the nearby eatery where he would be fed and watered by the locals.

Sometimes a fresh steak was a special treat from Colour Sergeant Scott who lived next to the graveyard and was the soldier who actually fired the gun. It is said that people even gathered to watch Bobby appear from the graveyard indicating that he was a tourist attraction while he was alive.

Saved by the Chamber

But now danger awaited the dog after the death of his master. As a stray he could have been put-down by the local authorities after a 1867 by-law that required all dogs to be licensed.

However the Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the time was William Chambers and he agreed to issue a licence to the little dog. Therefore Bobby was provided with a collar and leash which conferred upon him some unofficial canine citizenship.

These items are actually still in existence today and can be seen on display. Aside from his feeding bowl in a glass case you can see his collar and leash in the Museum of Edinburgh in the Canongate section of the famous Royal Mile. On the collar you will see an inscription in brass confirming the issuing of the items from Chambers.


Let sleeping dogs lie

Bobby eventually passed away in 1872 and he was also buried in the graveyard at the Greyfriars Kirk. However since he was an animal the church would not permit him to be buried next to his master.

Therefore instead of lying side by side with Jock he was interred in an unmarked grave. Nevertheless a memorial stone has since been placed at the entrance of the graveyard in his honour.

It is finely crafted in red granite sponsored by the Dog Aid Society of Scotland and was unveiled in 1981 by the Duke of Gloucester. Although this is not the spot where he was buried it has become a shrine for visitors. In charming moments children especially will leave flowers, sticks and toys as gifts for the famous little terrier.

The truth will out

However revisionist accounts of the story of Greyfriars Bobby differ from the traditional 'tourist-friendly' version. Of course for the sake of the younger generation no self-respecting Edinburgh tour-guide would detract far from the Walt Disney depiction of the story. It is a wonderful tale for children the world over.

Nevertheless the alternative views claim for example that after his master's funeral Bobby was taking in and cared for by Jock's family. Another version claims that local families in Candlemaker Row next to the Kirk would take him in to their homes.

A local householder John Anderson is mentioned by the writer Forbes Macgregor in a 1990 book after the writer had conducted research on the story. The truth is perhaps a mixture of both.


Local hero

These points are sometimes recognised in the legendary tales but it was claimed that Bobby would still continually return to Greyfriars and sneak in.

Apparently James Brown, the gardener of the Kirk, decided to let him stay and he looked after him by providing food, water and shelter.

In fact having a graveyard dog was not that unusual as there were many of them in the cities across Britain and Europe.

The dog's story became well known nationally when it appeared in The Scotsman newspaper which attracted interest from all over the country. Indeed writer Eleanor Atkinson published the story in the USA in the 1890's and Bobby's tale became an international phenomenon.

But back in the 1860s James Brown was enjoying the fruits of the publicity inspired by The Scotsman article. Visitors to the graveyard increased 100-fold and he enjoyed tips as people would drop him some coins on their way out.

A canine conspiracy theory

In 2011 research by Dr Jan Bondeson of Cardiff University in Wales confirmed that Bobby was a tourist attraction back in the 19th century.

Apparently he proved to be a lucrative tool for the local coffee shop 'The Eating Place', owned by John Traill from 1862, as Bobby's fans increased their custom. Bondeson also says that the dog may have been trained to remain in the graveyard.

In the most astonishing claim Bondeson says that Bobby actually died before 1872. However to avoid the profits drying up the restaurant owners procured an identical dog to continue the legend that little bit longer without arousing suspicion.

Bobby's age was calculated at around 17 years old. However experts in canine longevity have confirmed that it would be unusual for a breed like the Skye terrier to have lived as long as Bobby reportedly had. Therefore the two-dog conspiracy theory may have some substance.

The legend lives

But let us not burst the bubble of the traditional tale that has enthralled children and amused adults for over 150 years.

Like many folk-tales and urban myths there is often an element of truth behind the fiction.

Speculation, creativity and imagination have embellished the story with historical uncertainty and recorded local memories clouding the issue.

Nevertheless, if you are ever in Edinburgh make sure you pay a visit to his memorial stone and take that all important photograph of his diminutive statue. This was commissioned by Baroness Burdess-Coutts, sculpted by William Brodie and unveiled in 1873 only a year after Bobby's death.

Certainly at the heart of the matter its morality tale remain true and the inscription 'Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all' on the memorial stone is a fine epitaph to the little Skye Terrier.


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