Greyfriars Bobby – separating facts from fiction

Most folk know the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful dog and his vigil by his master’s grave. There is certainly a core of truth – but both sentiment and commerce have altered the story. Maybe there was even more than one Bobby…

The statue of a floppy-eared Skye terrier has been sitting at the top of Candlemaker Row since 1873. Usually a flurry of camera-clicking tourists marks the spot. The dog, of course, is the world-famous Greyfriars Bobby.

It’s a well-known tale – how a faithful little dog would not leave his master’s grave. It caught the imagination of the sentimental Victorians almost as soon as Bobby had taken up residence in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The story became the basis of a popular novel by a well-educated American lady called Eleanor Atkinson, in 1912.

In her best-seller, she describes Bobby: “He was only a little country dog — the very youngest and smallest and shaggiest of Skye terriers — bred on a heathery slope of the Pentland hills, where the loudest sound was the bark of a collie or the tinkle of a sheep-bell.”

Greyfriars Bobby, Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh
The much photographed Greyfriars Bobby statue at the top of Candlemaker Row. Bobby’s nose is very shiny….there’s a reason for that. See story below.

As she relates the tale, Bobby’s master, Auld Jock, was a ‘farm laborer’ at Cauldbraes Farm in the Pentland Hills. (Atkinson invented the name.)

He came to the Wednesday agricultural markets in the city and took his mid-day meal at a restaurant in Greyfriars Place.

The proprietor’s name was John Traill. ( Auld Jock aka John Gray is also described as a shepherd.)

Dog-friendly restaurant

Unlike some hostelries today, this establishment was obviously dog-friendly and Bobby always got something to eat as well.

Anyway, in her narrative, Jock and Bobby turn up unexpectedly at Traill’s place on a winter night. The wee dog’s master is very ill.

Traill tries to get a doctor. Jock slips away to his lodgings, which is in a poor part of town – actually, a slum off the Cowgate – a short walk from Greyfriars. He is found dead there the next day.

Longish story short, legend has it that dog maintains vigil at graveside but when he hears the One o’ Clock Gun he slips round the corner to Traill’s eatery, where he has a meal.

The faithful Bobby does this for 14 years, and even has the local Lord Provost (Eng: ‘ lord mayor’) paying for his dog licence, which was required after introduction of the 1867 Dog Duty Act.

In her book, Atkinson reveals an ear for creating ersatz Scots dialogue, or at least how her readership imagined Scots spoke.

(When Jock becomes feverish and ill, however, she has Mr Traill saying that ‘He’s aff his heid’ – which has a slightly different meaning today.)

Greyfriars Bobby – Facts And Embellishments

The story has attracted the attention of many other authors, among them the Scottish writer and historian, the late Forbes Macgregor, who published ‘Greyfriars Bobby: the Real Story at Last’, revised in 2002.

His detective work in Edinburgh’s archives revealed that Bobby’s owner was definitely one John Gray, who died in 1858.

Indeed, he had been a farm labourer but joined the police force later. His occupation is recorded as such in the Greyfriars Burial Register. This also gives his address – sure enough, just off the Cowgate.

According to records, policemen patrolling the city market beat were obliged to have watchdogs with them – so we can say that it is likely Bobby was a policemen’s dog.

The dogs helped the policemen guard the animal pens overnight ahead of the weekly sales of stock in the Grassmarket, below Edinburgh Castle.

Possibly Greyfriars Bobby
Possibly Greyfriars Bobby, c. 1865. Or possibly a raccoon in fancy dress.

Traill’s ‘Temperance Coffee House’

Macgregor then followed up John Traill, the restaurant owner with the apparent close connection to the dog. Turns out he didn’t start to run the restaurant till four years after John Gray died.

The restaurant or coffee-house associated with Bobby had had a series of owners before that. 

However, it seems that after his night duty down in the Grassmarket, Gray used to have a meal there, and Bobby was fed as well.

Incidentally, it’s now a phone and computer repair shop (6 Greyfriars Place).

Border terrier pretending to look like Greyfriars Bobby
Our last terrier, the late Millie, always maintained she looked a bit like the famous Edinburgh dog. Millie was a Border Terrier with ‘just a touch of Lakeland’ in her ancestry apparently. Her most curious trait was her utter hatred of wheelie bins. She always tried to bite the wheels off them. Terriers, eh?

One O Clock – Time For A Dog’s Lunch

As for the One o’ Clock Gun ‘tradition’ – the firing of a time-check gun didn’t get under way till 1861 – three years after Bobby lost his master and took up residence by his burial plot.

Apparently, it was a certain Sergeant Scott, based at Edinburgh Castle who heard about Bobby in 1861, befriended him and taught him to turn up at the restaurant after he heard the gun go off.

So, we have a core of provable facts, that over the years became a little embellished.

For example, Macgregor suggests that this terrier’s loyalty did not necessarily involve sleeping out in all weathers.

During his researches in the city archives, by sheer good luck the author found a kind of witness statement to the effect that the occupants of two houses in Candlemaker Row, adjacent to Greyfriars, habitually looked out for Bobby and gave the wee dog food and shelter.

For sure, Bobby frequented the kirkyard, it seems, but was not averse to offers of a warm bed sometimes. Yup, certainly sounds like a dog…

This pattern continued right up to 1872 – so Bobby was a very long-lived wee dog, likely to have been born around 1856. Hmmm.

Border terrier and cushions
Look at the number of cushions behind our Border terrier. Dogs, irrespective of breed, head for the comfiest and warmest spot when it’s available. So naturally at least some of the time Bobby wasn’t going to turn down the offer of a place by the fire in a nearby house.

Even Greyfriars Bobby Needed A Warm Bed Sometimes

In short, the dog took residence in and around Greyfriars kirkyard, where his master had been laid to rest – but did not necessarily stay each night below a table gravestone adjacent to his master’s grave.

The locals kept an eye on him and he was associated with a number of nearby households even as his fame spread.

The Greyfriars Bobby legend is born

There are a few contemporary photos of Greyfriars Bobby. As a dog owner, to me they don’t actually look like the same animal.

This suspicion is backed by other stories – basically, that Traill, who took over ‘Bobby’s’ eatery, realised, like the proprietors before him, that they were on to a good thing.

Basically, here was a well-publicised celebrity dog that everyone wanted to see, who turned up every day as soon as that famous Edinburgh event, the One o’ Clock Gun, goes off? Hey, that would have been good for business…

There are grounds for believing that Traill the restaurant owner went to great lengths to embellish the Bobby story.

He claimed, for example, that Bobby’s owner Gray, was a farmer who regularly visited the restaurant when the One o’ Clock Gun sounded.

Yet, Gray died more than three years before the Gun came into operation. ‘Traill’s Temperance Coffee House’ (as it was now called) drew its own crowd of spectators though, every day at one o’clock.

Years later, Eleanor Atkinson accepted this version for her book. The memorial placed in the kirkyard as recently as 1881 suggests that Bobby must have been at least 16 when he finally died – possible, but a good age for a wee dog. Suspicious.

Greyfriars Kirkyard entrance
The little lane on the left with the sun coming through is what Bobby would have traversed to reach the street, turning up just a few doors along at Traill’s eatery (now a phone & computer repair shop at No 6 – not this pub). It wasn’t a very long way between kirkyard and lunch.
Wait, How Many Bobbys Were There?

To make matters slightly murkier, research by an academic at Cardiff University, Dr Jan Bondeson, (also a prolific author), indicates there were probably two separate Bobbies – a fact which was noted by various media in 2011.

He even suggests that neither of them were the original Skye terrier that belonged to John Gray.

Perhaps Traill, or even his predecessors, as clever restaurant owners, trained at least one local stray to visit daily to encourage trade. Maybe Bobby had several body doubles.

In any case, the ‘faithful dog stays by master’s grave’ is a kind of folk-motif that repeats itself in various locations far beyond Edinburgh – all over northern Europe, in fact.

Still, it was such a convincing tale – or Victorian hoax, depending on what you choose to believe – that in 1873 a bronze statue of a Skye terrier by William Brodie was unveiled near Greyfriars Kirk.

Greyfriars Bobby pub
Pub and dog. Come to think of it, this is a contemporary example of how a commercial establishment takes advantage of the dog’s fame, just as ‘Traill’s Temperance Coffee House’ did when Bobby (or a double) was alive.

A tale that touched the heart

The statue was paid for by the (necessarily very very rich) philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. (Amongst her many good works was a close involvement with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the RSPCA.)

The inscription reads “A tribute to the affectionate fidelity of Greyfriars Bobby. In 1858 this faithful dog followed the remains of his master to Greyfriars Churchyard and lingered near the spot until his death in 1872”.

Weirdly, it was the Inverness Courier that told his story first, in May 1864 – though only weird because it was the same paper that broke the Loch Ness Monster story in May 1933 – another ‘local’ tale that went global thanks to media interest.

Was the restaurant owner just a skinflint?

Anyway, in 1867, Bobby faced another ‘crisis’. The city fathers introduced a new dog licensing law. In an effort to keep strays and diseased dogs off the streets, every owner had to pay 7 shillings (35p in today’s money) for a licence.

The authorities assumed Traill, obviously making money from his association with the dog, would pay. Inexplicably he refused, claiming the dog didn’t belong to him.

Classed as a stray, Bobby would be rounded up and, in those days, they poisoned unwanted dogs.

However, the Lord Provost, Sir William Chambers, stepped in. He personally paid the fee, on the grounds that the Town Council owned the burial ground and tolerated the dog who stayed there.

This is an odd aspect of the story – as Traill was benefiting so much from his association with a celebrity dog – yet he wouldn’t pay to save him. The Lord Provost’s gesture made Bobby even more famous, following media coverage.

Traill and his family even cared for Bobby in his last years and when he died secretly buried him in front of old Greyfriars Kirk in a plot now lost.

Know what? I don’t think this part of the story quite adds up.

I wonder if the Lord Provost paid the licence fee because his PR department thought it would be a good idea? (You know what PR folk are like – anything for coverage…)

Bobby’s inscribed collar survives and it’s in the Museum of Edinburgh in the Canongate (Royal Mile). There you can read its inscription ‘Greyfriars Bobby from the Lord Provost, 1867, licenced’.

Bobby’s bowl, some pictures and also a plaster cast made ‘from life’ as the basis of today’s statue are also there. (Wonder how they got the dog to stand still when they poured plaster on him?)

A Statue To Commemorate A Faithful Terrier

The famous dog statue that was erected soon afterwards is, or was, strictly speaking, a memorial drinking fountain with water on two levels – for horses and for, presumably, dogs.

Its water supply was cut off in 1975 after a health scare.

As mentioned already, it’s quite a landmark. So much so that in 2013 the statue of Bobbie had to have what the media called a nose job.

Apparently, one of these wicked and untrustworthy folk known as tour guides had put out the story that it was a ‘tradition’ to rub Bobby’s nose for luck.

The same thing has happened on the Royal Mile to the philosopher David Hume’s toe – with the same polished appearance now. (Please stop this habit!)

Don’t rub Bobby’s nose – OK?

So many gullible tourists had done this that Bobby’s nose began to acquire a certain bronzy patina and began to wear away. The statue had to be reconditioned. And apparently even that didn’t last long…

Naturally, the story of Greyfriars Bobby has had all kinds of treatments by writers and film-makers. Disney’s 1961 movie Greyfriars Bobby: the True Story of a Dog is based on Atkinson’s book.

The most recent movie, The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby (UK release 2006), caused outrage amongst Skye terrier breeders as – sharp intake of breath – it featured a Westie, ie a white West Highland terrier.

Much of the film location work was actually around Stirling Castle. Stirling Old Town kirkyard even stood in for Greyfriars.

I’m speculating here, but maybe the casting folk just had to use a Westie. They look kinda Scottish as well as cute in a grumpy way – and there are lots of them about.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the Kennel Club has described the Skye terrier as one of our most endangered dog breeds.

Skye terriers are very scarce

Though Queen Victoria made these terriers fashionable and they turn up in pictures by Sir Edwin Landseer (painter of The Monarch of the Kennel, etc), they seem to have been replaced by other fashionable dogs these days.

Look at pictures of ‘modern’ Skye terriers and they seem to all be blinded by a great fringe of hair. Hmm. Consequently, they look a bit inscrutable.

And sometimes their ears are pointy and sometimes not. (Either is acceptable, apparently.)

Wait. Now they say that Greyfriars Bobby was actually a Dandy Dinmont?

So, after all that info about Skye terriers, turns out a book has just been written by two Crufts Dog Show judges suggesting that Bobby was really a Dandy Dinmont.

Though uncommon in Scotland today – maybe because so many folk prefer goggle-eyed, wheezing, in-bred puggy-dog things that they can dress up – there were, they say, 60 breeders in the Edinburgh area alone in Bobby’s time.

Well, I don’ know. DDs seem a bit small for a roughy-toughy life with a city policeman. But here’s where it says Greyfriars Bobby was a Dandy Dinmont.

Anyway, whatever the breed, take a look at the 1981 red granite memorial in Greyfriars, just round the corner from the dog’s statue, and you’ll see Bobby is as popular as ever.

The stone was placed there by the Dog Aid Society of Scotland and they even got the Duke of Gloucester to unveil it. Usually, there are a variety of poignant tributes – and sticks – left there in memory of Bobby. ‘Sniffs and clears throat’.

Perhaps Bobby represents all dogs – their unquestioning loyalty and faithfulness, especially when food is involved.

Just don’t rub the statue’s nose for luck, will ya?

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