One of the aims of this blog is document ‘notable dogs’; real-life dogs who have become famous locally, nationally, or internationally. On a recent trip to Edinburgh I visited a statue to one such canine celebrity – Greyfriars Bobby.
Greyfriars Bobby’s story is well-known and much-recounted. After the death of his owner John Gray (sometimes known as “Auld Jock”) in 1858, Bobby returned each day to Gray’s grave for fourteen years until his own death in 1872. The story goes that the Skye terrier would leave Traill’s Dining Rooms, where he and Gray had been regulars, to sit by his master’s grave in the burial ground of Greyfriars Kirk (church). Bobby’s continued bond with his master touched a nerve with the public and he became a celebrated character in Edinburgh. The Lord Provost of the city even presented him with a collar and paid his dog tax after the owner of Triall’s Dining Rooms refused to foot the bill on the grounds that Bobby remained loyal to his former owner. Nonetheless, Triall happily fed Bobby and presented him with his own bowl (now on display in the Museum of Edinburgh).
This, at least, is the traditional view. However, research by Jan Bondeson of Cardiff University suggests that there were in fact two Bobbies. The first was a mongrel adopted by James Brown, the warden of the kirkyard, who would recount the story of the loyal terrier to visitors in exchange for food and tips. He would then lead visitors to Triall’s Dining Rooms for further refreshments. When the original Bobby died in 1867, Triall hit upon the idea of bringing in a new (and better-looking) dog to step into the deceased’s paws to keep business flourishing.
Dispute the disputed and doubtful elements of the story, Bobby’s popularity and renown were cemented when a statue of him (or more accurately, Bobby mk II), was erected opposite the kirkyard’s entrance in November 1873.
Commissioned by Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts and sculpted by William Brodie, this ‘tribute to the affectionate fidelity of Greyfriars Bobby’ marked the creation of a memorial landscape devoted to the faithful pooch. In 1981 the Dog Aid Society of Scotland erected a grave stone to Greyfriars Bobby in the kirkyard, which now sits near to a revamped gravestone to John Gray ‘master of Greyfriars Bobby’ and James Sexton ‘friend to Greyfriars Bobby.’
As the gravestones’ inscription suggest, Bobby has taken centre stage within the memorial landscape and the human characters of the story are defined in relationship to him.
Although now challenged in the popularity stakes by the nearby Elephant House cafe, where J. K. Rowling wrote some of the Harry Potter books, Bobby’s statue and gravestone are firmly part of Edinburgh’s tourist trail.
Local cafes and pubs try to cash in on Greyfriars Bobby, whilst numerous books, films, and websites keep the legend in the public eye. Tourism officials are clearly keen for this to continue and have played down the potential impact of Bondeson’s research. A spokesperson for Visit Scotland has argued that ‘separating fact from legend is always going to be tricky but regardless of how much the story has evolved over the years it has done little to deter visitors paying homage to a true Scottish icon. I’m sure that visitors to Edinburgh will continue to be inspired by Bobby’s story and he is worthy of his place in Scottish history.’
Bondeson’s research needs to be acknowledged and it is right to question the dubious history of Greyfriars Bobby. But the meaning and myth of Greyfriars Bobby are undoubtedly more interesting than the events themselves. For they highlight the enduring popularity of the image of the loyal dog. We don’t know what motivated the dog(s) to inhabit the kirkyard. But contemporaries readily interpreted the dog(s)’s presence as proof of canine fidelity. Not only did the Greyfriars Bobby story resonate with nineteenth-century sentimental and heart-warming tales of loyalty, but it reinforced the narrative of Protestant loyalty and determination that surrounded Greyfriars Kirk, according to historian Hilda Kean. In 1638 Protestants had signed the Protestant National Covenant at the site of Greyfriars, cementing their faith in and commitment to the Protestant cause. For these reasons, Greyfriars Bobby’s loyalty, real or imagined, met with a receptive audience in late-nineteenth century Scotland.
But the Greyfriars Bobby story has a far wider resonance. Similar tales continue to make headlines across the globe (for instance a dog in China refused to leave its owner’s grave in November 2011). The continued celebration of loyal dogs suggests that the myth of Greyfriars Bobby will live on, even though Bondeson’s research has exposed the story’s falsehoods. Narratives of loyal dogs satisfy human desires to be needed and loved and, for some commentators, offer models of loyalty that humans should try to emulate. As the inscription on the 1981 gravestone to Greyfriars Bobby reads, ‘Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to as all.’ Memorials, books, films, and newspaper reports have therefore transformed a dubious story of canine loyalty in late-nineteenth century Scotland into an archetypal morality tale of trans-species fidelity and companionship.
For more on the Greyfriars Bobby story, see:
Jan Bondeson, Greyfriars Bobby: The Most Faithful Dog in the World (Amberley Publishing, 2011)
Hilda Kean, ‘An exploration of the sculptures of Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Brown Dog, Battersea, South London, England,’ Society and Animals 11:4 (2003), 353-73
Thanks to Kate Clarke for tipping me off about the “Chinese Greyfriars Bobby.”