Unsolved mysteries of Edinburgh: New light on Greyfriars Bobby... both of them

It must be a somewhat disquieting thought for the dignitaries of Greyfriars that their kirk, whose history goes back four centuries, with its churchyard well stocked with historic monuments, is today mainly known for having harboured a stray dog in mid-Victorian times.

By Jan Bondeson
Saturday, 20th February 2021, 7:00 am
Greyfriars Bobby cabinet card
Greyfriars Bobby cabinet card

I am speaking, of course, of that extraordinary animal, Greyfriars Bobby, whose meteoric fame has far eclipsed that of his ecclesiastical alma mater​; for every visitor to old Greyfriars, there are ​10​ who have come only to see and revere the monuments to the most faithful dog in the world, who is alleged to have kept vigil on his master’s grave for ​14​ long years.Apart from the iconic dog monument in Candlemaker Row, there is Greyfriars Bobby’s gravestone, erected in the triangular plot in front of the kirk, and that of his protean ‘beloved master’, thought by some to have been a Pentland shepherd and by others to have been an Edinburgh police constable. The myth of Bobby the ​p​olice ​d​og is an undesirable by-product of the latter line of thought​. Who would employ a small terrier in such a capacity?

The pilgrims to Greyfriars come from faraway lands, attracted not by the Star of Bethlehem but by the light from the replica lamp-post erected next to the dog monument. They bring not gold, frankincence and myrrh, but dog biscuits, furry toys and ornamental wreaths, which they think Bobby’s spirit would appreciate. Once these votive offerings have been deposited next to his gravestone, before leaving​, ​they rub Bobby’s shiny nose to secure themselves future prosperity.

There is no doubt that Bobby really existed, or that he spent lengthy periods of time at Greyfriars, not less than ​14​ eyewitnesses saw him there from 1860 until 1872. These observations do not support the myth of Bobby’s ‘faithful mourning’, however​. The jolly little dog went all over the district, ratting in the kirk and visiting friends as far away as Bristo to obtain a meal.

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Greyfriars Bobby by WG Patterson

It is also a fact that although the mawkish readers of the RSPCA’s Animal World remained reverent to Bobby and his legend, many Edinburgh people ‘in the know’ were well aware that the story of the mourning little dog was a complete invention. When, in 1889, there was an application to erect a monument on Greyfriars Bobby’s grave, Councillor James B Gillies stood up in the Edinburgh Town Council to object that Bobby had just been a mongrel of the High Street breed, who had possessed enough sense to take shelter at Greyfriars. His story was just a penny-a-liner’s romance, and Bobby never had any ‘beloved master’ at all.

The objections of Gillies and others were heeded, and the children who had collected pennies for Bobby to get a gravestone rebutted​. I​t would take until 1981 for this exception to be remedied and a gravestone erected for the celebrated cemetery dog.A set of cabinet card photographs of Greyfriars Bobby was produced soon after the little dog found himself famous, in April 1867. They depict an elderly terrier mongrel, grey or dark yellow in colour, with cataracts in both eyes, and afflicted with a benign congenital deformity known as facial asymmetry, causing the right side of the dog’s face to be wider than the left one.

An early etching of Bobby by Robert Walker Macbeth, and two paintings of him by Gourlay Steell, clearly show the same animal as the cabinet cards. In contrast, the later portraits of Greyfriars Bobby are of quite another dog - a handsome black, brown and grizzled Skye Terrier.

Since it would appear anomalous that two Greyfriars Bobbys would coexist in the cemetery at the same time, it must be suspected that after​ ​the old dog had expired later in 1867, he was replaced with another animal​.

Greyfriars Bobby

T​he verger James Brown and the restaurateur John Traill, who both benefited from exploiting Greyfriars Bobby, are likely to have been involved in this scheme. As the scoffing journalist Thomas Wilson Reid expressed it, the old mongrel dog was soon ‘honoured to death’ and ‘transformed into the similitude of a pure Skye terrier’​. H​ere we had a yarn of canine fidelity that entirely lacked substance, being magnified into a city monument, and a famous story to be told to generations yet unborn​.​Another objection to the story of Greyfriars Bobby is that it is part of a pan-European myth of extreme canine fidelity, a sentimental notion that after the master had died and been buried, the mourning dog would keep vigil on the grave. This notion was taken advantage by some canine vagabonds roaming into cemeteries, and remaining there because they were taken care of by kind people who thought the cemetery dog was keeping vigil on the grave of its departed master.

There are 46 of these cemetery dogs upon record, the majority of them having been at large in Victorian times, from France, England, Sweden and the United States. None of the great cemeteries in Paris was complete without a mourning dog, and there were cemetery dogs in London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Dublin and Belfast. In several instances, it was discovered that the cemetery dog had nothing whatsoever to do with the person it was presumed to be mourning.Greyfriars Bobby is today Scotland’s most famous dog, and one of the most celebrated canines in the worl​d. H​is value to the Edinburgh tourist industry must be very considerable indeed. Perched on his iconic monument the inscrutable Bobby receives the homage from the wide-eyed tourists and their flashing cameras and mobile telephones, but they are unaware that the dog statue had feet not of solid bronze, but of mere brittle clay, and that they are worshipping not the original canine saint from 1867, but a false prophet usurping his fame...Jan Bondeson is the author of Greyfriars Bobby: The Most Faithful Dog in the World, published by Amberly Publishing

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