Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Every now and again you come across a story so terrible, so utterly bone-chilling, that you need a mug of cocoa and a lie-down to calm yourself. This particular narrative concerns (the clue is in the picture)… a small dog.
Our tale begins in the year 1814, in Forfar (that’s a town, not a stutter), Scotland, when one John Gray came into this world. He grew to become a gardener, like his father before him. But these were hard, cruel times. Work was scarce and John and his wife were forced to move south to the wicked City of Edinburgh, in search of employment. By this time John was known as Auld Jock to avoid confusion with his son, who was also called John (it obviously didn’t occur to his parents to call their son something else).
Despite the rise of its genteel New Town, Edinburgh’s poor lived in squalid, unsanitary conditions. Crime was rife. So Auld Jock enlisted as a police constable – No 90. In order to perform his duties he was required to have a dog and he chose a Skye terrier, which he called Bobby – a nickname for policemen after Sir Robert Peel, who established the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829. Auld Jock and Bobby went about their rounds together, taking care of the community, locking up criminals and bringing peace to the depraved, corrupt streets. Then, one day in the harsh winter of 1857, Auld Jock developed a cough: it worsened and he was found to have TB. By February 1858, he was dead.
They put Auld Jock in the kirkyard of Greyfriars, previously famed as the church where the National Covenant was signed in 1638. Everybody came. But Bobby sat on his old master’s grave and wouldn’t leave. The caretaker, James Brown (Papa’s got a brand new dog?), took pity and looked after him. At 1pm every day, when the gun at Edinburgh Castle marked the time, Bobby would trot to the eating house he used to frequent with Auld Jock, where kindhearted people fed him sumptuous tit-bits. Then he’d return to his graveside vigil. Bobby kept this pattern of behaviour up for 14 years, until he too shuffled off this mortal coil, in 1872. By that time, of course, everyone knew his story and Bobby was a local character. He was buried in the churchyard, not far from the master he’d kept watch over all those years.
The above is (more or less) the traditional legend of Greyfriars Bobby. Variations have Auld Jock as a nightwatchman, or a shepherd. There is no mention of what happened to Mrs Auld Jock – or the young son. Some doubt the story’s authenticity and at least one academic claimed to have smelt a rat (rather than a dog). Some reckon there was a Bobby substitute – the original having gone to the great kennel in the sky somewhat earlier than 1872. Stories about faithful dogs guarding their owners’ graves are relatively common, too. I can’t help thinking that selecting a Skye terrier in the first place, however cuddly he may have been, seems a bit unlikely; these good-natured creatures are about 10” (25cm) high – wouldn’t something a little larger and uglier have been more appropriate? Maybe it was good at sniffing out felons, but it strikes me as being about as terrifying as a budgerigar. Then there’s the rather twee name – ‘Bobby’ – wouldn’t something like Greyfriars Fang have been more threatening?
Be all that nonsense as it may, the legend was established very quickly. The statue in the picture was apparently sculpted from life by William Brody and unveiled as soon as November 1873. It was paid for by the wealthy philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts (heiress to the Coutts Bank fortune) and originally topped a drinking fountain, now disused for sanitary reasons. There has been at least one book – Greyfriars Bobby by the American Eleanor Atkinson, published in 1912, and a Disney film based on that, made in 1961. A stone was erected over Bobby’s grave and an inscription reads, “Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.”
Quite right too. As a footnote, I need to tell you than when paying my own respects to Bobby (who is Edinburgh’s smallest listed building, by the way), I saw someone actually come up and earnestly pat him on the head… I know, I know – I need to bring out my softer side more often.
You’ll find Bobby in Edinburgh at the junction of Candlemakers Row and King George IV Bridge, close to the National Museum of Scotland.