The spine-tingling tale of Greyfriars Bobby

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:40 pm

Greyfriars Bobby, memorial, EdinburghEvery 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.

Greyfriars Bobby, Candlemakers Row, King George IV Bridge, EdinburghThey 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.

Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh

26 thoughts on “The spine-tingling tale of Greyfriars Bobby”

  1. My younger sister has been in love with Greyfriar’s Bobby since she was a little girl. For her 18th birthday, I took her on an overnight ghost hunt in St Mary’s Close, Edinburgh. Before it started, we visited Bobby and did a ghost walk in Greyfriar’s cemetery. Beautiful place, very peaceful 😉

  2. “Greyfriar’s Fang”! What are you doing messing with our famous Scottish legends? I’ll never picture Bobby the same again! But I do have a picture of him in my files, from our visit years ago to say hello and pat his head nicely.

  3. Love this statue, incredible view he has too! Thanks for the story, bone-chilling pulled me right in of course, okay really it was the pup! Enjoy your day, and keep telling us stories!

  4. I’m happy to say that wasn’t very spine-tingling. I almost didn’t read this. 😀 Animal stories are always nice, though.

  5. Blue Sky Scotland

    I was there a few months ago. Nice graveyard and district but I have heard a recent programme claim there may have been several Bobby lookalikes as it was a good tourist draw even then and an untimely death would have killed that off without an identical and easily replaced stand in lying faithfully on the grave.

  6. Yes I would have thought Auld Jock would have chosen a larger scarier dog, but it’s a nice story.

  7. I bought the book about this story when I was a teenager. I was quite surprised when we visited Edinburgh many decades later to see how small the monument was! Sarah x

  8. Hi Mike – wonderful sculpture – and the folk-story is an excellent one – and animals are extraordinarily faithful … I’m pleased it’s a happy story – true or not … in difficult times yes … cheers Hilary

  9. Spine tingling? I was expecting a ghost or something quite scary not a dog story. I have heard this one before. Don’t know where though. I’ll have to look for that statue when we visit in the fall.

    1. Sorry, Marcia! But the investigating committee has found that the possibly slightly misleading headline fully meets the Not Terribly Serious standards for which A Bit About Britain is renowned 🙂 Hadn’t forgotten your autumn trip to Scotland – we aim to add many more Scottish entries to the attraction directory before then!

  10. My spine has most definitely been well and truly tingled by the unforgettable story of Bobby. Now where’s that mug of cocoa??? BTW I’ll be going to Edinburgh in 2018 so I’ll be able to pay my respects and give him a pat on the head and a nose rub myself.

    1. A nose rub?? Oh, no! Edinburgh is a great city. The plan is to add more Scottish sites in general, to ABAB’s attraction directory, this year. So maybe that will give you some ideas, if you need any.

  11. What an interesting story seems a bit far fetched that the little dog was a police dog but since we were not around way back then and don’t know all we can do is admire the statue and take the story with a grain of salt

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