Greyfriars Bobby. How a shaggy dog story became a tourist cult

Most of us know the tale of Greyfriars Bobby – the policeman’s Skye terrier who, after his master died, refused to leave his grave even in the worst weather conditions.

It’s a tale of love and loyalty involving daily visits, prompted by the sound of the One o’clock gun, to be fed at a local restaurant run by a kindly owner. Except it seems a fabrication, a piece of spin, a shaggy dog story, perhaps created for the tourists and certainly retold to them again and again.

Watch people walk up and touch the worn bronze nose of the Bobby statue and you might think you were witnessing some kind of dog cult. They – and please don’t touch it yourself as the repeated rubbing causes damage – appear to be seeking luck through a contact with this little dog god. During the pandemic, the statue was once found with a placard around his neck, saying, “touch my nose, help spread Covid-19”.

It’s well known now that the story is not entirely true, but people seem not to care. Various researchers have tried to sniff out the real story. Among them is Jan Bondeson, who whilst writing his book on Amazing Dogs, looked into historic documents and came to believe that there was not one, but at least two Bobbies.

One of the things that made Bondeson smell a rat was the fact that Bobby’s master, Edinburgh constable John Gray had died of tuberculosis in 1858, and, so the story went, Bobby had mourned him till his own death, 14 years later, which seemed a long life for a Skye Terrier, which typically only live 10 to 12 years. The other thing that he noticed was that there were distinct differences in the photos and paintings of Bobby created before 1867, and those after.

Dog’s life: Greyfriars Bobby back in black

The original Bobby, Bondeson believes, had been a stray mongrel that hung about George Heriot’s hospital, and was later adopted by the curator of the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk who, according to newspapers at the time, would charm tourists with Bobby’s tale.

His theory is that, in return for free food for Bobby and himself, the curator would guide tourists towards a restaurant owned by John Traill, and that Traill enjoyed the trade that would bring him, even perhaps coming up with the idea of replacing Bobby with a second dog after he died.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There was a dog, perhaps several. The Bobby of legend may not have quite existed, but his story resonates. It sums up the love felt by human for dog and our marvel at the way they reciprocate.

 


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The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992