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Greyfriars Bobby: the most loyal of little dogs, or a Victorian era publicity stunt?

3 min read

An adorable scruffy dog looks out over Edinburgh, atop a granite fountain built in his honor. Popular stories said that this little skye terrier known as Greyfriars Bobby kept vigil at his owner’s grave for 14 years after his death.
The best-known version of the story is that the dog belonged to John Gray, who worked for the Edinburgh City Police as a nightwatchman. When John Gray died of tuberculosis in 1858, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, in the Old Town of Edinburgh. Bobby then spent the rest of his life sitting on his master’s grave. In 1867 the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers, who was also a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, paid for Bobby’s licence and gave the dog a collar, now in the Museum of Edinburgh.
His dedication and loyalty became legendary, and when he finally died in January 1872, he was laid to rest in Greyfriars Kirkyard, not far from John Gray’s grave.
A year later, the English philanthropist Lady Burdett-Coutts was charmed by the story and wanted a drinking fountain topped with Bobby’s statue (commissioned from the sculptor William Brodie, the same creator of the ram of Moffat without ears!) to commemorate him.
Yes, It’s a heartwarming story that has inspired numerous books, movies, including the novel Greyfriars Bobby (1912) by Eleanor Atkinson or the film Greyfriars Bobby (1961), The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby (2006), and even an episode of Futurama, but there’s a little problem: It seems that the whole thing may have been a publicity stunt.

A common discussion is over which of two people named John Gray was the real owner of Bobby (the night watchman or a farmer?).
In a recent book, author Jan Bondeson states that the original Bobby was just a stray who found that by lingering around the churchyard he could get snacks from sympathetic visitors who assumed he was mourning the loss of his master. Bondeson states as background that in 19th-century Europe, there are over 60 documented accounts of graveyard or cemetery dogs. They were stray dogs, fed by visitors and curators to the point that the dogs made the graveyards their home. People began to believe that they were waiting by a grave and so the dog was looked after.
Moreover, the author suggests that the long life ascribed to Bobby (usually 16 years) can be explained by a mid-game substitution of a second dog, trained to stand vigil at the grave.
Bondeson believes that the caretaker of the cemetery, James Brown, actively cultivated this myth because it brought in tourist dollars, even in Bobby’s lifetime, and earned him a bit in the way of tips and lunch-time consideration.

If this is the truth, then Brown’s little stunt is still paying off: still today, thousands of tourists pay their respects at the fountain and the nearby tombstone, leaving dog toys, throwing sticks, and bringing treats for the loyalest of dogs.

Author’s notes: the statue to Greyfriars Bobby sits at the corner of Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge, a great area of bars and restaurants. There’s even a pub behind the statue called Greyfriars Bobby’s bar.

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