I’d always lapped up the story of Greyfriars’ Bobby and even wrote a blog way back in 2008 after reading Eleanor Atkinson’s book (1912), but then someone put doubt in my mind about the wee Edinburgh dog and I went searching for the truth.
After two weeks of work, I’m still no clearer – although Greyfriars’ Bobby did exist was he really faithfully waiting by his master’s grave for 14 years, or was the story a hoax? Am I a ruthless iconoclast for even writing this piece and questioning the image of the much-loved Scottish terrier? Perhaps… but I’m not the first to have questioned the tale recently* and it seems that even when Bobby was alive, newspaper editorials gave full coverage of the controversy surrounding him.
We begin our search to discover the real story behind the Greyfriars’ Bobby ‘hysteria’ on 13 April 1867 when The Scotsman newspaper, under the title of ‘Strange Story of a Dog’, related the ‘very singular and interesting occurrence’ which came to light at the Burgh Court, during the hearing of a summons about dog tax.**
In early 1859, the Edinburgh court was told a poor man named Gray (no other information given) was buried in an unmarked grave at Old Greyfriars’ Church: ‘His grave, levelled by the hand of time, and unmarked by any stone, is now scarcely discernible; but though no human interest would seem to attach to it, the sacred spot has not been wholly disregarded and forgotten.’
And here enters ‘Greyfriars’ Bobby’ (to give him his full name) – a Scotch terrier – the subject of the court summons. For eight and a half years, Gray’s faithful dog had kept constant watch and guard over the grave, but the dog tax collectors now wanted to recover the fee from his owner. If no owner could be found, then Bobby would be ‘put out of the way’ (killed by orally dosing with prussic acid).
But who was his owner? James Brown, the old curator of the burial ground, was one possible claimant. He remembered Gray’s funeral, but did not mention seeing Bobby there. It was the following morning that Brown found Bobby lying on the grave. With the rule ‘No dogs allowed’ written on the church yard gates, Brown had no choice but to chase Bobby away two days in a row. But on the third wet and cold morning, Brown took pity on Bobby and fed him. And there Bobby stayed, relatively unmolested. He became such an ‘object of curiosity’ to all who saw him and despite efforts by several people to ‘get possession of him’, he kept up his vigil:
‘At almost any time during the day he may be seen in or about the church-yard; and no matter how rough the night may be, nothing can induce him to forsake the hallowed spot, whose identity, despite the irresistible obliteration it has undergone, he has so faithfully preserved.’
Sergeant Scott of the Engineers used to give him a weekly treat of steaks, but for over six years it was to Mr John Traill’s restaurant (6 Greyfriars’ Place) that Bobby visited at mid-day – announced by the sound of the time gun [the time gun actually fires at one o’clock]. On the grounds of “harbouring” Bobby in this way (by regularly feeding him table scraps), the tax collectors hounded Mr Traill for dog tax payment. But Mr Traill stated that Bobby would not attach himself to anyone but his dead master, so he could not be liable for the tax. The Court agreed it was ‘impossible to fix the ownership’ and the summons was dismissed – no dog tax could be collected beyond the grave and Bobby became ‘the only dog who succeeded in legally evading the dog tax’. The Lord Provost, William Chambers, even gave ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ a leather collar with the word ‘Licensed’ engraved on a brass plate – making the dog part of Edinburgh history.
The flood gates opened a crack after this story was published in The Scotsman – five days later (18th April) the same newspaper reported that Bobby had become ‘an object of much interest and many persons have gone to see it in its home among the tombs.’ One of those visitors was artist Mr Gourlay Steell RSA (Royal Scottish Academy), known for his animal portraiture, who had already whisked Bobby away to his studio so he could render the little dog in a painting in tempera, ‘showing the faithful sentinel on the grave of his late master.’ (see image below)
The image was quickly on view a week later in Mr Clarke’s Art Gallery in Princes’ Street; it then moved to the Drill Hall and ended up being shown at the 42nd Annual Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy in February 1868. Another portrait by Mr Cormack Brown was put on display in the window of Mrs Stevens, Reform Street.
The Scotsman journalist continued to turn the emotional screw when he wrote of Bobby being ‘a Sabbath observer – at least to this extent, that he knows that the place of refreshment at which he gets his dinner on week-days is closed on Sunday; and he is sagacious enough to provide for this contingency by saving during the week odd scraps of food, which he hides beneath a tombstone adjoining the grave over which he keeps watch and ward.’
How could anyone resist not pitying and respecting this model of canine faithfulness? It was not long before the copy was picked up by the London press and then the regional newspapers… Bobby was turned into a legend in his own time.
In that same week, April 20, a letter was written from Edinburgh resident, ‘St B.’ to The Scotsman stating that news of Bobby had travelled far beyond the Tweed. The correspondent tells of a lady in Leamington offering ‘to subscribe for a kennel, to be placed over the grave so faithfully watched by the poor dog, to protect him from cold and rain.’
On 27 April 1867, The Spectator reported that Bobby was finding the pressures of fame too much and had ‘shown himself superior to our human world’. Not only was he showing attachment to a master ‘whom he can no longer see’, but he was showing ‘contempt and annoyance’ with his sudden popularity. He had become a ‘great lion in Edinburgh’ and rather than being able to concentrate on his dinner routine and his grave side vigil, he was being provoked by ‘admiring pats’. The Spectator concluded: ‘Surely that dog is as immortal as the invisible master he still loves.’
We now jump forward to 23 November 1869. The major twist in the tale starts with a letter from philanthropist Miss Angela Burdett Coutts addressed to Edinburgh Town Council. The lady was the great-grand-daughter of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1742 and was well known for her humanitarian work towards the ‘lower animals’. Her letter was read out by the Clerk at a meeting and it proposed a monument in Greyfriars’ Churchyard to Robert Gray – Bobby’s master.
One of the councillors, Baillie Miller, remarked to the meeting: ‘I have no objection to that, but the whole story about ‘Bobby’ is a downright fabrication (Laughter). I have the story of the old man, the grave-digger.’ The Lord Provost, William Chambers, who seemed intent on placing the ornament in the ‘very bare part of the churchyard’, knocked back Miller with, ‘There are two sides to it.’ To which Miller replied: ‘I am not going to be snuffed out in that way. I am entitled to state the facts of the case… It may be an ornament, but it will be putting up in this churchyard a statement that is not correct.’
The meeting ended with Burdett Coutts’ letter being passed to the Plans and Works Committee, with powers, and the Lord Provost reminding Miller, ‘This lady does not want to perpetuate the story about ‘Greyfriars Bobby’, but to put up a monument to the old man Gray, who was buried there.’
There it is, in black and white… a memorial to Gray proposed in 1869 and there were obvious doubts as to the authenticity of Bobby’s fame. So how did Edinburgh end up with a ‘Memorial Fountain to a Faithful Dog’ (as reported in The Graphic) in November 1873?
The Council turned down Burnett Coutts application for marking Gray’s grave because there was no proof that Gray had been buried where Bobby supposedly sat.*** There is no record of Burdett Coutts response… but in 1871 she tried again to honour the fidelity of the Edinburgh dog by requesting a site opposite the entrance to the Churchyard for Mr Brodie’s bronze statue and Mr Cousin’s drinking-fountain to commemorate the story of ‘Greyfriars’ Bobby’. The issue was discussed at an Edinburgh Town Council meeting on 31st October 1871.
It seems that the ‘Bobby’ issue, again, brought out the jocular nature of the Council, with intimations of a less than truthful tale. A comment by a Mr Gordon was greeted with great laughter: ‘I move that the sanction of the Council be granted. I am sure of this, that it will serve ‘to point a moral or adorn a tale’’. A Mr Wormald replied, to further laughter: ‘Which is the moral and which is the tale?’
With the news of the proposed drinking fountain reaching London in early November 1871, it appears everyone was asking: ‘Who is this Bobby?’ (according to the Pall Mall Gazette people should be ashamed of not already knowing the name) and the tale (truth or myth) passed into the public consciousness. Bobby’s faithfulness fitted the cultural e-fit of the ‘good dog’ and Burdett Coutts proposed statue gave newspaper editors the chance to reflect on animal immortality.
The Spectator really ignited the debate by asking: ‘Can one seriously doubt that Greyfriars Bobby has rejoined the master he loved so faithfully in death?’ (this does raise the possibility that Bobby had already died – but I’ll leave that for another time). A letter appeared in the following issue from ‘Philozooist’ agreeing that ‘higher’ animals, such as Bobby, manifesting development like an average human infant should be logically and religiously justified in ‘expecting that the Creator of both child and brute will show no favouritism for the smooth white skin over the rough hairy coat.’ The Echo wrote a less than serious rebuff, quarrelling not with the ‘natural and pretty’ sentiment, but feeling sad for the faithful dogs of ‘very bad masters’ who would be ‘rewarded by ‘rejoining’ their masters’. The Fife Herald believed the Spectator had done a good deed by at least consoling ‘many dear old ladies’ if their statement could be applied to cats and parrots, as well as dogs.
But not everyone was thrilled with the news of a statue being erected to celebrate Bobby. The ‘London Correspondence’ in the Glasgow Daily Herald, 23 November 1871, contained an expose of the hoax surrounding the shaggy dog tale. The writer explained he wouldn’t have been bothered to give the true story, but the ‘benevolence of a noble lady has been turned into improper channels, and a good-humoured joke has been dignified into something like a sentimental truth.’
He continued by stating the facts: Bobby was a miserable mongrel who accidently strayed into the churchyard and attracted the kindly attentions of, firstly, the gravedigger and then the sexton who would toss him a bone or give him some notice. Bobby became quite used to his new home and trotted about the churchyard during the day, and by night would shelter under one of the old tombstone, which lay flat upon four small pillars. The mongrel’s habits were well-known in the neighbourhood and the facts were fed to ‘an able and ingenious correspondent of a north-country paper’ who, after massaging the truth and ‘appealing to the finer feelings of humanity’, wrote the invented story, which ran along these lines: the frowsy dog had followed his master’s funeral from the country to Greyfriars’, and was so much affected by this loss that he took up his quarters over the grave, which he refused to quit for 18 months. The story was then padded out with ‘the necessary reflections upon canine sagacity and the faithfulness which dogs have from time immemorial displayed towards man.’
This joke tale was allegedly relayed back to Edinburgh, and spread by the local newspapers, turning ‘Bobby’ the pathetic mongrel into an unconscious hero, becoming one of the ‘lions’ of Edinburgh. In conclusion the London correspondent stated: ‘…the sympathies of Baroness Burdett Coutts have been evoked to perpetuate an idle tale and bequeath a fountain, to extol faithfulness that never existed, and history whose entire foundation is fictitious.’
Another ‘London Correspondence’, this time two days later in the Leeds Mercury, explained that the original journalists (it was a group) had been too afraid to reveal the true story after enthusiasm grew out of all proportion for their hoax and so the ‘fiction spread and became a city tradition’.
Not everyone was happy with the expose: the Dundee Courier called the London correspondent ‘a ruthless iconoclast’ and asked why the London correspondent for the Glasgow Herald had not been taken to task for not revealing his truths earlier. But it was admitted, with the myth now supposedly unearthed, the idea of a drinking fountain being made to ‘keep green the memory of a “tyke”… is a some what awkward one.’
But, even with the news that Bobby could be an imposter, it seemed impossible to stop the juggernaut of public attention. It is obvious the newspapers (and probably the Edinburgh Town Council who saw an economic and cultural opportunity) perpetuated the myth – you can see this particularly in the detail of Bobby’s vigil. Originally, the story stated he waited for 18 months, but The Graphic, in 1873, mentioned four years and then when the statue (made from Westmoreland granite) was unveiled on 15th November 1873, he seems to have waited 14 years!
It was left to The Scotsman to break the news of Bobbie’s eventual death. On 14th January 1872, he was buried in a flower plot near Greyfriars Church by his guardian, Mr Traill, and his collar (which was a gift from Lord Provost Chambers) was deposited in the office at the church gate. It was noted that Mr Brodie had already modelled Bobby’s figure for the planned bronze memorial (beneath the finished bronze it states: Greyfriars’ Bobby: From life just before his death).
It wasn’t until 15th November 1873 that the memorial was finally unveiled with a plaque, shown below.
For those of you still not wanting to believe the possibility of Bobby ‘The Fake’, I’m afraid I have more bad news. In 1889, Edinburgh Town Council was once again talking about ‘Bobby’ after receiving a proposal, via Archibald Langwill (C.A), from a Mr and Mrs Slatter of Tunbridge Wells (where else?!), to erect a monument of Sicilian marble to ‘Greyfriars’ Bobby’ in the churchyard, to mark the spot where he was buried after his 14-year vigil. Apparently hundreds of Kent children had given their pennies to fund the proposal.
According to the Pall Mall Gazette (in an article entitled ‘Playing Havoc With A Pathetic Story’), it was a Mr Gillies who told the assembly the story of Bobby was ‘a penny-a-liner’s romance’. He believed the restaurateur we earlier encountered, John Traill, had given the mongrel scraps from the table and the dog had found shelter under the tombstone – simple as that. But Mr Gillies questioned further the moral decency of erecting a monument to a dog in a churchyard anyway, regardless of Bobby’s provenance… absolutely not, he said, and so did the committee. ****
Following Mr Gillies statement, the Edinburgh Evening News ran a sombre editorial after doing their own research and concluded that ‘more or less conclusively’ evidence showed ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ to be a myth. Peter Brown, one-time gardener at Heriot’s Hospital (adjacent to the Church), stated that Bobby was actually ‘put’ in the churchyard against his will (he was far happier in the hospital garden) and then the keeper of the graveyard (John Brown) kept chasing him from there into the street. Eventually, the animal loving gentleman who lived at the churchyard gate fed Bobby and an attachment grew. Bobby was also known to spend nights with another gentleman in Candlemaker Row, lying at his feet. It was said that Bobby never liked any ‘working man’ (as opposed to a gentleman), which also mitigated against him being the dog of a poor man (Gray).
The newspaper also insinuated that Peter Brown became interested in the dog only after the dog tax prosecution bought infamy/fame for Bobby. He had Bobby photographed [there are at least two photographs supposedly of Bobby – totally different dogs as you can see from the images] and he raised money by selling the photos to the sightseers, and also received many six-pences from well-wishers to buy Bobby food – it was clearly in Brown’s interest to perpetuate the myth, and to embellish it, and the neighbouring restaurants and shops enjoyed an increased trade. Edinburgh was hardly going to look this gift dog in the mouth.
Another local lady who knew the true story of Bobby – a Mrs Watson – told the paper that she told Brown he was an ‘old rascal’ for keeping the story going… Bobby didn’t lie on any grave, he never followed a funeral and he certainly didn’t take any notice of the one o’clock gun – he would have his dinner at any time!
Mrs Watson noted that Bobby eventually succumbed to ‘cancer of the jaw’, which must have been seen as contagious because she shut Bobby out of her tenement building for fear of her own dog being affected.
With all this negative publicity, The Scotsman mounted a positive campaign to back up their original story in April 1867 by sending out a reporter ‘armed with Councillor Gillies’ speech’ – he found Mr Traill was still alive and willing to stand by the original evidence he gave in front of three magistrates, Gourlay Steell also vouched for the facts, Miss Burdett Coutts apparently saw Bobby on his master’s grave and Mr Macpherson, the chief city officer, remembered coaxing the dog to Lord Provost’s house in order that Mrs Chambers might see the animal. The editorial ended:
‘All who remember ‘Bobby’ [including the Church organist] declare he was… a handsome Scotch terrier [not a mongrel]… the representation of the dog on the top of the well at Candlemakers’ Row is a very good portrait. ‘Bobby’ died in the churchyard several years afterwards, and was certainly buried there in a flower plot opposite the large window of old Freyfriars’ Church.’
Councillor Gillies was forced to write a letter straight away to The Scotsman declaring that he couldn’t blame the 1867 reporter (‘getting hold of such a good story, with a prima facie case in its favour’) for publishing without checking facts. Gillies didn’t dispute many of the details, except for the assumptions that Bobby followed the remains of his master to the grave – if indeed, he ever had a master. There was not a shred of evidence to identify the supposed owner or his place of residence, he argued. Printed below Gillies’ letter was one from James Stillie, a member of the Old Greyfriars’ Church who saw Bobby often. Stillie stated that the original story of 1867 (after making his own investigations) was ‘a sensational myth’. Below Stillie’s letter was one received from Robert Scott Riddell, the Church’s organist who saw and spoke to Bobby many times… he endorsed The Scotsman’s version.
Blimey… who do you believe? As you can see, the debate ran for over 20 years in the newspapers. But really it’s up to you to decide – was Bobby an opportunistic mongrel or faithful dog, a ‘lion of Edinburgh’? I know which I would prefer to believe….
* Jan Bondeson’s Greyfriars Bobby: The Most Faithful Dog in the World (Amberley Publishing, 2011) – the author even identifies the possibility of there being two dogs masquerading as Bobby.
** The Inverness Advertiser of 1864 and the Ayrshire Express of 1865 both described an elderly Bobby around Greyfriars’ Church, prior to his explosion of fame in 1867.
*** The story of Bobby was, and is still, lapped up by American visitors and those from the Colonies. Mr and Mrs Howell Reed of Broadway, Boston, US eventually paid for a stone to mark the grave of John Gray in 1915. The inscription on the red granite states: ‘John Gray, died 1858. ‘Auld Jock’, master of Greyfriars Bobby. ‘And ever in his ashes most beloved.’ Erected by American lovers of Bobby’.
**** There is a memorial stone in the churchyard for Bobby, erected by the Dog Aid Society of Scotland, which was unveiled by the Duke of Gloucester on 13th May 1981. Obviously, the Edinburgh Town Council overcame the morality question!
NB: If anyone would like a list of sources, I’d be happy to oblige.