In late 19th Century Scotland, he was the country’s most beloved celebrity. His true story, colored by death, dedication, tribulation, before victory triumph is the stuff of legends and undoubtedly served as inspiration for fictional counterparts yet to come. Before movies and TV gave us canine heroes such as Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Benji, there was Greyfriars Bobby and his is a tale that tugs at every animal lover’s heart.
I first “met” Bobby while walking down Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh. Having spent the morning exploring the capital city’s renowned Royal Mile, I was hungry and stopped at an inn/restaurant with a statue of a small dog in front. While enjoying some fish and chips, I asked about the little statue. It took little to convince my waiter to share Bobby’s story. He ended by advising me to visit Bobby’s nearby resting place in the Greyfriars Kirkyard. The tale, to say the least, was compelling.
Bobby’s tale began in Edinburgh, in 1856. His master, John Gray, was a night watchman for Edinburgh City Police and Bobby, a Skye terrier, was his constant companion. Gray no doubt cleverly named him Bobby, using the slang term still used today to refer to an English policeman. Small in size and hardly what one would consider an acceptable watchdog, Skye terriers are favored for being brave and loyal dogs.
When Gray died unexpectedly in 1858 from tuberculosis, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. History has lost track of what happened to Gray’s family following his death, but ultimately the citizens of Edinburgh took it upon themselves to care for Bobby.
For many years, the loyal pup could be found every night and day keeping vigil at his master’s grave. Multiple efforts were made by authorities to keep Bobby off the cemetery’s “consecrated” grounds but his tenacity made the groundskeeper eventually give up on chasing him away. As stories of Bobby’s obvious loyalty grew, crowds would routinely gather daily to catch site of the wee dog in the cemetery. He would only leave his master long enough to be fed at a nearby coffeehouse that he and Gray had often frequented in happier times.
In 1867, an ominous bylaw had been passed by the city requiring all dogs in the city to be licensed. Sadly, strays were to be rounded up and euthanized. Like a sinister subplot in a Charles Dickens yarn, Bobby’s fate appeared to be sealed…without a living owner, he was still, in the eyes of the law, a stray. Fortunately, the Edinburgh Lord Provost, Sir William Chambers, was a director of the Scottish SPCA and he admired Bobby’s spunk and loyalty. To rescue Bobby from his impending fate, Chambers personally paid for renewal of the dog’s license thus making him the responsibility of the city council. Chambers even presented Bobby a collar with a brass nameplate inscribed, “Grayfriars Bobby from the Lord Provost 1867, licensed.”
Bobby’s fame continued to grow until 1872 when he lay down on John Gray’s grave for the last time. Since he could not be officially buried on the cemetery grounds, his remains were moved just inside the Kirkyard gates.
A year after his death, Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, England’s wealthiest woman at the time and a noted philanthropist, commissioned a life-sized statue dedicated to Bobby to be placed outside the coffeehouse where Bobby had been fed all those years. The monument was designed with an upper drinking fountain for humans and a lower water bowl for dogs. It is still listed today as Edinburgh’s smallest historical “building.”
Over time the coffeehouse became known as Greyfriars Bobby Inn, a name it still bears today. In 1981, an official granite tombstone was placed at Bobby’s gravesite with the epitaph, “Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.” Animal admirers often leave small sticks, chew toys and flowers at the grave for Bobby to enjoy in the afterlife.
I found Scotland’s most famous and faithful dog’s collar and engraved feeding bowl on display at the Museum of Edinburgh. Visitors to Edinburgh can take guided tours of the timeworn Kirkyard and Bobby’s grave site offered by groups including Greyfriars Bobby Walking Theatre and Greyfriars Kirkyard Trust or, like me, can explore the cemetery on their own.
In death, as he did in life, Greyfriars Bobby endures as the epitome of affectionate devotion between a master and his/her pet. When I got home, I gave my two Shih Tzus an extra hug.
Bob moved to Georgia nearly 30 years ago from his native Oklahoma. He has a B.S, in Communications from the University of Tulsa and Master’s degree from Georgia State. Spending the majority of his career in corporate communications for TRW, Georgia-Pacific and Equifax, Bob’s most recent position was with American Express.After being downsized in January, he decided it was now or never if he ever hoped to pursue a career in travel writing. While a novice at travel writing, he has been very fortunate to travel the globe over the years and has been to 27 countries and 45 of the 50 states in the U.S. And he is always willing to travel at the drop of a hat (and when there’s money in his bank account)!