EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Probably the most visited grave in Edinburgh's graveyards - aside from those ordinary folk, like Thomas Riddell, whose graves have been co-opted by Harry Potter Inc. - is that of Greyfriars Bobby, one the city's best-known local heroes.
Bobby, of course, wasn't a person, but a dog. (Edinburgh notoriously has more statues of dogs than women...) And 14 January every year is commemorated as the date in 1872 when he died and was buried in the graveyard of the Greyfriars kirk.
The legend of Bobby has it that he belonged to a man called John Gray, a night watchman in Edinburgh, who patrolled the Old Town every night with his dog for company. When John Gray died, he was buried in the Greyfriars kirkyard, and the story then goes that his dog Bobby spent every night for the next 14 years sleeping on his master's grave...
It's a lovely romantic story, and one which was made into a film by Walt Disney in the 1960s. The story has also become a staple of children's stories, with many book versions reprinted over the years. But, as with most things in Edinburgh, the reality behind the myth is rather less romantic!
After John Gray's death in 1858, Bobby effectively became a stray dog - without an owner to pay for a licence for him, he was liable to being rounded up along with the other stray beasts of the city, and drowned in the Water of Leith river.
However, he had started loitering the graveyard, territory which would have been familiar to him from his nighttime patrols. But it may not have been his affection for his master so much as his appetite that led him to stay here - all the bars and inns at the boundary of the graveyard would empty waste out of their windows, providing Bobby (and other strays) with a regular, and plentiful, supply of food to scavenge from.
The Victorians were as obsessed with animals as we are - if they could have shared photos on social media, of dogs in top hats or cats on bicycles, the way we do today, they would have been doing it! And so the story of Bobby started to spread, and visitors began travelling into Edinburgh just to look for the dog in the graveyard.
The lord mayor - or provost - of Edinburgh around that time was William Chambers, who realised the appeal of Bobby, and sought to capitalise upon it. If people were coming to Edinburgh specifically to find the dog, they would be likely to spend money in the city's markets and bars. So he bought a licence for Bobby 'in perpetuity', which meant it would last forever, along with a collar and bowl for him to drink from.
Of course, dogs don't live forever, and the natural lifespan of the Skye terrier is between 8 and 10 years. If we assume Bobby was two years old when his master died, after 14 years of sleeping on his master's grave he would be 16 - twice the natural lifespan of the breed, and as a virtual stray!
It is now considered that there may actually have been as many as four dogs throughout that period, making sure there was always one in the graveyard for visitors to meet - and realising they couldn't keep the story going forever, when one of the dogs died he was given the honour of being buried at the very front of the church.
But visitors continue to seek out Bobby, and often there's a crowd gathered at his grave and around the statue of him mounted on the street just outside the graveyard. (In recent years visitors have started rubbing the nose of the statue for luck, causing huge amounts of damage to the figure. So please don't. It's not lucky. Especially not for the council who pays thousands of pounds each year repairing the damage done by visitors...)
As well as the grave and the statue, look out for Bobby's bowl, collar and licence, which are on display at the Museum of Edinburgh on the Canongate.
Explore more of the realities behind the myths of Edinburgh with my fact-based Edinburgh history walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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