Greyfriars Bobby became known in 19th-century Edinburgh for guarding his owner’s grave for 14 years. The story begins in 1850, when John Gray, with his wife Jess and son John, arrived in Edinburgh and joined the Edinburgh City Police as a night watchman. To have company for the long nights, John took on a partner, a Skye Terrier called Bobby. They soon became a familiar sight as they wandered the cobbled streets of the old town. The years spent on the streets had taken their toll on John and he died of tuberculosis on February 15, 1858. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard and Bobby refused to leave his owner’s grave.
Bobby become a familiar figure in the area and was taken care of by the locals. He would leave his “post” at the One O’Clock gun of Edinburgh Castle to dine at John Traill’s Coffee House at 6 Greyfriars Place (now Forrest Road). John Traill claimed that in the past, John Gray (a farmer) and Bobby had regularly visited his coffee house at the one o’clock gun. In any case, Bobby’s appearances became a daily spectacle that attracted crowds. In 1867, a new bye-law was passed that required all dogs to be licensed in the city, otherwise they would be destroyed. Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the time, Sir William Chambers, who was also the director of the SSPCA (Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), decided to pay the license fee and provided Bobby with an inscribed collar. Thus, until his death on January 14, 1872, Bobby continued to guard his owner’s grave.
However, the accuracy of this story has been challenged many times. Most of all, three books published recently were dedicated to setting the record straight: Forbes Macgregor’s ‘Greyfriars Bobby: The Real Story at Last’ (2002), Richard Brassey’s ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ (2010) and Jan Bondeson’s ‘Greyfriars Bobby: The Most Faithful Dog in the World’ (2011). The first question that arises is which of the two people named John Gray was the real owner of Bobby – the night watchman or the farmer. Furthermore, John Traill did not own the coffee house until four years after John Gray (the night watchman) died. Although, he talked about John Gray the farmer in his accounts. Similarly, the tradition of the one o’clock gun (a time signal for ships in the harbor of Leith and the Firth of Forth) was not established until 1861.
There is also a view that the original Bobby was just a stray, fed by sympathetic visitors who assumed he was mourning the loss of his owner until the dog actually made the graveyard his home. As Bobby’s story spread, the number of visitors to the graveyard increased, which could have brought commercial benefits to the local community. It is also suggested that the caretaker of the graveyard, James Brown, kept this myth alive. Furthermore, the longevity attributed to Bobby could be explained by a younger replacement dog trained to imitate him.
Nevertheless, Bobby’s story is still well known and loved in Scotland. His grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard and nearby statue are popular tourist attractions. His collar, bowl and drinking cup can be found in the Museum of Edinburgh. He is also the protagonist of several books and films.