The wee terrier with a big heart

It's a 150-year-old story about a dog so loyal that he sat on his master's grave. Now Greyfriars Bobby is an Edinburgh mascot and star of a new film. John Walsh on the making of a legend
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The Independent Online

Edinburgh Castle will be the location, on Tuesday, for the launch of The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby. You probably know the name. You may connect it in your head with urban folk tales from a century ago. You may even know Edinburgh is the only city in the world to have a dog - the eponymous Bobby - on the list of citizens given the Freedom of the City. But who was he? And why are we - so modern and sophisticated - wrapping his story around us once again?

The details are classically simple and tragic. In the cold winter of 1853, a gardener called John Gray arrived in Edinburgh with his wife, Jess, and his 13-year-old son, John. He looked for horticultural work but found none, partly because of his age - 40 was considered appallingly senior in 1850s Scotland.

The only way of avoiding the Dickensian embrace of the workhouse, it seemed, was to join the Edinburgh police force, as a nightwatchman, for the paltry wage of 13 shillings a week, including full board in a rat-infested slum called Hall's Court. He was assigned a watchdog, to keep him company through the long nights - first a Collie, then a small Skye terrier puppy called Bobby, on account of his being a British police dog. The two walked everywhere together, through rain, sunshine, snow and falling leaves, through the grim, grimy, cobbled streets of Edinburgh.

The long hours and the nocturnal ramblings proved disastrous to Gray's health, however. He contracted tuberculosis and died on 15 February 1858, aged 45. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Soon after the funeral, Gray's widow moved away.

A gardener discovered the little dog lying by the grave, and shooed him away. Bobby refused to budge. The gardener redoubled his efforts, without success. Storms, wind and hail would not shift the canine horizontale from his faithful watch over his master's remains.

Eventually, the gardener gave up his curses and imprecations, and put some sacking down beneath two tablestones beside Gray's grave. There Bobby would sleep every night, and most of every day - and there he continued to live, beside his first and only master, for 14 years, looked after and fed by kind neighbours and local children, until he died in 1872.

Are you in floods yet? If not, you must have a heart of stone. But there are other, equally adorable, extra bits to the story.

From 1861, it became a tradition in Edinburgh to fire a cannon in the castle grounds at exactly one o'clock, so the townspeople could adjust their clocks to the right time. Bobby the terrier, in a rare foray away from the graveyard, took up with one Sergeant Scott in the castle garrison, a soldier entrusted with firing the cannon, and would follow him out on to the ramparts.

He began to associate the cannon report with lunchtime. Every day, after the one o'clock boom, Bobby would be found exiting the graveyard and heading for The Coffee House on Candlemaker Row. It's where he used to be taken by Gray.

When word spread about the crazily faithful pooch in the kirkyard, a cabinet-maker called William Dow gave him his lunch at The Coffee House every day, after which the dog would trot back to the grave.

He became a familiar sight. Visitors to Edinburgh would wait outside the kirk for the lunchtime combination of gunfire and trotting dog. Local people - possibly with an eye on Edinburgh's reputation as a city charmingly devoted to animals - made arrangements about feeding him.

After a journalist wrote about Bobby's solitary vigil in the Inverness Courier in May 1864, he became a kind of municipal mascot. In 1867, a local by-law required all dogs to be licensed by their owners. Any that weren't licensed would be destroyed. Bobby had no master, of course, not above the ground anyway, and therefore faced disaster. But the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers, stepped in, bought a licence and gave the dog a collar inscribed with the words: "Greyfriars Bobby from the Lord Provost 1867 licensed."

If you're looking for a literary analogy, it's the rubicund philanthropist Mr Brownlow giving Oliver Twist soft sheets and a roof over his head when he escapes the clutches of Fagin.

When the dog died in 1872, his story came to the ears of Baroness Angelia Burdett-Coutts, president of the Ladies Committee of the RSPCA. She was immensely touched and asked Edinburgh Council for permission to build a fountain with a statue of the dog on top. It was done a year later, standing on a plot opposite the kirkyard. Today, there's a pub beside it called The Greyfriars Bobby, where you can enjoy a pint of heavy and contemplate the legend on it: "Greyfriars Bobby. Died 14 January 1872, aged 16 years. Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all."

Animal psychologists might raise the question of whether Bobby's apparent devotion to his master's grave, far from being an emblem of fidelity, was merely a bit of obsessive animal behaviour, a territorial impulse - like finding a favourite spot under a tree - rather than an overflow of love and sorrow. That hasn't stopped later generations treating the dog like a saint. His collar from the Provost and his dinner bowl are solemnly preserved like holy relics in the Huntly House, an Edinburgh museum devoted to the city's history.

A different form of canonisation came in the form of Hollywood. In 1949, for Challenge to Lassie, they borrowed the basic details of the story - published as a novel by Eleanor Atkinson in 1912 - but amped up the pathos a few notches. In that telling, Lassie/Bobby is dumped as a puppy in the streets of Edinburgh but rescued by John Gray - now a humble sheepherder rather than a cop - who adopts her and trains her as a working dog. Gray is murdered by muggers (it's more dramatic than TB) and Lassie takes up a lonely vigil in the churchyard. The authorities come a-calling and find that, because Lassie has no owner, and, by a legal glitch, never has had one, she must be killed.

But wait - here come some kindly clergymen with a solution. The story was tweaked a notch further into wretchedness when Walt Disney took an interest, in 1961, and released Greyfriars Bobby: the True Story of a Dog directed by Don Chaffey and written by Eleanor Atkinson, author of the earlier Lassie work.

The real-life John Gray was metamorphosed into Old Jock, an ancient, illiterate, Highlands shepherd holed up in the dispiritingly named Cauldbrae Farm. He sets off for a trip to the Big City, leaving behind his faithful doggy companion Bobby, who inevitably sets off after him.

In Edinburgh, the elderly ovinophile patronises a restaurant, whose owner, the kindly Mr Traill, notices that he is unwell and recommends that he visit a hospital, pronto. Instead, Auld Jock spends the night in a common lodging house and sneaks in Bobby against regulations.

Before morning, Jock is dead. Nobody knows anything about him or where he comes from, so it is quite a surprise when he is buried in the posh, upscale Greyfriars Kirkyard with his faithful pet in attendance.

In this slightly puzzling reading, Bobby becomes a kind of alter ego for a man with no public identity, a physical incarnation, above the grave, of the Unknown Vagrant six feet under.

Now the story is being dusted down again, this time as a shameless tool of the Scottish Tourist Board. Stirling Castle stood in for Greyfriars, several iconic bits of Scots heritage, including Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Park, were pressed into service. The chief executive of VisitScotland welcomed the fact that the film was opening, rather handily, at the same time as a new family-holiday tourism initiative, "and gives us an opportunity to highlight specifically dog-friendly accommodation".

The film itself fields some impressive acting talents (Christopher Lee, Greg Wise, Sean Pertwee, Ronald Pickup, Gina McKee, Ardal O'Hanlon), and invents a kid called Ewan to whom John Gray bequeaths Bobby when he dies, and two rolling-eyed villains (Pickup and Pertwee) implausibly hell-bent on canicide.

It also offers an ambitious burst of Scots esprit de corps. After John's death, his wife moves to Dunbar, taking the dog with her, but Bobby escapes and - as so often before - makes the long journey o'er hill and dale to his master's graveside, thereby winning the hearts, not just of the Edinburgh citizens but of outlying towns. To the downtrodden workers at a local mill (run by a caricaturally evil, fatcat landlord) his example is an inspiration; and when a local by-law (yes, another one of those) decrees that all stray dogs must be rubbed out, do the locals remain indifferent and uncaring about his faith? Guess.

On Tuesday, the great and good will be at Vue Edinburgh Omni Cinema for the premiere, then mill around Edinburgh Castle. Representatives of charities will press the flesh with city fathers.

And the simple story of a dog who chose to hang around a grave plot for 14 years will be given a spring clean and a new paint job for a new generation.

Why do they keep doing it? Because the story appeals to people who long to believe human beings are essentially loveable creatures deep down and that, for just once in history, there seemed to be proof that an animal shared this optimistic point of view. It's probably sentimental baloney of course. But we'll go on believing it as long as we can.

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