Dear Readers, Greyfriars Bobby(1855 – 1872) was a little dog who, according to legend, belonged to an Edinburgh nightwatchman called John Gray. When Gray died, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirk (Church) yard, and Bobby is said to have spent the rest of his life sitting on his master’s grave. When the dog died, he was buried not far from his master (actually within the Kirkyard), and the English Philanthropist Lady Burdett-Coutts had this rather fine drinking fountain erected opposite the entrance to the churchyard.
Now, two questions remain. One relates to the truth of the story. Tired old cynics might raise an eyebrow at this tale, which fits in so beautifully with the Victorian sentimentality about animals that was so prevalent at the time – take a look at this classic by Edwin Landseer. However, the loyalty, bravery and sensitivity of dogs is unquestioned (certainly by me).
On the other hand, dogs are also extremely intelligent animals, and one theory is that stray dogs used to live in the graveyards. Visitors believed that the dogs were staying because they missed their owners, and would feed the dogs. I imagine that an appealing little dog, looking up with that head tilt that requires a treat on any occasion, would quickly become something of a draw too, and apparently a whole industry grew up around Greyfriars Bobby, with people selling food to give to the dogs and telling his story to a crowd of weeping visitors for a few pence.
There is even a tale (whisper it) that the original Greyfriars Bobby died in 1867 and was replaced by a younger dog (much as my poor old Mum tried to fool us with a new goldfish when ours died when I was six).
And so, I imagine we will never know whether Greyfriars Bobby was a loyal little dog, a mischievous scrounger or an endearing mixture of the two. But the second debate that rages on is, ‘what breed of terrier was Greyfriars Bobby?’. Here is a photo that is believed to be of the dog himself.
What a sweetie! Now, Bobby’s Wikipedia page describes him as a Skye terrier. Here is a modern day Skye terrier (these days a vanishingly rare breed – maybe it’s all that hair that puts people off). A Skye terrier is also said to have hidden under the skirts of Mary, Queen of Scots when she was executed, and to have refused to leave her body after the deed was done, so the breed certainly has ‘legendary loyalty’ points in its favour.
What strikes me is the ears which look very similar between the two photos. But wait! Only this week an alternative case has been put for another extremely rare terrier breed, the Dandie Dinmont terrier, by Mike MacBeth who is the president of the Dandie Dinmont Terrier Association of Canada. He points out that Skye terriers were found mainly on Skye, whereas there were 60 Dandie Dinmont breeders in Edinburgh alone. The dog was named after a character from Sir Walter Scott’s book ‘Guy Mannering’. Scott was pretty much responsible for the creation of the romantic image of Scotland,
Now, forgive me but this dog doesn’t look much like the photo. On the other hand, is the photo actually Greyfriars Bobby? I admire Mr MacBeth’s attempts to boost his breed, but I remain to be convinced.
The mud is further thickened by the various filmic representations of Greyfriars Bobby. I mean, what the hecky-decky is the dog in this photo of the Disney film from 1965? It looks like a very hairy Border Terrier to me.
Even worse, in the 2006 version of the film they seem to have cast a West Highland White terrier – these dogs are extremely cute, but I think it’s clear that Greyfriars Bobby was not one of them.
Now, as you might expect, I have a theory of my own. I suspect strongly that in Victorian times, breeding purebred dogs was pretty much a hobby for the rich – for everyone else, dogs were bred for their characteristics without much regard for how they looked. If John Gray was indeed a nightwatchman, he would have wanted an alert, feisty little terrier to accompany him, and he would have got one from a local person who was breeding from a dog that seemed to fit the bill. I am going to stick my neck out and say that Greyfriars Bobby was probably a mixture of various breeds and of dogs with no breed, and he would have been no less loyal, intelligent or handsome because of it. Our obsession with how animals look has led us to some very dark places, so I have always championed mongrels, those mixed-up, unique animals without a pedigree registered at the Kennel Club. I would love to think that Greyfriars Bobby wasn’t a Skye terrier, or a Dandie Dinmont, or a hairy Border terrier, but a terrier type all of his own, like the Polish mongrel terrier in the photo below. Whatever the truth about him is, he was clearly a very special little dog.
Photo One by By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1851190
Photo Two by By en:User:Sannse http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Dandie_Dinmont_Terrier_600.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1324957
Photo Three by Shalom, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons