The Heart Warming Tale of Greyfriars Bobby

Jan 11 2022

If you wander up Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge, in the centre of the city’s Old Town, to the intersection of Candlemaker Row, you’ll be greeted by a charming little statue of a Skye terrier with a shiny bronze nose, sitting atop an attractive granite drinking fountain. 

Although the statue doesn’t seem at all out of place amongst the gothic-revival buildings of the surrounding neighbourhood, it does open the question “why is there a statue of a dog here?” Well today we’re going to take you back 160 years into Edinburgh’s history to meet Greyfriars Bobby; on a tale of loyalty, love and why nothing could ever stand between an owner and their dog. 

The story of Greyfriars Bobby begins with a man called John Gray. Unfortunately, not too much is known about the early life of this individual, other than that he’d previously worked as a gardener. In 1850, John arrived in Edinburgh with his wife and son. Times were tough for John and his small family, and to avoid joining the unforgiving workhouse upon their arrival, John enlisted in the Edinburgh City Police as a night watchman.

During this time, the city’s nightwatchmen were required to be accompanied by their own watchdog, and it’s thought to be around this time, in 1855, when John took on a furry partner; a Skye terrier watchdog called Bobby.

The two were inseparable, and the silhouettes of John and Bobby patrolling Edinburgh’s dark and cobbled streets became a familiar sight to those out and about after dark. Through thick and thin, shower and shine, the two remained together always. 

This was until a dire tragedy struck the pair, when John unexpectedly passed away from tuberculosis on the 15th February 1858. His body was interred in the grounds of Greyfriars Kirk, an ancient 17th-century church located just off George IV Bridge.

Alone, devastated and distraught, Bobby refused to leave John’s side, and it’s where he remained for the next 14 years. Even in the worst and most treacherous weather conditions, Bobby continued to guard his master’s grave, very rarely ever leaving the spot. 

The gardener of the Kirkyard tried on many occasions to evict Bobby, but to no avail, deciding instead to take care of the dog, creating a small shelter for him just beside the grave. 

Word of Bobby’s unshakeable loyalty soon became the talk of the town, and everyone knew of the dog who could not be moved from Greyfriars Kirkyard. It was his unexpected fame that helped Bobby to survive what could have been a nasty turn in his story. 

In 1867, nine years into Bobby’s stay at John’s grave, the city’s government passed a by-law stating that all dogs in Edinburgh should be licensed or would otherwise be destroyed. With no living owner, Bobby faced a potentially lonelier end than anyone would have wanted or imagined.

But if the Scots are known for anything, it’s their warm and open hearts. It was shortly after this law was passed that Sir William Chambers, who was The Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the time, stepped in. He paid for a licence for Bobby and presented him with a new collar, showing that he was licensed and had a technical owner. Bobby was still able to sit every day by John’s grave and would come to no harm or vice from anyone. 

The inscription on the collar reads “Greyfriars Bobby from the Lord Provost 1867 licensed” and the collar can still be seen today at the Museum of Edinburgh; literally just across the road from Greyfriars Kirkyard. 

The regular stream of visitors to the Kirkyard, many of who travelled just to see the faithful dog, ensured that Bobby remained comfortable and well looked after. Day in and day out, on that grave Bobby remained, and as the years grew, so too did the public’s adoration for him. 

It was only in 1872, 14 years after John’s death, that Bobby, unfortunately, passed on at the old age of 16 years old. 

The residents of Edinburgh, and indeed many around the world who had come to love the story of Greyfriars Bobby, were left beside themselves, and upon his death, there was an almost instant outcry for a monument to be erected. 

Being extremely moved by the story, just before it was expected that Bobby would pass, Lady Angelia Georgina Burdett-Coutts, who was the President of the Ladies Committee of the RSPCA, made a request to the city council to have a statue of Bobby put up. 

The council unanimously agreed to the proposition, and so Lady Burdett-Coutts enlisted the help of the famed Scottish sculpture William Brodie to create a bronze statue, which he did in life, and his completed work now sits at the intersection between Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge; where our story began. 

There has been a sort of odd tradition of rubbing the nose of the statue to bring good luck, hence why the nose today is a shiny bronze colour. However, in recent times, this ensuing legend has caused the nose of the statue to begin eroding away. Although the nose has now been stabilised, visitors who really wish to touch the nose are asked to do so as gently and as light-handedly as possible so that this statue honouring Bobby can remain for future generations. 

Can I visit the site of Greyfriars Bobby today?

If you’re looking to see the location of the legend for yourself, you’ll be happy to know that this is all still very much possible; as Bobby remains where he’s always been. To begin our tour, start in front of the William Brodie statue on George IV Bridge, facing Bobby with the amply named Greyfriars Bobby pub standing behind him. 

From here, you’ll need to travel around to the left of the pub, where you should see a set of tucked-away gates leading to the great Greyfriars Kirk church. Walking forward through the gates and into the main entrance, you’ll come to see a red stone grave marker in front of you, adorned by a bed of flowers. This is the final resting place of Bobby himself. Pride of place to the city of Edinburgh, and within feet of the grave he protected for so long. In remembrance of Bobby’s loyalty, many visitors like to leave small sticks on his grave,

To see the location where Bobby waited for his master, you’ll need to turn left again, following the path anticlockwise around the church. In about 20 feet, you’ll come to the resting place of John Gray and to where our story started. 

Closing this heartwarming tale, we finish with the inscription on Bobby’s grave at the front of the Kirk: “Greyfriars Bobby – died 14th January 1872 – aged 16 years – Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all”. Now where are the tissues?!

We love telling this story to the visitors who join us on our Edinburgh Old Town Walking Tour, and it’s surprising how many people are familiar with parts of the story yet aren’t fully aware of its Scottish origin. 

To explore more incredible things to do and see in Scotland’s capital, visit our home here.

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