Greyfriars Bobby Immortalised

In George Robinson’s second feature he describes how Greyfriars Bobby became a global figure in print and film.

Born in Rennselaer, Indiana during the Civil War, Eleanor Atkinson had been employed as a journalist with the Chicago Tribune. As a child her mother had read to her from the works of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Although the novelist did not visit Edinburgh while writing Greyfriars Bobby, she spent a long time researching the background to the story.

Greyfriars5Based in New York, the writer would have asked Scots who had settled in the city for assistance with the dialect. In addition to consulting newspapers, magazines and maps she would have used James Grant’s ‘Old and New Edinburgh’ as a reference.

Creating a fictional friend for Bobby, she chose to make him an agricultural labourer from Cauldbrae farm in the Pentlands, but the character needed a name. Deciding to use the surname of the owner mentioned in the newspaper report of the hearing, she decided that his first name should be Jock. Published in 1912 by Harper Brothers of New York, Greyfriars Bobby quickly became a bestseller.

Funded by Mr and Mrs Howell Reed, a memorial stone was set up in Greyfriars Kirkyard in 1925. Dedicated to Eleanor’s fictional character Jock Gray, the memorial was set up not far from Jean Grant’s table stone where Bobby was said to have sheltered in her novel. The novel quickly led to the belief that the original owner’s name had been John Gray. This belief was reinforced when a reader sent a letter to The Scotsman suggesting that Bobby’s owner may have been a local policeman who had been buried in the kirkyard in 1858. Although the burial of P.C. John Gray is recorded in the burial register, the location of his grave is unknown.

Although the tale of Greyfriars Bobby would have provided an ideal subject for a silent movie, Bobby’s story did not appear on the screen until MGM released ‘Challenge to Lassie’ in 1948, seven years after Eleanor Atkinson’s death. The studio’s four-footed star Lassie played the part of Bobby while Donald Crisp played Jock Gray. A collie was flown from Scotland to show Lassie how to herd sheep.

The film was so successful that the story was re-made by the Walt Disney organisation starring Donald Crisp as James Brown the kirkyard superintendent and released in 1961.

A headstone provided by the Dog Aid Society of Scotland, set up to the memory of the little dog, was unveiled by H.R.H Duke of Gloucester in 1981. The ceremony was attended by the Lord and Lady Provost and  the inscription reads: ‘Greyfriars Bobby, Died 14th January 1872. Aged 16 years. Let his loyalty & devotion be a lesson to us all’.

Greyfriars6Piccadilly Pictures released ‘The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby’ in 2005. The role of Bobby was played by a West Highland terrier while Thomas Lockyer played P.C. John Gray of the Edinburgh City Police. The release of the film resulted in a headstone being erected to the memory of James Brown. The headstone which stands not far from his grave was unveiled by James Cosmo who played the part of the kirkyard superintendent.

Although Jan Bondeson’s ‘Greyfriars Bobby the most faithful dog in the world’ tied a number of loose ends together when it was published in 2011, the meticulously researched book added a further mystery by concluding that there were two dogs.

Bobby has never been forgotten by the people of the city who gather every year at the little dog’s headstone  as the One o’clock Gun fires on 14th January. Conducted by the Reverend Dr. Richard Frazer minister of Greyfriars, the ceremony is regularly attended by the Lord Provost, the children from Heriot’s School and the members of the Skye Terrier Club.

Eleanor’s book, the three films featuring the terrier and the internet continue to ensure that generation after generation of children are aware of the story of the world famous dog. The resting place of the wee terrier who was the last of his breed is high on the list of many of the thousands of tourists who annually visit the capital of Scotland.


A set of six cards (pictured over the two-part feature)  can be obtained from Edinburgh Books These comprise:

  1. Old Greyfriars 1867
  2. Traill’s Temperance Coffee House
  3. Greyfriars Bobby and the Traill family
  4. John Traill and Greyfriars Bobby
  5. Greyfriars Bobby and the 78th Highlanders
  6. Baroness Burdett- Coutts

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