Edinburgh’s Most Famous Dog

Greyfriars Bobby is a dog known to generations of Scotland’s residents and visitors alike. Here, in the first of a two-part feature, local historian, George Robinson, tells the story of the faithful friend who became so famous.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Mr and Mrs Howell Reed from Boston, Massachusetts paid a visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Eleanor Atkinson’s novel Greyfriars Bobby had recently been published and the couple were hoping to find the grave of the terrier’s master. Unable to find the spot they applied to the City Council for permission to erect a memorial stone to ‘Auld Jock’ the farm labourer featured in the book.

Greyfriars Bobby and the 78th Highlanders

A dog licence had been introduced in the U.K. in 1867. Members of the public owning an unlicenced dog were subject to a fine of five pounds. John Traill, the proprietor of Traill’s Temperance Coffee House at 6 Greyfriars Place, received a summons to attend the Burgh Court, as the authorities had been informed that he was Bobby’s owner.

Although the little dog visited his restaurant daily when the One o’clock Gun fired from the Half Moon Battery, John Traill insisted he was not the owner. To resolve the situation and to protect the terrier, William Chambers the Lord Provost and chairman of the S.S.P.C.A. decided to pay for the licence. He also bought the little dog a brown leather collar, fitted with a brass plate inscribed: ‘Greyfriars Bobby, from the Lord Provost 1867. Licenced’. James Brown, the superintendent of Greyfriars Kirkyard was asked to look after Bobby who quickly earned his keep as a first class rat catcher.

Soon Bobby’s story was appearing in newspapers and magazines all over the world. The article in The Scotsman, covering the hearing at the Burgh Court, stated that the surname of Bobby’s owner may have been Gray. Two years later, Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts the owner of Coutts Bank and her close friend Hannah Brown visited Greyfriars to take a look at the small dog who was receiving so much attention. In addition to funding projects to help the poor and needy, Angela served on the R.S.P.C.A. Ladies Committee and was a close friend of Queen Victoria the animal welfare organisation’s patron.

Angela was told that Bobby had belonged to an army veteran called Robert Gray who had died in the Old Town.  Although she applied to the Town Council for permission to set up a monument to the owner in the kirkyard, her application was refused on the grounds that the information could not be confirmed. Unused to having her requests denied, the richest woman in the U.K. decided to set up a drinking fountain to the memory of the little dog as close to the kirkyard as possible.


Baroness Burdett- Coutts at the monument

Commissioning William Brodie to sculpt a life size monument of Bobby, the bronze statue was to be set up on a red granite drinking fountain at the junction of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge. Although the inscription on the plaque included the date of Bobby’s arrival in the kirkyard, the name of his master was not.

Bobby’s health began to fail and he no longer went for dinner when the One o’clock Gun boomed out from the Castle. Although he was treated for cancer of the jaw by Professor Williams the principal of the city’s Dick Veterinary College, Bobby died before the fountain was erected. He was buried under a tree standing in the centre of a flower plot at the east end of the church facing the entrance to the kirkyard. John Traill and a group of his friends set up a small headstone chiselled with the terrier’s name over the grave but it was removed a few months later.

Unveiled in 1873 the year following Bobby’s death, the memorial fountain quickly became a landmark. As picture postcards became increasingly popular, companies such as Valentine & Sons in Dundee began printing postcards featuring views of the memorial fountain. Reginald Phillimore, the prolific postcard artist who lived in North Berwick, produced a hand drawn postcard featuring Bobby’s statue.

It was this story that Eleanor Atkinson was inspired to write…

(Part 2 of the story following soon…)


Illustrations are postcards produced by George Robinson. Although thousands of picture postcards have been published featuring Bobby, apart from the painting of the terrier by John McLeod which hangs in Greyfriars Kirk visitors centre, the postcards mainly feature views of the memorial fountain.

A set of six cards showing the restaurant where Bobby headed for his dinner when the One o’clock Gun fired from the Half Moon Battery at Edinburgh Castle is now available. The cards can be obtained from Edinburgh Books www.edinburghbooks.net

(This is an updated post from 2016 – back due to popular request!)


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