There is so much literary heritage in Edinburgh that I could start our literary tour anywhere and within yards there’d be something to talk about. We could start at the Writer’s Museum on The Mound devoted to the big 3: Scott, Stevenson, Burns. But we won’t because let’s face it, they’re actually small fry when compared to the biggest literary tourist attraction of them all. The little skye terrier, Bobby, who faithfuly lay on his master’s grave for 14 years until it was his time to meet his maker – a wee dog whose statue has made the southern corner of the George IV Bridge a place of pilgrimage.
It’s just 50 paces to the entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard and Bobby’s tombstone and a matter of debate whether the dog is actually buried here.
Whether aye or no, when he died in 1872, there was no way that he could be buried in consecrated ground. In fact, his presence on Auld Jock’s grave (now marked with matching tombstone) was barely tolerated at the start of his vigil. Eleanor Atkinson makes it clear that fortunately Bobby had a talent that allowed a case to be made for him to stay.
Bobby’s one talent that was of practical value to society was his hunting instinct for every small animal that burrows and prowls and takes toll of men’s labour. In Greyfriars Kirkyard was work to be done that he could do. For quite three centuries rats and mice had multiplied in this old sanctuary garden from which cats were chased and dogs excluded. Every breeze that blew carried challenges to Bobby’s offended nose. Now, in the crisp grey dawn, a big rat came out into the open and darted here and there over the powdering of dry snow that frosted the kirkyard.
A leap, as if released from a spring, and Bobby captured it. A snap of his long muzzle, a jerk of his stoutly set head, and the victim hung limp from his grip.
However, the powers that be weren’t for turning and more than once Bobby was sent to new lodgings. A farm many miles away or to the military barracks in the castle – Bobby was to be the new mascot – it mattered not. He would not be separated from his master and always made his way back to Auld Jock’s grave. Not even the injuries he received, falling down the crags from Edinburgh castle deterred him! In the end though the biggest threat to Bobby proved to be the introduction of the dog licence – a tax of seven shillings. But Mr Trail, his benefactor, the man who fed him, did not wish to become his official owner. It was a point of principle. Bobby was a communal dog and it took the community to save him from the dog catchers. In desperation, two children from the tenements make a last minute door-to-door collection.
By the time Ailie and Tammy had worked swiftly down to the bottom of the Row other children began to follow them, moved by the peril of the little dog to sympathy and eager sacrifice.
“Bide a wee, Ailie!” cried one, running to overtake the lassie. “Here’s a penny. I was gangin’ for milk for the porridge. We can do wi’oot the day.”
And there was the money for the broth bone, and the farthing that would have filled the gude-man’s evening pipe, and the ha’penny for the grandmither’s tea. It was the world-over story of the poor helping the poor. The progress of Ailie and Tammy through the tenements was like that of the piper through Hamelin. The children gathered and gathered, and followed at their heels, until a curiously quiet mob of threescore or more crouched in the court of the old hall of the Knights of St. John, in the Grassmarket, to count the many copper coins in Tammy’s woollen bonnet.
No denying it’s smaltzy and sentimental and in places well and truly over-egged. Why else change Auld Jock’s profession from night watchman to shepherd, if not to manipulate our emotions? Yet there is a vivid quality to the story. The feel of old Edinburgh is captured as is the dialect. A sound achievment considering that Atkinson, who was based in Chicago, never visited Scotland.
Greyfriars Bobby is available online at Project Gutenberg. I listened to the unabridged audio that forms part of the Victorian collection. Strange considering that Victoria died in 1901 and Atkinson’s novel was not published until 1912. Even stranger cover – where’s the dog? For those who can’t read the Scottish dialect aloud, there is a multitude of children’s editions. It’s a perfect bedtime story. I’m sure this tale of a sonsie, leal (handsome, loyal) doggie continues to delight wee bairns the world o’er.