Nearly a quarter-century ago in Edinburgh, I worked occasionally in a shop that sold art books. I got the job through an old schoolmate of mine, Roger Small, who worked there regularly but needed someone to fill in for him on the odd afternoon. The shop looked somewhat out-of-the-ordinary. It stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, met Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket; and because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it was weirdly tapering and triangular in shape. Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass. I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I spent working there in Roger’s place I was paid cash-in-hand. The bookshop has long since vanished and the premises are occupied by a pizzeria now, so I guess I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.
On my first afternoon there, having briefed me about everything else in his shop, the owner reached over to the counter, where there was a pile of flimsy, softcover books – untypical of the shop’s stock of big, handsome, hardback tomes about the fine arts. He lifted one with a sheepish, embarrassed air, as if he was about to show me a secret batch of pornography. The cover of the book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was illustrated with a picture of a small, hairy and scruffy animal. “If a coachload o’ tourists roll in,” he said, “ye can flog them some copies o’ this book aboot the silly wee dug.”
That silly wee dug was Greyfriars Bobby, whose statue stood a few yards beyond the end of the shop at the very corner between George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row. Bobby was, and still is, famous for being the ultra-loyal Skye terrier who, in the 19th century, belonged to a police constable called John Gray and then, after Gray died, spent every night of the following 14 years sleeping on his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard – the entrance to which stands across Candlemaker Row from his statue. The story of wee Bobby’s loyalty to his master has made him both a Scottish icon and a historical canine superhero, the subject of a couple of movies (including an inevitable Walt Disney one in 1961) and an enduring tourist attraction. When I walked past my former, now-pizza-filled workplace a few weeks ago, a squad of people were crowded close to the diminutive statue, clicking pictures of it with cameras and phones.
But recent research has suggested that the legend of Greyfriars Bobby is, frankly, a load of guff. In 2011 Jan Bondeson, a Swedish academic based in Cardiff, produced convincing evidence that the dog alleged to be Bobby was really a stray that’d become a ‘graveyard dog’ – back then it was common for dogs to inhabit cemeteries, surviving on morsels given them by groundskeepers, mourners and visitors. When James Brown, the Greyfriars sexton at the time, began to embellish his yarns about where this particular little dog had come from, making out that it kept watch over its old owner’s grave, there was a surge in the number of visitors coming to the kirkyard – and stopping for a bite at a local restaurant run by one John Traill. People, Brown and Traill realised, wanted to see this remarkably loyal wee beastie.
With the sexton getting extra tips and the restaurateur getting increased custom, it was in both their interests to keep the tale going. It seems likely that after nine years the original Bobby died and, to maintain the flow of visitors and visitors’ cash, they found a new dog, substituted him for the old, deceased one and passed him off as Greyfriars Bobby for a further five years. Bondeson said his suspicions were initially stirred by the claim that Bobby had guarded John Gray’s grave for 14 years – Skye terriers are a breed of dog that normally don’t live longer than twelve years.
So the Greyfriars Bobby story was a myth, one pitched at gullible tourists with the intention of parting them from their money. Thank heavens such unsavoury practices don’t occur anywhere else in Scotland. Not at Loch Ness, for example.
You can see Greyfriars Bobby’s own grave in the kirkyard today – presumably the grave of the second Bobby, as I imagine the original was buried somewhere less conspicuous. You can also see the graves, beside one another, of his supposed master John Gray and of the crafty old sexton James Brown, whose headstone bears the epitaph, ‘Friend to Greyfriars Bobby’. ‘Show-business agent and publicist to Greyfriars Bobby’ might have been more appropriate.
Greyfriars Kirkyard deserves to be better known for things other than Disneyesque dogs. Imposing and atmospheric, it’s one of the few tourist sites in Scotland worth visiting when the weather is cold and dreich (as it often is on 364 days of the year) because then it acquires a memorable bleakness and gloom worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story. With its crowds of headstones and obelisks, coloured in dark, lugubrious hues and sometimes leaning at tipsy angles, and with its memorial stonework, much of which is adorned with sculpted skulls and crossbones, prancing skeletons, sinister figurines and psychotic-looking angels, it’s no surprise that the kirkyard is a fixture on the itineraries of Edinburgh’s lucrative ghost tours.
The southern end of Greyfriars has a population of vaults and sepulchres, some positioned right up against the back walls of the houses standing along its perimeter – a feature that once prompted Robert Louis Stevenson to marvel that “only a few inches separate the living and the dead.” I’ve often wondered myself if the living residents of those houses are troubled by their knowledge of the deceased residents of the structures just on the other sides of their walls.
One mausoleum you’ll find there is that of George Mackenzie, who became Scotland’s Lord Advocate in 1667. He set about the persecution of the Scottish Covenanters, who’d incurred the establishment’s wrath by defying the Stuart kings’ attempts to meddle in and ‘Episcopal-ise’ the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, with such sadistic enthusiasm that he earned the nickname ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’. The irony is that, in the kirkyard, Mackenzie’s tomb stands just yards away from an enclosure known as the Covenanters’ Prison, where over a thousand Covenanters were incarcerated in appalling conditions for four months in 1679. Many perished and the little prison has since been dubbed ‘the world’s first concentration camp’.
The mausoleum of the bloodthirsty Mackenzie has a reputation for being haunted. Supposedly, after it was broken into by a homeless man desperate for somewhere to spend the night in the late 1990s – the sort of activity that in horror movies is guaranteed to raise an evil and unforgiving spirit from its slumber – there have been incidents of poltergeist activity in the vicinity, with visitors being subjected to buffeting and battering from unseen but obviously malevolent forces. Wikipedia claims that during the past two decades Greyfriars Kirkyard has seen 350 such supernatural occurrences.
For the sake of objectivity, I should mention that I have drunk a pint in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar with a guy, connected with the city’s walking tours, who claimed that the Mackenzie poltergeist story was an utter sham. It was a sham, he insisted, because he invented the story in order to get more people signing up for the tour he ran at the time. Then the story was ‘borrowed’ by another tour company, who hyped it up to the point where Greyfriars Kirkyard was being visited by crews from TV shows like Scariest Places on Earth and Extreme Ghost Stories. So, when it comes to spinning a far-fetched yarn that’ll lighten the wallets of visiting tourists, those folk around Greyfriars Kirkyard clearly have form.
Running through the eastern part of Greyfriars Kirkyard is a remnant of the old Flodden Wall, which Edinburgh’s flustered population erected after the Battle of Flodden in 1513 – the English had inflicted such a disastrous defeat upon the Scots that it was feared an English army could appear on the city’s doorstep at any time. Now the roofs, chimneys and turrets of nearby George Heriot’s School rise beyond this surviving section of the wall. George Heriot, the 16th / 17th century goldsmith who established the school, isn’t buried in the cemetery – he lies in St Martin-in-the-Field in London – but the founders of two other prestigious Edinburgh schools, George Watson and Mary Erskine, are.
Among the other famous tenants of Greyfriars Kirkyard are architect James Craig, who was responsible for the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Captain John Porteous, captain of the Edinburgh Town Guard, whose death at the hands of a mob in 1736 became a key incident in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of Mid-Lothian 78 years later; and the notoriously dissolute Colonel Francis Charteris, who was the inspiration for characters in some of William Hogarth’s paintings. Nicknamed the Rape-Master General for the sexual assaults he carried out against his female servants, and allegedly an early member of the Hell-fire Club, Charteris was so hated that, during his funeral, his coffin was attacked while it was being transported to the kirkyard. His interment was probably no more dignified for it’s said that dead cats were flung into his grave.
Greyfriars is also the resting place for a brace of literary figures, including the legendary Gaelic bard Duncan Ban MacIntyre, who for the 88 years of his life was illiterate and had to commit all his works to memory; the 18th-century poet, and wig-maker, Allan Ramsay; Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling; and William McGonagall, who is probably Scotland’s second-most famous poet and certainly its first-most terrible one.
Affectionately remembered for such versification as ‘…the stronger we our houses do build / the less chance we have of being killed,’ McGonagall was born in Dundee but died a pauper in Edinburgh in 1902. He was buried here in an unmarked grave, although a plaque now commemorates him with the lines ‘I am your gracious majesty ever faithful to thee / William McGonagall the poor poet that lives in Dundee.’ Before the plaque was put up, the kirkyard also contained a bench that was dedicated to the poet’s memory. It bore the following inscription – the lines weren’t, I think, penned by McGonagall himself, although they look like they could’ve been: ‘Feeling tired and need a seat? Sit down here and rest your feet’.