New photos of Greyfriars Bobby unveiled

Greyfriars Bobby needs no introduction. He’s one of the most recognizable figures in Scottish history and probably one of the most famous dogs in the world. Yet despite a wealth of literature, and a Disney film, there remain open questions about who exactly this little dog was. Speaking strictly from the photographic record, there are two dogs purported to be Greyfriars Bobby. One, often named Greyfriars Bobby the First, appears in at least five photographs, taken by Edinburgh publisher Walter Greenoak Patterson around 1867. The other, Greyfriars Bobby the Second, appears in a single photograph of unknown date and origin.

Skye terrier

The Traill family and Bobby. Photo: The City of Edinburgh Council, Museums and Galleries; Museum of Edinburgh.

Before we continue, we must sadly put Greyfriars Bobby the Second to bed. In the cold light of day, a single photograph of a Skye terrier, with “Grayfriars Bobby” written on it, is not enough to suppose, as some have, that there was a second dog. Photographs are frequently mislabelled. On the balance of probability, we have no choice but to conclude that Greyfriars Bobby the Second was no Greyfriars Bobby at all, but a Greyfriars Red Herring.

Consequently, we must dismiss the hypothesis that Greyfriars Bobby the First died and was replaced prior to 1872 – the “two dog” theory. That so famous a dog could have been replaced by one of a different breed without raising any eyebrows already stretches the bounds of credulity. Perhaps most importantly, it means that Bobby was, probably, neither a purebred Skye terrier, nor a Dandie Dinmont, although they will forever remain an integral part of the legend of Greyfriars Bobby.

Photo: National Galleries Scotland.

So, who was Greyfriars Bobby the First? If you visit Bobby’s display at the Museum of Edinburgh, you will see the three images known prior to 2010.  One shows Bobby with the family of John Traill, another with the family’s children, and one by himself, the Museum’s cabinet card-sized copy addressed to John Traill from WG Patterson. John Traill ran an establishment at 6 Greyfriars Place, at different times described as a coffee house, refreshment rooms, or a restaurant, always with Temperance added to signify that no alcohol was sold. Today, it is part of Alandas Gelato, with nothing but a neon sign reading “where the magic happens” to signify its historical ties to Bobby.

Bobby would visit and be fed at 6 Greyfriars Place, as he would visit other local homes and businesses in-between stints in Greyfriars Kirkyard. As time went on, the Traill family’s role evolved to something like carers or owners, and it is for this reason they were photographed with the famous pooch.  What is rather remarkable is that since 2010, three entirely new photos have come to light. Mine is the latest and the reason for this article.  In 2010, a Flickr user posted an Edinburgh carte-de-visite photo of a small terrier in a cemetery. It was quickly pointed out that the photographer, WG Patterson, the graveyard setting, and the general appearance of the dog, suggested it might well be Greyfriars Bobby. Having compared the photograph to the location of John Gray’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and the subsequently discovered photos of Bobby, I am confident that not only is this indeed Greyfriars Bobby, but Bobby at the famous graveside he may have mourned at.

A better understanding of Bobby

Friends of Dalry Cemetery volunteer Lani Knott with the newly unveiled photograph of Greyfriars Bobby in Greyfriars Kirk.

In 2022, another carte-de-visite of unknown ownership but with a remarkable resemblance to the renowned canine began to circulate in the media. Fresh on its heels, I discovered a further carte-de-visite in 2023. For the first time, we can assemble all of these photos together and gain a better understanding of Bobby.  One of the first conclusions we can draw (yes, pun intended) is that the previously-known solo portrait is not a photograph, but a traced illustration of the photo I discovered, with some minor changes. Another is that being intended for commercial sale, the images were probably taken in order of saleability until the final, illustrated image was chosen for sale to the public.

Resembling the most strongly a traditional Victorian studio portrait, it is likely that the Traill family was photographed first. However, the inclusion of a family that not all intended customers would have been familiar with, and Bobby looking away from the camera in one photo and blurry-faced in the other, probably necessitated additional photos.  From here it may have been decided that instead of with his current caretaker family, Bobby might be photographed at the famous graveside of John Gray, the man who may have been his former owner. With no further known photos in this Kirkyard series, we can hazard a guess that Bobby may not have been particularly cooperative in terms of adopting a mourning pose when prompted. We can also see from the shallow depth of field that the studio camera had been adjusted for a shorter exposure, probably to maximize chances of keeping a moving dog in focus.

Inability to secure a photo of Bobby suitably reposed may have led Patterson back to the studio, where Bobby was placed, by himself, on an ornamental pedestal. One photo shows his claws, in another they are absent – the photo with claws must have been taken first. Perhaps they were trimmed to soften Bobby’s appearance. His coat, too, is brushed. In my photo, an alert, sitting Bobby, claws hidden and coat smooth, finally has his face in focus.

For the first time, we can truly look Bobby in the face. He is unquestionably a terrier cross, resembling no breed in particular. He has teefs. He looks quite happy.  So why was this relatively good photo made into an illustration for sale? Here, examining the minor changes is revealing. Bobby’s right ear is lowered. His teeth are hidden. His eyes are made to gaze upward, his entire demeanour taking on an air of mournfulness. His body, made blurry by the shallow depth of field, is brought into sharp focus. Finally, Patterson had his sellable image of a sad Greyfriars Bobby. The rest is history.

Text by: Jakob Assarsson, Friends of Dalry Cemetery.

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