THIS week sees the 150th anniversary of the death of Scotland’s most famous dog, Greyfriars Bobby.

It was on January 14, 1872, that the faithful Skye terrier passed away at the age of 16 after 14 years of guarding the grave of his original master, John Gray, a nightwatchman and former gardener.

The story is well known globally thanks largely to the Walt Disney film of 1961 starring Donald Crisp, Laurence Naismith and Andrew Cruickshank with Gordon Jackson and Duncan Macrae in supporting roles.

The tag line for the promotion of the film was “such a tiny dog to create such a big fuss” and in essence the story it tells is true, though the studio took various liberties with the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, as have others.

As regular readers will know I deal in facts where I can establish them and while I will mention them when relevant, I leave legends and myths to other writers.

As we approach the sesquicentenary of his death, there are still plenty of growing legends about Greyfriars Bobby, but these facts of his story are beyond doubt.

Bobby was a small dog said to have been born in 1855 who really did guard his master’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh and who was given a licence bought personally for him by Lord Provost Sir William Chambers in 1867. He also bought Bobby a collar, which is now in the Museum of Edinburgh. There are references to Chambers’ actions in the minutes of the old town council.

So far, so good. Numerous authors have set out to try and decry Bobby’s legend, but the facts as established are quite unchallengeable and the evidence is still there to be seen. Just pay a visit to the Museum of Edinburgh in historic Huntly House in Canongate on the Royal Mile where you can see the collar and Bobby’s feeding bowl. The brass collar is inscribed “Greyfriars Bobby, from the Lord Provost, 1867 licensed”.

That tells you something. By 1867, the story of the faithful dog was well known to even the mightiest citizens of the capital city, and the Lord Provost himself felt compelled to take action to preserve the dog who was under threat because laws had been brought in to stop the increasing menace of stray dogs in the city.

Technically Bobby was indeed a stray. The accepted version is that John Gray came to Edinburgh with his wife Jess and son John in 1850 and that he took a job as a police nightwatchman to avoid being thrown into the poorhouse. Some accounts say Gray had previously been a shepherd, and novelist Eleanor Atkinson, in her 1912 best-selling novel, describes Bobby as a shepherd’s dog: “He was only a little country dog — the very youngest and smallest and shaggiest of Skye terriers — bred on a heathery slope of the Pentland hills, where the loudest sound was the bark of a collie or the tinkle of a sheep-bell.”

That’s fiction, probably, but there’s no doubt that as a nightwatchman Gray either bought Bobby as a puppy or more likely adopted him as his “watchdog” and for the last three years of Gray’s life the two were seen about the streets of Edinburgh at night, the dog clearly devoted to his master.

Police records, now apparently lost, showed that Gray was treated for tuberculosis by the police surgeon. It seems pretty certain that after Gray died from tuberculosis on February 15, 1858, and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, no one was prepared to “own” Bobby, and Kirkyard curator or sexton James Brown at first would not tolerate the visits of Bobby to Gray’s grave. Eventually he relented and even built a shelter for Bobby at Gray’s grave.

The story of the wee dog’s faithfulness began to spread across Edinburgh and beyond, and at some point – the exact date is disputed – John Traill became involved. A native of Dunfermline, Traill opened his Temperance Coffee House at Greyfriars Place. The story was that Traill began to feed Bobby each day after the One O’Clock Gun sounded at Edinburgh Castle, but that may be a legend – what is undoubtedly true is that Traill and his family cared for Bobby as there is a photograph of them with the dog taken in 1868.

That was the year after the new laws came into force in the city which stated that every dog must have a licence, causing the intervention of Lord Provost Chambers. It is important to note that Sir William Chambers was a distinguished bookseller and publisher, and he was also a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Traill may have enhanced the story, but The Scotsman in particular carried several accounts and letters testifying to the basic truth of the story.

Bobby’s death in 1872 was the result of cancer of the jaw, as discovered in a post-mortem examination by Professor Thomas Walley of the Dick Vet School.

In 1873, one of the richest women in the UK, Baroness Burdett-Coutts commissioned a fountain in Bobby’s honour which was erected at the southern end of the George IV Bridge opposite the kirkyard entrance. The small statue by William Brodie has become a huge tourist attraction in its own right, though countless members of the public have eroded Bobby’s nose by touching it for good luck. No one can say how that tradition came about.

A more suitable memorial is the headstone at Bobby’s grave inside the kirkyard. It was erected by The Dog Aid Society of Scotland and unveiled by Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester on May 13, 1981. The memorial is inscribed “Greyfriars Bobby – Died 14 January 1872 – Aged 16 years – Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all”.

Some 150 years on, Greyfriars Bobby’s story is still inspirational and I suspect it always will be.