Saturday, 19 November 2011

SCOTLAND: THE MOST FAITHFUL LITTLE DOG THAT EVER COCKED A LEG

PUP-LIC HOUSE: Greyfriars Bobby's statue and bar
ALMOST every overseas visitor to Edinburgh who tries haggis declares it delicious — until they’re told what it consists of. A haggis is a sheep’s stomach that’s scalded, pulled inside out, soaked overnight in brine and then stuffed with the chopped heart and lungs of a lamb, a pound of beef, diced onions and a half-pound of oatmeal. The cook then boils the bejaysus out of it and it’s served with bashit neeps and tatties — boiled and mashed turnip and potatoes.
On ceremonial occasions, the haggis is piped into the dining room by a guy in a kilt called something like Hamish McSporran and, shortly afterwards, it’s piped out by the emergency plumber.
Every morning, while blissfully clueless tourists tuck into this so-called delicacy at the breakfast table, fresh flowers are placed on Edinburgh’s most-visited grave which is marked with a red granite stone bearing the inscription: “Let his loyalty & devotion be a lesson to us all.”
This isn’t the final resting place of a war hero, an industrialist, a renowned scientist or a celebrated poet or author, of whom Edinburgh has produced many. The cuddly toys and squeaky rubber bones that vie for space with the flowers suggest an altogether more humble, but no less revered inhabitant. For beneath the lovingly-tended turf and within stick-throwing distance of the nearby pub that bears his name lie the remains of the most famous dog of all time — and I don’t mean Scooby Doo.
Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye terrier who died, aged 16 — or 112 in doggy years, which would make me 336 — on January 14, 1872. That was almost 140 years ago, but the heart-warming story of this remarkable little scamp lives on and attracts scores of thousands of visitors every year to Greyfriars Kirkyard where he’s buried.

GIVE A DOG A STONE: Bobby's grave
Bobby’s master was police officer John Gray, and the unlikely pair were a familiar sight on their daily beat. Police dogs in those days were invariably big snarling brutes you’d cross the street to avoid, but placid Bobby stood hardly halfway up Constable No. 90’s shins. Nevertheless, when ordered into action he was an able ally, as ne’er-do-wells found to the cost of their ankles.
Sadly, it was a short-lived partnership of just two years. Gray, who had bought Bobby as a pup, succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 45 in February 1858 and was laid to rest in Greyfriars Kirkyard. In dying, he gave birth to a legend, because for the next 14 years faithful Bobby remained at his grave, sleeping on it at night when weather permitted and sheltering beneath a nearby tomb when it rained or snowed.
In the early days after Gray’s passing, his little dog was frequently chased from the cemetery by caretaker James Brown — the rules said no animals and no children, and Brown was a stickler. He was also, like other watchmen throughout the city, haunted by the memory of the ghoulish deeds 30 years before of William Burke and William Hare who, in the space of just 12 months, murdered 16 people and sold their bodies for dissection to Dr Robert Knox. Not that Bobby was any threat to the residents of Greyfriars — the only bones he was interested in came from the butcher’s bin — but nerves were still raw, Brown was on his guard and everything was done by the book.
The gruesome twosome paid dearly for the crimes that horrified Edinburgh (contrary to abiding popular belief they weren’t grave robbers). Burke, from Strabane, County Tyrone, was hanged for murder in front of a baying crowd of 25,000 at the city’s Lawnmarket in January 1829 and his body was publicly dissected in the Medical College. Afterwards, Professor Alexander Monro dipped his pen in the skull and wrote: “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. The blood was taken from his head.” The Surgeons’ Hall Museum contains many fascinating yet creepy exhibits including Burke’s skeleton and a wallet made from his skin. The Police Centre Museum on the Royal Mile has a similar wallet. Hare, from Poyntzpass, County Down, saved his neck by turning King’s evidence and fled to London where he was blinded by a mob and spent the rest of his life as a beggar, although it’s unknown when he died.

EDIN-BURY: Greyfriars Kirkyard and the castle, beyond
No matter how often Bobby was ejected from the cemetery, he always sneaked back in, squeezing through the bars of the main gates to resume his lonely vigil. Brown soon grew tired of evicting the tiny trespasser and came to grow fond of him. He started feeding Bobby each morning and made him a bed by placing some sacking and an old blanket under the tomb where Bobby sheltered from the elements. Customers in Traill’s Coffee House next to the cemetery gates — it’s now Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar — got to hear of the caretaker’s new friend and encouraged him to come in. But he’d never enter until he heard the one o’clock gun from the castle battlements, which had been the signal for Gray and him to knock off for lunch and is still fired each day.
Bobby’s daily ritual began to attract curious crowds who’d gather at the kirkyard gates waiting for the gun to sound. A few seconds later, they were rewarded with seeing the little dog dashing out of the cemetery, running between their legs and heading straight into Traill’s. But in 1867 a bye-law requiring dogs to be licensed was passed and the police were ordered to round up all strays, which were to be destroyed (I won’t tell you how). As masterless Bobby was to all intents and purposes a stray there was, understandably, a public outcry, but common sense prevailed. His admirers raised a petition that was presented to Lord Provost (Mayor) Sir William Chambers who was so moved by Bobby’s story that he ordered that his licence fee be paid indefinitely by the city council. Not only that, but Chambers, who was a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, went out and personally bought him a collar which, along with his dinner bowl, are the most popular exhibits in the Huntly House Museum on the Royal Mile.

HILL OF A VIEW: Looking from Calton, high above the city
Just outside Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar, directly across the street from the National Museum of Scotland is the most photographed statue in Scotland, erected to the most faithful little dog that ever cocked a leg. It was commissioned by philanthropist and animal lover Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, at one time the richest woman in Britain, who asked the council for permission to install a lasting memorial. The members agreed, and went one better, unanimously awarding Bobby the freedom of the city (others on whom the honour has been bestowed include Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, US Presidents Ulysses E. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Sean Connery and Nelson Mandela). The life-sized bronze statue by WH Brodie, which sits on a granite plinth and was unveiled in November 1873, is a magnet for visitors.
Just down the street is the Elephant House Cafe where another legend was born. It was here that struggling single mum Joanne Rowling wrote the first words of the Harry Potter series in her notebook. Fans of the boy wizard flock to the cafe every day, and most then stroll the short distance to have their picture taken at Bobby’s statue and, perhaps, have a drink in the pub. If they have their pets with them, there’s a drink for them, too, because at the foot of the plinth is a water trough for dogs. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to the tiny terrier.

AN EDINBURGH JEWEL
I was introduced to The Cafe Royal (www.caferoyal.org.uk) 30 years ago, and I make a beeline for it every time I’m in town. It’s a pub in as much as it serves drink, including many cask ales and a huge selection of malt whiskies, but it’s the decor that stops first-time visitors in their tracks the moment they step inside. I always try to sit facing either of the doors to see their reaction, which is invariably a look of wide-eyed wonder followed by a “Waow!”. The AA Hospitality Awards judges who last month named it Scottish Pub of the Year obviously felt the same.

THE BEST BAR NONE: My favourite pub, the Cafe Royal
Dating from 1863 in its present location in West Register Street opposite the Balmoral Hotel, it’s a splendid example of Victorian and Baroque elegance where it appears no expense has ever spared in justifying the “Royal”. Stained glass, highly-polished dark woods, marble, ornate plasterwork and brass fittings abound, and the unique Doulton ceramic murals depicting inventors Benjamin Franklin (another Edinburgh freeman), Michael Faraday, James Watt, William Caxton, Robert Peel and George Stephenson at work were made in 1886 yet look as fresh as the day they left the kiln.
Fresh, too, is everything that comes from the kitchen. Oysters are the signature dish, but the regularly changed bar menu also offers mussels, fish stew, seafood platters and grilled sea bass plus smoked salmon sandwiches. If you’re feeling particularly peckish, the Stornoway black pudding and apple gratin starter is superb.



WHERE TO STAY
The 187-room Apex Waterloo Place (www.apexhotels.co.uk) is my home from home in Edinburgh. This 4-star boutique hotel with free wifi, a pool, sauna, Technogym and spa is situated at the eastern end of Princes Street close to Waverley Station and is overlooked by Calton Hill, which affords the best views of the city.

˜Bill Hill, who knows Edinburgh like the back of his hand, is the man to call if you want to take an informative and entertaining guided tour of the city. A raconteur, singer and songwriter, he’s a fount of fascinating facts and figures that bring the history of Scotland’s capital to life. And when it comes to Greyfriars Bobby, Bill’s shaggy dog story beats them all. Call him on 0131 445 1296 or see www.edinburghtourguide.co.uk
˜For a Burke and Hare evening walking tour of the Old Town (£9.50) see www.westporttours.com. The Edinburgh Dungeon’s actor-led Burke and Hare experience costs £11.20 when booked online (www.the-dungeons.co.uk/edinburgh).
˜For further information on what to do and see in Edinburgh, go to www.visitscotland.com