If you walk down George VI Bridge south of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, you’ll come across a statue of a dog. Across the street behind the statue, there’s a pub that shares the dog’s name: Greyfriars Bobby. Behind the pub is the church from which both take their name: Greyfriars Kirk.
Named for the Franciscan friars who previously occupied the spot – and whose gray robes earned them the nickname “Grey friars” – the present church building was completed in 1620 and belongs to the Church of Scotland (which is Presbyterian in denomination). Today, it’s an active parish kirk (kirk is the Scots word for church), complete with a museum dedicated to the history of the building and the surrounding grounds, which have their own claim to fame.
Greyfriars Kirk earned itself a reputation very early in its life, when religious dissent broke out in Scotland. In the post-reformation and newly United Kingdom, political unrest caused King Charles I to scrabble for whatever control he could get. One aspect of the lives of his subjects that he tried to bring under his control was religion. Scotland generally held with Presbyterian teachings, but England held with the Anglican Church. Charles I, living in England, tried to make his kingdom more uniform on that front. In 1637, he introduced a Book of Common Prayer in Scotland that was similar to the one used south of the border by Anglicans.
Most of us today wouldn’t think of the publication of a prayer book to be particularly upsetting, but Scottish Presbyterians were enraged – and I mean, in a way that only Scotsmen can be. The following year, a group of Scottish elite met at Greyfriars Kirk to denounce the book from the pulpit and sign their names to the National Covenant, which announced their intention to defend true Protestantism and effectively rejected the Book of Common Prayer. The National Covenant served as a rallying point for the subsequent political/religious struggles, and was the first in a series of events that led to religious persecution, war, and, finally, (grudging) religious toleration.
But, let’s be honest with each other. I know what most of you are thinking. Where does the dog come in?
In the 1850s, a policeman named John Gray started working the beat at night. This being a rather lonely and, in a city which even today is poorly lit in the wee hours, disconcerting occupation. In order to help him through, John Gray adopted himself a Skye terrier and named him Bobby.
Bobby never left his side. He went everywhere with his master, and he became a pretty common sight during the night patrols. But then, tragedy struck, and good ol’ John Gray died of tuberculosis.
Poor Bobby was devastated. On the day of the funeral, as he had for every other day of their lives together, Bobby was by John Gray’s side. He followed the casket into the cemetery in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and sat on his master’s grave. Every day for the next fourteen years, Bobby could be seen sitting by his master’s tombstone. The people in the surrounding neighborhood nicknamed him Greyfriars Bobby, because he was always in the Greyfriars area. In recognition of this champion of loyalty, the locals did him the highest honor the people of Edinburgh could give to a dog: they named a pub after him.
We’ve talked about the kirk, the brave souls who strove to shake off the oppressive yolk of a prayer book, and a puppy who just wanted his best friend. But wait, there’s more.
On the main street, there’s a red-painted storefront that houses a café called The Elephant House. In the back room of The Elephant House, you can sit at a table, sip your coffee, and glance over into the kirkyard to read the headstones looking for names for the characters in your novel. Which is exactly what J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame did.
Back in the day, J.K. Rowling was a single mother struggling to get by. All she could afford was a single cup of coffee at the café, but she liked to sit there to write her new children’s novel. The story goes that she would make a cup of coffee last all afternoon, and that the staff would then politely ask her to leave. Today, there’s a great big sign outside that announces The Elephant House as “The Birthplace of Harry Potter.”
J.K. Rowling has since moved on, and apparently there are no hard feelings between her and The Elephant House. And across the street, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, you can still find the inspiration for some of fiction’s most memorable characters.