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Greyfriars Bobby   By: (1863-1942)

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By Eleanor Atkinson


When the time gun boomed from Edinburgh Castle, Bobby gave a startled yelp. 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 morning he had come to the weekly market with Auld Jock, a farm laborer, and the Grassmarket of the Scottish capital lay in the narrow valley at the southern base of Castle Crag. Two hundred feet above it the time gun was mounted in the half moon battery on an overhanging, crescent shaped ledge of rock. In any part of the city the report of the one o'clock gun was sufficiently alarming, but in the Grassmarket it was an earth rending explosion directly overhead. It needed to be heard but once there to be registered on even a little dog's brain. Bobby had heard it many times, and he never failed to yelp a sharp protest at the outrage to his ears; but, as the gunshot was always followed by a certain happy event, it started in his active little mind a train of pleasant associations.

In Bobby's day of youth, and that was in 1858, when Queen Victoria was a happy wife and mother, with all her bairns about her knees in Windsor or Balmoral, the Grassmarket of Edinburgh was still a bit of the Middle Ages, as picturesquely decaying and Gothic as German Nuremberg. Beside the classic corn exchange, it had no modern buildings. North and south, along its greatest length, the sunken quadrangle was faced by tall, old, timber fronted houses of stone, plastered like swallows' nests to the rocky slopes behind them.

Across the eastern end, where the valley suddenly narrowed to the ravine like street of the Cowgate, the market was spanned by the lofty, crowded arches of George IV Bridge. This high hung, viaduct thoroughfare, that carried a double line of buildings within its parapet, leaped the gorge, from the tall, old, Gothic rookeries on High Street ridge, just below the Castle esplanade. It cleared the roofs of the tallest, oldest houses that swarmed up the steep banks from the Cowgate, and ran on, by easy descent, to the main gateway of Greyfriars kirkyard at the lower top of the southern rise.

Greyfriars' two kirks formed together, under one continuous roof, a long, low, buttressed building without tower or spire. The new kirk was of Queen Anne's day, but the old kirk was built before ever the Pilgrims set sail for America. It had been but one of several sacred buildings, set in a monastery garden that sloped pleasantly to the open valley of the Grassmarket, and looked up the Castle heights unhindered. In Bobby's day this garden had shrunk to a long, narrow, high piled burying ground, that extended from the rear of the line of buildings that fronted on the market, up the slope, across the hilltop, and to where the land began to fall away again, down the Burghmuir. From the Grassmarket, kirk and kirkyard lay hidden behind and above the crumbling grandeur of noble halls and mansions that had fallen to the grimiest tenements of Edinburgh's slums. From the end of the bridge approach there was a glimpse of massive walls, of pointed windows, and of monumental tombs through a double leafed gate of wrought iron, that was alcoved and wedged in between the ancient guildhall of the candlemakers and a row of prosperous little shops in Greyfriars Place.

A rock rimmed quarry pit, in the very heart of Old Edinburgh, the Grassmarket was a place of historic echoes. The yelp of a little dog there would scarce seem worthy of record. More in harmony with its stirring history was the report of the time gun. At one o'clock every day, there was a puff of smoke high up in the blue or gray or squally sky, then a deafening crash and a back fire fusillade of echoes. The oldest frequenter of the market never got used to it. On Wednesday, as the shot broke across the babel of shrill bargaining, every man in the place jumped, and not one was quicker of recovery than wee Bobby... Continue reading book >>

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