Scottish Scam: Age-Old Tale of Mourning Dog Was a Hoax to Draw Tourists

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The statue of Bobby, a legendary Skye terrier, watches over Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh.

A dog did exist, but he wasn’t that devoted. Or cute. Or even a terrier. (via Reuters)

Here’s how the story goes. An Edinburgh policeman named John Gray dies in 1858. His Skye terrier is so loyal that he watches over his deceased master’s grave at the Greyfriars Cemetery for 14 years until his own death in 1872. The dog, “Greyfriars Bobby,” never left the graveyard.

Well, turns out Bobby never did all that.

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Jan Bondeson, a historian and lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, started studying the famous canine for his book, Amazing Dogs, and learned that the 140-year-old Victorian tale was created by cemetery curator, James Brown, and restaurant owner, John Traill, as a business ploy to draw in customers.

“The entire story is wrong—the account of the dog on the drinking fountain who supposedly kept vigil at his master’s grave in all kinds of weather is not accurate,” Bondeson told Reuters.

The real Greyfriars Bobby was a stray mutt that roamed the cemetery—just a regular dog, probably one of many, that would hunt rats in the church and stick around for scraps. “He was not a mourning dog at all,” said Bondeson, who also believes the dog never even had an owner.

During the dog’s life, this story—a mix of business branding and publicity stunt—served Brown and Traill well. “Visitors to the churchyard increased 100-fold, with animal lovers from across the country flocking to see the faithful celebrity dog,” the British newspaper The Telegraph reports. A bronze statue of the terrier was erected in the cemetery in 1873, and the dog’s steadfast character would go on to inspire books and movies, including the 1961 Walt Disney film Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog.

This 19th-century Scottish tale of furry dedication is hard to resist, but Bondeson said, “I knew the famous story of Greyfriars Bobby but the more I researched it the more I smelt a rat,” adding that “all the theories about the dog’s life are about as full of holes as a piece of Swiss cheese.”

Another discovery: there were two dogs.

The first Bobby was a mongrel, described by Bondeson as “quite an ugly dog,” that died in 1867. Brown and Traill were worried the canine’s death would hurt business, so a second dog, this time a purebred Skye terrier, was quickly shuffled in to take Bobby’s place.

“A dead Bobby was no good for business,” said Bondeson. The second purebred “Bobby” died in 1872.

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Kai Ma is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @Kai_Ma or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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