• At CPT we are committed to ensuring the best possible experience for all artists, audience members and other visitors to our space. We welcome customers and artists with disabilities and are pleased to assist you in your visit. 

    If you have any questions or enquiries, please do get in touch by phone at 020 7419 4841 or email at foh@cptheatre.co.uk.

  • Greyfriars Bobby was an ethical slut

    Image: Creative Commons

    The dominant thinking about how humans and dogs make lives together was minted in the Victorian era, when the Edinburgh stray Greyfriars Bobby became the poster-boy for some very heteronormative ideas about deathless fidelity – despite living a kind of queer existence in a network of caring connections.

    Martin Moriarty reflects on his bid to overthrow these Victorian values through his queer liberationist fable, Virginia Woolf’s Dog Training Academy, part of the More Than Human Festival at CPT.

    If you’ve been up to the Edinburgh Fringe, chances are you’ll have come across the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the little terrier who followed his master’s funeral cortège into Greyfriars Kirkyard one day in the 1860s, and spent the next decade or more loyally ensconced on his grave in mourning.

    The mythically faithful dog is commemorated by the Greyfriars Bobby drinking fountain on Candlemaker Row, created in 1873, the year after he died. With his own headstone inside the churchyard, erected in 1981 (“Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all”). By the Greyfriars Bobby monument that was added to the churchyard in 2021. Even the pub opposite bears his name.

    His fame spread far beyond the Scottish capital as newspapers around the world picked up the story after his death. The American writer Eleanor Atkinson transformed it into a bestselling novel in 1912. And that book has been adapted into two different films: first by MGM, who used it as the basis of one of its endless Lassie sequels (Challenge to Lassie) in 1948; and later in 1961, when Walt Disney oversaw production of the Disney version, Greyfriars Bobby (“The story of the wee Skye Terrier with the great big heart”).

    But here’s the thing. The Greyfriars Bobby industrial complex has relentlessly presented this story of a shaggy dog to celebrate a version of loyalty and faithfulness that’s incredibly patriarchal, monogamous and heteronormative.

    And in order to do so, it’s had to erase the queer realities of Bobby’s life (or even lives – I’ll explain later) that are so much more fluid and polyamorous.

    Serious investigation by the Cardiff University academic Jan Bondeson has established Greyfriars Bobby was a stray, who made a life for himself around the churchyard starting somewhere around 1860.

    The tale about him following a funeral and keeping watch on his master’s grave was probably dreamed up by a sexton in the churchyard, James Brown, who understood the value of a sentimental origin story for extracting bigger tips from the visitors he took to meet the dog while he was still alive.

    When the original Greyfriars Bobby died around 1867, it seems James Brown pulled a switcheroo by producing Greyfriars Bobby II to keep the story going and the money coming in.

    But however many Bobbies there were, the dog (or dogs) cultivated a network of successful relationships with different humans in the neighbourhood.

    John Traill, the owner of the Temperance Coffee House just outside the churchyard, put a plate of food down for him every lunchtime. Bobby usually showed up to eat shortly after the sound of the One O’Clock Gun, often in the company of local cabinet-maker William Dow.

    This was far from his only source of sustenance. A young girl who worked in the local butcher’s fed him scraps of meat and milk when he turned up at the door.

    So beloved did Bobby become in the neighbourhood that, when some snitch complained to the council that Mr Traill was keeping an unlicensed dog, local tailor Robert Ritchie and upholsterer James Anderson, who both looked out for the little mutt, clubbed together to pay the dog tax to ensure there would be no possibility of an unlicensed Bobby being put down.

    So the real Bobby was not the one-man dog of Victorian invention in a monogamous relationship with a single master. In fact, he juggled several different relationships at the same time. Got his needs met in different ways from different people. Loved them all. But belonged to none.

    Greyfriars Bobby was an ethical slut.

    But Victorian middle-class sentiment couldn’t deal with that. So they concocted something suitably heteronormative in its place. And this version caught fire because it expressed the dominant values of early middle-class pet culture, which remain in place to this day (although not entirely unchallenged).

    Stories about deathless loyalty to a single human tell us less about dogs and more about the culture that tells those stories. 

    After all, street dogs all over the world lead successful lives outside pet culture. Even after the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, the abandoned dogs who survived evaded attempts by local officials to exterminate them (for fear they would contaminate humans, not out of concern for the animals themselves) and have seeded an expanding population of hundreds of dogs today who thrive without human hearth or home to go to.

    It was to try and throw some queer light on dog companionship that I’m making my show at CPT this season, Virginia Woolf’s Dog Training Academy.

    Rooted in my relationship with my dog Lucky, a Border Collie-Labrador cross, the show investigates what it means for dogs and humans to make a life together, channelling insights from dog-loving queer writers including bisexual American author Jack London (The Call of the Wild); modernist pioneer Virginia Woolf (Flush – A Biography); and queer rebel J.R. Ackerley (My Dog Tulip).

    But it’s also a queer liberationist fable, which sets freedom as the highest measure of success in all relationships – by arguing for the kind of companionship model in which dogs are not subordinate to human needs (as all animals are believed to be in this capitalist culture) but are instead our equals, with their own independent needs and desires to express and fulfil with our support and care and love.

    Virginia Woolf’s Dog Training Academy
    Wed 17 - Thu 18 Jan 2024 at 9pm
    Tickets £8

    Martin Moriarty

    "It is precisely these types of projects, involving these types of people, in these types of theatres that make London what it is."

    The Lancet