In 1638, a large group of particularly earnest Scots gathered inside the building (probably still fresh with that new carpet smell from its completion only 18 years previously) to sign the National Covenant: an almighty "fuck youse" to Charles I and his cronies:
The Covenanters raised an army to resist Charles I's religious reforms, and defeated him in the Bishops Wars. The crisis this caused the Stuart monarchy helped to spark the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which included the English Civil War, the Scottish Civil War and Irish Confederate Wars.
It would be fair to say that the events that transpired in this sombre Scottish kirk were one of the vital turning points in British history.
A replication of this document is tucked away behind curtains and glass in an upstairs room at the back of the church, a room of such little significance that myself and some fellow theatrical types recently used it as a dressing room for a production of Romeo and Juliet in the building. The Covenant is not the tourist pull of this kirk. Instead on first walking up the concrete path towards its grand central window, you are confronted with a gravestone to Greyfriars Bobby:
Bobby's owner John Gray was a policeman who died in 1858 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, the cemetery surrounding Greyfriars Kirk in the Old Town of Edinburgh. Bobby, who survived John by more than a decade, is said to have spent the rest of his life sitting on his master's grave. A more realistic account has it that he spent a great deal of time at Gray's grave, but that he left regularly for meals at a restaurant beside the graveyard, and may have spent colder winters in nearby houses.
Fuck history. Fuck unity. Fuck the great acts of the people. Fuck the words and documents that make up the tattered fragments of what we are today. Fuck the events that changed the course of our country/ies forever. Fuck all of that boring bollocks when there's a dog to worship. A dog most likely not motivated by any imagined spiritual connection to his dead owner but by the fact that the sentimental cunts in the restaurant nearby kept giving him food.
Tourists flock to the church, they snap photographs of the statue of the dog outside, they have a drink in Greyfriars Bobby's Bar, they lay flowers, toys, ticketstubs from the Disney film about his life at his graveside; they may even note his image emblazoned across the magnificent new organ inside the church. Greyfriars is not Greyfriars without its canine suffix—where there is Greyfriars there is Bobby. The image of this dog is gnawing away at the history of this kirk, of this city, of this country. Over one hundred years after he died Bobby continues to take a dump all over his home town.
We live in a society obsessed with animals. In 2002, animal welfare charities made more money than HIV/AIDS charities or chest and heart charities or charities for the blind. People whose lives are destroyed by their lack of sight, who cannot do the everyday things we take for granted; people dying of one of the most terrible illnesses of recent years; people barely able to breath. This is not important when there are animals to care for. Earlier this year Londoners walked home past the homeless, the destitute, posters or warnings of starvation and war in the rest of the world, weeping over one tonne of blubber that got itself trapped up the Thames. Campaigners for animals torture people to meet their ends.
Animals are innocent, people will tell you, they don't deserve the treatment they suffer. Someone has to stand up for their rights. People on the other hand, are tainted, guilty, responsible. Fuck them, it's probably their own damn fault anyway.
An animal's eyes are a blank canvas. In their features people can project whatever they want. They can control the world, impose whatever sense of innocence, purity and goodness they choose. When you look into a puppy's eyes after you've just 'saved' him from whatever crisis might have befallen the little scamp, you can inject that returned gaze with any amount of thanks and gratification you want. It's easy. Far too easy. An animal won't turn around and say "Thanks but you haven't really solved the problem" or "Well its all well and good that you give five pounds a year when Lenny Henry and his crap friends come on TV and ask you to, but do you not think the new pair of Nike trainers you buy every month somewhat contribute to the problem?". Animals simplify a complicated world. They are suffering or they are not. They are used with cruelty or they are treated with care. They are killed or they are given freedom.
Animals make stupid people feel better.
Well, I say fuck animals. Fuck animals while there are people dying of AIDS. Fuck animals when we should be learning about the complicated religious history of our country. Fuck animals when you can't move in London for homeless people asking you for change. Fuck animals when doctors need to try and find ways to save people's lives.
If you want a puppy, get a puppy. I'm not going to stop you. Call it Bobby—it's a good name. But for the love of all that is good, don't let animals blind you to quite how much of a mess we as people are (and have been) in.