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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
John Dowie, Vintner


"Johnnie Dowie's Tavern" was a place of old standing, and particularly celebrated for the excellence of its ale, "Nor' Loch trouts, and Welsh rabbits." It was situated in a narrow alley (called Libberton's Wynd) running between the Lawnmarket and Cowgate, which has lately been demolished to make way for the Bridge of George the Fourth. The tavern, both as to internal and external appearance, wore an unpromising aspect. The principal room, which looked to the Wynd, was capable of containing about fourteen persons, but all the others were so small, that not above six could be stowed into each, and so dingy and dark that, even in broad day, they had to be lighted by artificial means. Yet, in this unseemly place of entertainment, many of the respectable citizens, and several remarkable persons of last century, were in the habit of meeting nightly, and found in it no ordinary degree of social comfort and amusement. Fergusson the poet was amongst its most early frequenters. Herd, the collector of Scottish songs—Paton, the antiquary (who has been formerly noticed)—Cum-myng, of the Lyon Office—Hunter of Blackness—Anthony Wood-head, solicitor-at-law—George Martin, writer—and many other well known Edinburgh characters, were its ordinary visitors. Dowie's tavern is also known as having been the favourite resort of Burns during his sojourn of six months in Edinburgh, where, with Nicol of the High School, and Allan Masterton—the Willie and. Allan of his well-known Bacchanalian song—he held many a social meeting.

What contributed in no small degree to the popularity of "Johnnie Dowie's Tavern" unquestionably was, in the first place, the good cheer which his house afforded; and, secondly, his own tact and address. He was uniformly attentive and obliging; and, whether with a "crum o' tripe, a fleuk, or whitin'," no one knew better how to please the palate of a customer. On being asked for something to eat, Johnnie's invariable reply was, "Ye can get a buffed herring." The situation of the house tended much to recommend it; at once retired, and yet in the proximity of the most frequented portion of the Old Town, it afforded a convenient resort for those who took "meridians;" and at night the strong ale drinkers found it the very focus of excellent cheer and good company.

A graphic and somewhat humorous description of "Dowie's Tavern" is given in some verses by Mr. Hunter of Blackness. These were originally ascribed to Burns, and as such printed in slips by "Honest John," and circulated among his acquaintances. They afterwards were included in a short biographical notice of John himself, in the Scots Magazine for 1806, to which his portrait was prefixed. In this article the writer says, "We have met lately with the following anonymous poem, written a good many years ago, in which the praises and merits of John are duly set forth. It is generally supposed to be the composition of Burns, who, when in town, was a frequent visitor of Mr. Dowie; and at any rate is a good imitation of his manner. Such of our readers as know what it is 'to weet their pipes, for little wrang,' will readily acknowledge that the picture is drawn to the life, and will probably not be displeased with this opportunity of recognising an old acquaintance :—

"JOHNNIE DOWIE'S ALE.

"A' ye wha wis', on e'enings lang,
To meet an' crack, and sing a sang,
And weet your pipes, for little wrang,
To purse or person,
To sere Johnnie Dowie's gang,
There thrum a verse on.

"O, Dowie's ale! thou art the thing,
That gars us crack, and gars us sing,
Cast by our cares, our wants a' fling
Frae us wi' anger;
Thou e'en mak'st passion tak the wing,
Or thou wilt bang 'er.

"How blest is he wha has a groat,
To spare upon the cheering pot;
He may look blythe as ony Scot
That e'er was boru:
Gie's a' the like, but wi' a coat,
And guide frae scorn.

"But thinkna that strong ale alone
Is a' that's kept by dainty John;
Na, na; for in the place there's none,
Frae end to end,
For meat can set ye better on,
Than can your friend.

"Wi' looks as mild, as mild can be,
An' smudgin' laugh, wi' winkin' e'e;
An' lowly bow down to his knee,
He'll say fu' douce,
'Whe, gentlemen, stay till I see,
What's i' the house.

"Anither bow—'Deed, gif ye please,
Ye can get a bit toasted cheese,
A crum o' tripe, ham, dish o peese
(The season fittin'),
An egg, or cauler frae the seas,
A fleuk or whitin';

"'A nice beef-steak, or ye may get
A gude buff'd herring, reisted skate,
And ingans, an' (tho' past its date),
A cut o' veal;
Ha, ha, it's no that unco late,
I'll do it weel'

"O, Geordie Robertson, dreigh loun,
An' antiquarian Paton soun',
Wi' mony ithers i' the town,
What wad come o'er ye,
Gif Johnnie Dowie should stap down,
To the grave before ye?

''Ye sure wad break your hearts wi' grief,
An' in strong ale find nae relief,
War ye to lose your Dowie—chief
O' bottle keepers;
Three years at least, now, to be brief,
Ye'd gang wi' weepers.

"But, gude forbid! for your sakes a',
That sic a usefu' man should fa';
For, frien's o' mine, between us twa,
Right i' your lug,
You'd lose a howff, baith warm an braw,
An' unco snug.

"Then, pray for's health this mony year,
Fresh three-'n-a-ha'penny, best o' beer,
That can (tho' dull) you brawly cheer —|
Recant you weel up;
An' gar you a' forget your wear—
Your sorrows seal up."

To this poetical description of "dainty John," we may add the prose remarks of the Traditions:—"He was the sleekest and kindest of landlords. Nothing could equal the benignity of his smile, when he brought in a bottle of the ale to a company of well-known and friendly customers; and it was a perfect treat to see his formality in drawing the cork, his precision in filling the glasses, his regularity in drinking the healths of all present in the first glass (which he always did, and at every successive bottle), and then his douce civility in withdrawing." The peculiar suavity of welcome which he invariably extended to his friends was no less effective. "Walk in, gentlemen," he would say, "there's plenty o' corn in Egypt."

The ale for which John obtained so much celebrity was the production of Mr. Archibald Younger, whose brewery was situated in Croft-an-reigh. "That brewer," say the Traditions, "together with John Gray, City-Clerk of Edinburgh; Mr. John Buchan, W.S.; Martin, the celebrated portrait-painter (the master of Sir Henry Raeburn); and some others, instituted a club here, which, by way of a pun upon the name of the landlord, they called the College of Dowie. Mr. Younger's ale alone was always sold in the house, as it also was at Maut Ha!—a snug old tavern, kept by one Pringle, in the Playhouse Close, Canongate; and it was owing to the celebrity which it acquired in these two establishments, that 'Edinburgh Ale ' attained its present high character."

"Dowie's Tavern" was a house of much respectability. He was himself a conscientious, worthy man; and the majority of his customers were social, but neither intemperate nor debauched in their enjoyments. The moment twelve o'clock struck in St. Giles's, not another cork would the landlord draw. In answer to the demand for—"another bottle, John!" his reply invariably was—"Gentlemen, 'tis past twelve, and time to go home."

The following anecdote of "Honest John" is also recorded in the Traditions:—"David Herd was one night prevented by illness from joining in the malt potations of his friends. He called for first one and then another glass of spirits, which he diluted, more Scotico, in warm water and sugar. When the reckoning came to be paid, the antiquary was surprised to find the second glass charged a fraction higher than the first, as if John had been resolved to impose a tax upon excess. On inquiring the reason, however, honest John explained it thus:—'Whe, sir, ye see the first glass was out o' the auld barrel, and the second one was out o' the new; and as the whisky in the new barrel cost me mair than the ither, whe, sir, I've just charged a wee mair fort.' "

In each of Johnnie's rooms was a small shelf, whereon he placed the bottles as he emptied them, to enable him to make up the reckoning. "When asked how much was "to pay"—"Whe, gentlemen, let me see," he would say, casting an eye toward the shelf; "nine bottles (or whatever the number might be); ye've dune no amiss the nicht." John was frequently puzzled, however, by the company placing some of the bottles under the table, or otherwise concealing them; yet he never expressed any displeasure at such jokes.

Mr. Dowie ultimately scraped together a fortune of about sis thousand pounds. He lived till 1817 ; and to the last continued to wear a cocked hat—the honoured badge of former times—although he latterly dispensed with the use of knee and shoe buckles. He was twice married, and had several children by his first wife. His son entered the army, and attained the rank of Captain.

The successor of Johnnie Dowie continued to keep the house open, under the designation of "Burns's Tavern," until the demolition of the Wynd in 1881. The premises had been considerably repaired and improved, and were lighted with gas. The little room called the coffin, in which Burns used to sit, was covered with green cloth, and fitted up with a new table.


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