"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
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
"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."
"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.