John Dowie, Vintner

One of Kay’s characters who is reproduced in the Painting, is Johnnie Dowie, the proprietor of Dowie’s Tavern in Liberton Wynd which descended from the Lawnmarket to the Cowgate immediately to the west of the Square.  The tavern had a gloomy outlook within the narrow and steep confines of the Wynd.  Only the front room, which could accommodate fourteen people, had any window light.  The other rooms were small and required candle light.  The smallest room known as the coffin could seat only six.  Despite this the tavern was very popular as a locus for the meridian, largely due to the geniality of the host who is described as a sleek, quiet-looking man, in a last century style of attire.  In Kay’s Portraits it is recorded that the popularity of the Tavern was due to:-

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[1].

Here according to Wilson ‘the chief wits and men of letters were wont to resort’[2].  Among its regular clientele was Robert Fergusson, who sought relief from his weary occupation in the company at Dowie’s.  Robbie Burns, a great admirer of Fergusson, also became a regular habitué at a later date together with his friends Willie Nicol and Allan Masterton, whom he immortalised as the ‘three blythe hearts’ in his poem Willie brew’d a peck o’maut. Dowie died in 1817, a very wealthy man.  He had a son in the army, who attained the rank of major, and was a respectable officer according to Chambers[3]. After Dowies’ death, his successor changed the name to Burn’s Tavern and it became a regular tourist attraction.  In 1834 the Tavern was demolished together with the rest of Liberton’s Wynd to make way for the building of George IV Bridge which spanned the Cowgate.

John Dowie’s tavern (later named Burn’s Tavern)

A poem entitled Dowie’s Tavern[4] by a Mr Hunter (although thought by some to be by Burns) contains the following verses which describe the tavern’s menu.  Dowie’s ale was a celebrated brew made by Archibald Younger whose brewery flourished in Edinburgh until recent times.

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.
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, we’ winkin’ e’e;
An lowly bow down to his knee,
He’ll say fu’douce,
‘Whe, gentlemen, stay till I see,
Whats i’ the house.’
Anither bow – ‘Deed, gif ye please,
Ye can get a bit toasted cheese,
A crum o’ tripe, ham, dish o’ pease
(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,
An’ ingans, an’ (tho’ past its date),
A cut o’ veal;
Ha, ha, it’s no that unco late, 
I’ll do it weel,’


[1] Kay II P2

[2] Wilson p181

[3] Traditions p 168

[4] ibid p2-3