A candlelit glow lightens the dim interior of the recess known as the ‘coffin’ – on account of its shape – in Dowie’s tavern in Liberton’s Wynd just off the Royal Mile. Snug, cosy and free from outside cares, its other attraction is the landlord’s kindliness and discretion.
Dowie’s has become a favourite haunt of the poet Robert Burns, since he arrived from his native Ayrshire on 29 November 1786 for his first visit to the capital. Burns rates John Dowie one of the finest landlords he has come across in the city.
Tonight he is holed-up with some of his cronies, including Willie Nicol and Allan Masterton, drinking the excellent Edinburgh Ale brewed by Archibald Younger. Later there will be the ‘rascally’ Highland gill. But as the night wears on, they call on Dowie to find out what’s for supper.
In the flexible tavern system, there is a range of dishes which vary in price from tatties on their own – the cheapest supper – to slices of roast or boiled meat with greens. Neeps are never a supper on their own but are used to flavour the otherwise monotonous tattie supper in the days when meat-eating in Scotland – for most people – is largely confined to high days and holidays.
Dowie also has a haggis pudding, which he recommends to Burns and his friends. This economical dish, which his wife has made using a pluck (innards) of a sheep, has taken her the best part of the morning to prepare. Boiling it first, then chopping up all the bits and mixing with oatmeal and seasonings before stuffing into the sheep’s stomach bag. It is a dish of peasant virtue and strength strongly influenced by images of slaughter which Burns recognises for its sense and worth. It is, he knows, far superior to all the elaborate Frenchified food he has eaten during his socialising in Edinburgh’s smart New Town houses of the city’s intelligentsia.