John Downie was born in Inverness, Scotland. A Mason by occupation, he attested for the 61st Brigade at Edinburgh on 6 May 1878, aged 18 years, 10 months. With the Royal Scots Fusiliers, he served in South Africa, February 1879-January 1882, during which time he took part in the Zululand Campaign 1879 and the Transvaal Campaign (1st Boer War) 1880-81. He then served in India, January 1882-April 1891 where he took part in the Burma Expedition, 1885-87. He was discharged on 5 September 1891 having been found to be medically unfit for further service.