Page last updated at 09:22 GMT, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Old market's rise from the ashes

By Jennifer Morag Henderson
Local writer

Statue of Greyfriars Bobby
The statue of Greyfriars Bobby, decorated for Comic Relief

The regeneration of Inverness Old Town has led to the rediscovery of the history of the town's Victorian Market.

Its past includes a story of canine loyalty to rival Edinburgh's famous Greyfriars Bobby.

As part of the ongoing Streetscape and Inverness Old Town Art projects, the Victorian Market hosted a day of music, art and poetry called Radio VM.

It was designed to encourage shoppers into the old market arcade and Glasgow-based art group BWCart was involved.

BWCart's Nicola Atkinson invited me, as a writer from Inverness, to contribute to the event.

Some looting

The poem I wrote was based on the history of the market - a fascinating place with an atmosphere all of its own.

The first covered market in Inverness was built between 1869 and 1870.

Previously, open-air markets had been held at the Exchange outside the Town House, but the invention and spread of gas-lighting meant that an indoor market, open longer hours, could improve the shopping experience for Invernessians.

The original Academy Street entrance, with its the three big archways, still remains.

Inside, the market was smaller than it is today, a much more basic open hall, with no entrance doors and no formal shops. Produce was sold from stalls, or by traders who laid out their wares at their feet.

The gas lighting in the market was probably responsible for the catastrophic nature of a fire that virtually destroyed the entire site in 1889.

Victorian Market. Pic: Undiscovered Scotland
The Victorian Market as it is today

The fire, which took hold during the night, was one of the biggest ever seen in the Highlands, with the flames described as shooting miles up into the sky.

The flats and hotels round about had to be evacuated, with many of their residents called out from their beds, as the fire crept out and along the row of buildings.

A good number of onlookers watched the evacuees and helped the firefighters - though there are also records of some of the poorer townsfolk using the fire as an opportunity to do some looting, helping themselves to goods from the market stalls.

The gas manager's assistant lived on the other side of the river, and it wasn't until he was roused and brought over that the supply of gas into the market was able to be turned off and the flames brought under control.

No people were injured or killed in the fire, but there was one casualty, whose story, as re-told at the recent Radio VM event, has attracted a lot of interest.

A dog who had been trained to guard his master's stall could not be persuaded to leave his post, despite the desperate entreaties of the crowd outside.

This event is commemorated by a plaque in the market today.

'Unmistakeable aroma'

The market was rebuilt between 1890 and 1891. The Inverness firm Messrs Smith designed and built the iron and steel framework of the big central hall, and added the Union Street and Church Street entrances.

There are not many photos of the original market, but a record of the New Market does exist.

There is an evocative picture showing young boys in caps sitting on sacks of potatoes or other produce, taken by Aberdeen photographer George Washington Wilson. Wilson described the old market at the time, with its "unmistakeable aroma" of the mingled smells of butcher meat, game, fish, hams, dates, fruit, veg and poultry.

It was a place where the boys in the picture could have bought highly-painted toys, butter, eggs and newly-boiled candy.

Apparently, the only ice-cream vendor in Inverness also sold his wares there - but there were complaints from the boys that he exploited his status as the only supplier by over-charging for very shallow bowls of ice-cream.

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SEE ALSO
Premiere for new Greyfriars film
07 Feb 06 |  Scotland
Arts team to revamp city street
04 Jul 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Highlands clues to regeneration
09 Nov 07 |  Highlands and Islands

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