Prior to the Victorian Market being built, open-air markets were held at the Exchange outside the Town House. However, the invention and spread of gas-lighting meant that an indoor market, open longer hours, could improve the shopping experience for Invernessians.
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.
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 in the vicinity 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 – 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.
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.
The first picture showing young boys in caps sitting on sacks of potatoes or other produce was 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.
Today, the Victorian Market is a vibrant shopping area full of small of independent retailers and cafes. The original Academy Street entrance, with its the three big archways, remains.