Sunday 23rd June 1889, 12.20 a.m.

The catastrophic fire which broke out just after midnight on the morning of Sunday 23rd June 1889 was the defining event in the history of the Inverness Victorian Market. The fire destroyed everything in the market and also threatened buildings in Academy Street and Union Street, including the important Music Hall, the scene of many important concerts and public gatherings.

The fire was covered extensively in the local papers, which at the time were the Inverness Courier, Highland News, Scottish Highlander and the Northern Chronicle.

“…one of the
most disastrous
fires…in Inverness
for a generation…”

Highland News: 29 June 1889
AN INVERNESS FIRE
“Early last Sunday morning what has proved to be one of the most disastrous fires that has occurred in Inverness for a generation broke out in the New Market, and spread to buildings in Union Street and Academy Street. Happily, it was unattended by either loss of life or accident. The loss will amount to fully £15,000, but it is largely covered by insurance.”

The fire was first noticed by Andrew Sutherland, who lived on the 3rd storey of 22 Union Street with his mother:

“I was after going to bed when I heard a crackling sound. I at once got up and looked out at the back window, which overlooks the market. I saw fire in one of the shops immediately underneath my window. I dressed hurriedly, and ran to the Police Office and reported the matter, and afterwards hurried back to Union Street. The fire was then in the shops between 22 and 28 Union Street. The brigade was very shortly afterwards on the spot. They found the gate of the entrance from Union Street locked, but they at once forced it open. In a few minutes longer the whole market from end to end was in a blaze.”

This eye-witness account is from Andrew Sutherland’s police statement.
The Inverness Courier has the fullest treatment of the fire – 6 columns taking up almost an entire page of the newspaper, along with a very thoughtful Editorial.

“…like a furnace,
through which the flames rushed
in great sheets,
roaring like a whirlwind…”

The Courier tells us that Andrew Sutherland, who discovered the fire, was “an assistant in the General Post Office.” Its descriptions are extremely graphic:

“The woodwork, dry as tinder, burned with great fury; the flames rose to a great height and the heat was so intense as to melt the lead on the houses thirty feet above the scene of the outbreak. Viewed from Academy Street the Markets at this moment looked like a furnace, through which the flames rushed in great sheets, roaring like a whirlwind.”

“In a short space of time the whole Markets were completely gutted, nothing remaining but the side walls and the ornamental stone frontage, which spans the Academy Street entrance of the building.”

“All the shops which were ranged on either side of the building, and the stalls in the centre, were constructed of wood, and were speedily destroyed. The roof was also of wood and glass, and offered but a feeble resistance to the flames.”

The Courier give us the most detailed account of the various businesses in the market, and occupies a lot of space describing how other buildings in the vicinity were saved, along with their occupants. One of them was Mrs Christie “who has been an invalid, and has not left her bedroom for four years.” She was taken to the Station Hotel, where she remained for a week.

“…there was,
we regret to say,
a good deal of looting…”

It also describes the behaviour of the crowds of onlookers in some detail:

“There was, we regret to say, a good deal of looting, and shopkeepers and others complain bitterly of the petty acts of thieving which were in some cases perpetrated under their eyes.”

“…the continuous roar
of the all-devouring fire…”

The Highland News gives a vivid description of the rapid spread of the fire:

“Ere the Fire Brigade arrived, the middle of the market was in flames, and owing to the whole structure being of wood, they spread with alarming rapidity. Before water could be got to play on the burning mass, it was necessary to break open the gates – the keys not being available. Adding fuel to it was the Market gas supply, which, owing to some negligence, had not been turned off, and which, immediately the pipe melted, blazed forth, and continued to do so for a considerable time – the gas officials having to hunt all over the town for the man in charge of the meter. A few minutes more and the market was in a blaze from end to end, the inflammable character of the goods making the complete destruction of the structure certain. Three-quarters of an hour after the discovery of the outbreak, the scene was strikingly dramatic – the continuous roar of the all-devouring fire, the flames seeking an outlet through the already partially consumed roof and by the passages, and illumining the sky with a glare that was attracting thousands to the spot, the large body of people who had already gathered at the sound of the alarm bell in the Steeple, the alarmed inmates of the adjacent buildings who were rushing hither and thither, some of them in an almost demented condition, the utter powerlessness of man to cope with the Fire Fiend – all went to make up a picture that will not be readily forgotten by those who witnessed it. And, as if to give due dramatic effect, the roof fell in at this moment with a crash, the flames shot upwards, licking in their fiery embrace the shops which still continued to burn, and the brigade continued to waste their efforts on extinguishing what it was impossible to save.”

The Highland News is very critical of the Fire Brigade: “utterly demoralised”, “no one was in charge”, “everyone had a different opinion as to how they were to work”, “the constables who ought to have been regulating the crowd were busily employing themselves as amateur firemen.” Things improved after the Chief Constable of Inverness-shire, Mr Machardy, arrived soon after 1 a.m.

The Highland Railway fire engine arrived – their efforts saved the buildings on the north side of Union Street, though it took twenty minutes before they could connect their equipment to the mains water supply, as the town authorities had recently introduced a new system of hydrants – but failed to notify the railway company! Further equipment and hoses arrived from the Rose Street Foundry and the Northern Infirmary, followed by a detachment of 80 Cameron Highlanders from the Cameron Barracks at Millburn, who arrived with a manual fire engine at 2 a.m. By 2.30 a.m. “all danger of the fire spreading was at an end”, with the auxiliary forces handing over to the Burgh Fire Brigade at 5 a.m.
The Highland News gives detailed accounts of the effects of the fire on different businesses, many suffering catastrophic losses of stock, by fire, water and smoke damage. It also details damage to houses on Union Street:

“Mrs Paterson…was a great sufferer by the disaster, and had only time to escape in her night dress.”

The shop on the right-hand side of the Union Street entrance was Sinnot & Co., drapers, who lost £700 worth of stock. In addition, reported the Highland News, “Mr Sinnot stated that £100 worth of his goods had been stolen when they were removing them during the fire.” Reporting the same losses, the Inverness Courier noted that the recently-opened premises and stock were uninsured – they had got as far as preparing the necessary paperwork but had not yet despatched it.

The Courier is not as critical of the Fire Brigade as the Highland News, but confirms their account in more moderate language, while praising the efforts of the Cameron Highlanders and the ‘railway men’. It says that “the fire was witnessed by several thousand persons, who were attracted to the scene by the ringing of the Town bell.”