Edinburgh has had a Jewish population since the seventeenth century, when the some of the first Jewish migrants to Scotland came as merchants, medical students or professors.
In 1642, Edinburgh University established a position teaching 'Hebrew and Oriental Languages', for which they employed a "learned Jew" from Vienna named Julius Conradus Otto. It is thought that Otto had been born a Jew in Vienna, and later converted to Christianity. He remained in post at the university until his death in 1649. In 1665 a town council meeting refers to a man named Paulus Scialitti Rabin who had converted from Judaism to Christianity in order to be able to work as a religious teacher in the city.
The first recorded Jewish merchant given the right to operate in Edinburgh was a man named David Brown in 1691, although this was hardly the indication of a society fully open to freedom of religion - Brown was opposed by some on the council for being a threat to the religious community here.
In 1698 a Jewish trader named Moses Mosias was denied the right to operate in the city unless he convert to Christianity, and in 1717 a Jewish merchant named Isaac Queen was granted permission to establish a business in Edinburgh only after paying a fee of £100 - equivalent to around £12,000 in modern currency!
In 1788 a man named Herman Lyon arrives in Edinburgh from Prussia (modern-day Germany), bringing with him a family. He is listed as a 'corn operator' which sounds charmingly rural and agricultural, until you realise this was the descriptor used for chiropodists - those who treated corns and calluses on the feet!
Lyon practised chiropody and dentistry on the Canongate, in the vicinity of Moray House, and in 1795 he applied to Edinburgh Council to purchase land to use as his family's burial site.
In the absence of a dedicated Jewish burial ground in the city, his application was approved, and Lyon purchased a family plot on the top of Calton Hill - at that time being considered as a central cemetery for the growing New Town - for the princely sum of £17.
It's not certain when Lyon died, but he was indeed buried (along with his wife) in his tomb on Calton Hill, which later became overgrown and inaccessible. Lyon's subterranean burial site remains, albeit unmarked and invisible from the surface, just beyond the northern wall of the former observatory complex at the top of Calton Hill.
The Jewish community in Edinburgh grew over the following century. Many of those who came settled in the South Side or Newington area, having travelled from seaports like Hamburg in Germany, and from the Baltic countries and the Netherlands, setting themselves up in business as tailors, jewellers or furriers.
By 1816, there were twenty Jewish families in the city, a quorum of the population considered sufficiently numerous to warrant being granted their own dedicated burial ground.
Thus the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation opened the first Jewish cemetery in Scotland in the Newington area of the city, accessed via a narrow passageway off Causewayside known at the time as Jew's Close.
In the years following, as this small plot was the only dedicated Jewish cemetery in the whole country, and the bodies of a number Jews who had lived (and died) in Glasgow were brought here for the purpose of burial.
Jew's Close itself has long since been built over, and a large former police station stands on what was the original entry into the burial ground, which is not publicly accessible today but which can be viewed through a railing directly from the adjacent street, Sciennes House Place.
Today there are 29 gravestones which survive in this original Jewish burial ground, representing four generations of Jewish families. Many of the grave stones are badly eroded and worn from time, to the extent that the Hebrew lettering is all but unreadable on many of the memorials.
One of these graves is that of Moses Ezekiel, who died in 1850 aged 74 years old, having been registered as a sealing wax manufacturer in the city. It's also known that descendants of Herman Lyon, who was buried at the top of Calton Hill, were laid to rest at this site, along with the family of an Edinburgh University medical student - and possibly the first Jewish graduate from a Scottish medical school - called Lewis Ashenheim, who published a book in 1836 with the intriguing title Premature Burial Among the Jews....
The burial ground on Sciennes House Place was actively used until 1867, when the growth of the Jewish community in Edinburgh necessitated a larger burial site, and an area of the Newington Cemetery was set aside exclusively for Jewish burials, with later expansions to the Piershill Cemetery on the north east of the city, and then to the Dean Cemetery to the west of the New Town.
In 1909 the University of Edinburgh established the first dedicated Jewish Society in Scotland, and by 1911, Edinburgh had a community of around 2,000 Jews.
Today it is estimated there are around 7,000 Jews in Scotland, and whilst Edinburgh has a minority of that number their focus is still around Newington, where the synagogue on Salisbury Road, built in 1932, remains the focal point of worship and community.
Explore more of Edinburgh's diverse history with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20