A Jewish History of Edinburgh
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 been forced to convert 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 converted 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!
There's a focus on self-isolating and avoiding social contact at the moment, as the Covid-19 Coronavirus is sending the world into shutdown. For many people the idea of social distancing is rather challenging one, as the modern world has drawn us into ever tighter connections with those around us.
The historic concept of quarantine was developed in Venice, as a way of protecting the city from disease arriving from trade ships, and the original word 'quarantine' derived from the Italian phrase 'forty days', which was the period of isolation they specified in order to stop the transmission of illness.
But there have been other forms of social distancing in the past, too. Many religious groups today still practice a form of retreat, to withdraw from extraneous influences and focus inwardly on the self without the distraction of the world encroaching.
Another popular form of isolation was a hermitage, which also had a religious connection. There is a suggestion that St Anthony's Chapel on the slopes of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh may have served as a form of hermitage, but there's a feature of the city today which still has the name Hermitage, a link to its origins as an isolated estate well beyond the original city of Edinburgh, which evolved in the 18th century as a romantic retreat from the hustle and bustle of life in the New Town.
The Hermitage of Braid, as it's known, is a public park and nature reserve to the south of Edinburgh, adjacent to Blackford Hill, an elevated spot with commanding views over the city.
The valley in which the park sits was carved out by the Braid burn, or stream, and is a steep ravine with heavily wooded sides.
The land here was owned by the de Brad family (from which the modern name 'Braid' is derived), one of whom - Henry de Brad - was sheriff of Edinburgh in the twelfth century. The surrounding forests and fields would have been populated with wild board and deer, and it would have been a popular spot for hunting.
The original estate property would have been a fortified house in a castle style, but the buildings and developments here today date from the 18th century when the area was redeveloped as a place of retreat.
Robert Burn was the architect who designed and built the Hermitage House in the 1780s, replete with a pump system to bring fresh running water from the Braid burn, and an ice house, a separate feature dug into the rock of the landscape in which to store ice from the winter for keeping food fresh over the summer months.
There's also an original stable block, and a doocot - Scots for a dovecot - which would have been home to pigeons that would have been plentiful supply of meat to the estate, along with a walled garden in which fresh herbs and vegetables would have been grown.
Even today, walking through this area, you can get a sense of how peaceful and isolated the property would have been, set into the natural landscape and offering a valuable contrast to the noise of the nearby city.
Just as eighteenth-century visitors would have enjoyed spending time relaxing here, taking time today to walk the paths of the nature reserve and spend time surrounded by the calming influences of water, birds, trees and (generally) a few local joggers remains a relaxing and positive experience.
Edinburgh has many public parks and open spaces today - remarkably nearly 50% of the city centre is green space - and the Hermitage of Braid is a true hidden gem that even many locals don't know about.
If you're planning a trip to Edinburgh after the period of social isolation eases, you can explore more of the city's hidden gems with my private walking tours!
The Old Town of Edinburgh is the area that most visitors think of as being the 'historic' bit of the city, and relatively few tourists take the time to check out the New Town...
I think the name puts them off, and people don't realise that the 'new' part of Edinburgh is still over 250 years old! As such it has over two centuries of history to explore, and offers a fantastic contrast to the Old Town and Royal Mile area.
For most of its history the city of Edinburgh was clustered along a narrow strip of rock rising to a ridge with a valley on either side of it. That ridge is still there - the Royal Mile runs along it - as are the valleys, which for a long time formed the northern and southern boundaries of the city.
But by the 1740s the population of Edinburgh was rising faster than ever, and this city with an area of just a half square mile (1.3 square kilometres) suddenly found itself with a population in excess of 50,000 people. Conditions in the old city were squalid and filthy, with as many as a thousand people living on each of the narrow lanes or 'closes' along the main street.
Plans were drawn up to formally grow the city for the first time in its history, to spread to the north onto land which was dotted with fields and farms, an area marked on maps of the time as Bearford's (or Barefoot's) Park. This land was bought up from individual landowners, and a comprehensive plan was drawn up to build a whole new town.
In 1767 development started in the area known today as St Andrew Square. This large open space was originally a private garden for the wealth people who lived around the square - all of the New Town was planned as residential property, to allow the wealthy and high-status residents of the Old Town to start a new life away from the the filth and overcrowding of the original city.
The plan for the New Town had been drawn up by a young architect called James Craig, and his vision was a grid system of three broad streets running east-west, bisected by smaller streets running north-south. It was the first example of coordinated town planning in the UK, and his grid system - although it seems common in modern planning - was a truly creative approach to the system of city development.
This initial phase of development was all named for the monarch at the time of its construction - King George III - and to commemorate the union between Scotland and England, which was only 60 years old at the time the New Town was started.
Thus the streets here are George Street, Queen Street, Princes Street, Hanover Street (for the royal family line George belonged to), St Andrew Square, Rose Street and Thistle Street (for the national flowers of Scotland and England). St Andrew Square was originally to be mirrored in St George Square at the west end of the city, but that square was eventually named Charlotte Square for King George's wife, Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenberg-Strelitz.
Craig had won a public competition to design this layout of the New Town, and although his plans were considered a great success he never was able to capitalise on this early opportunity, and towards the end of his life complained to a friend about the "monotony of straight lines" that he felt his career had been reduced to. He died in poverty and was buried initially in an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.
It took developers nearly 50 years to build the first phase of the New Town, spreading westwards from St Andrew Square, with the housing around Charlotte Square being completed in the 1820s. But the city continued growing in stages - seven major phases of development in all - spreading all the way out to the west, the north, and later to the east as well. Today everything north of Princes Street (site of the iconic Scott Monument) is broadly considered to be New Town.
Today the New Town is the more contemporary, local side of Edinburgh, with many local shops, offices, restaurants and bars, and the streets here have a different feel from the more tourist-focused side of the city, in the Old Town along the Royal Mile.
The centre of Edinburgh is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the bulk of this protected area covers the New Town of Edinburgh.
I offer a specific New Town tour, focusing on this less visited side of the city, which features the Dean Village and Calton Hill along with a stroll along some of the (still) grand residential streets of the Georgian-era Edinburgh, or we can combine Old and New in a customised tour to suit your interests.
Escape the Old Town crowds and check out Edinburgh's New Town with my private city walking tours!
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