Edinburgh lays claim to the oldest Jewish community in Scotland. Records of Jews in Edinburgh date back to the seventeenth century, although the first Jews appear to have been Christian converts. Julius Conradus Otto, who held the Chair of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at the University of Edinburgh from 1641, was one such convert who later reverted to Judaism. Conversion to Christianity appears to have been a prerequisite for recognition by the University.

Records reveal that by the 1790s there were a small number of Jews resident in the Canongate area of the city. By 1820 the first recorded synagogue in Scotland had opened on North Richmond Street, serving a community of about one hundred people. Both traders and poorer immigrants continued to arrive in Edinburgh, settling in Leith, The Pleasance, and in the Nicolson Street area.


The assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 triggered a period of pogroms across Eastern Europe into the 1900s, resulting in mass emigration. Improvements in communications and the reduction of the cost of transport also aided economic migrants to leave impoverished conditions for a new life.

Between 1881 and 1914, almost three million Jews – one in every three – left their homes, emigrating mainly to the USA. More than 120,000 Jews came to the UK. Significant numbers settled in Edinburgh.


After World War I, immigration reduced, never again reaching the levels experienced between 1882 and 1914. The birth rate amongst resident Jews also fell and the trend increased for young Edinburgh-born Jews to leave the city for other British urban centres as well as for the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel. By 1949, the community had declined in number to around 1,500 individuals and is still decreasing today. However, following World War II, the remaining community as a whole was more settled in the city and marginally financially better off.

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2 thoughts on “Introduction

  1. Similar to many of the Edinburgh Jewish children of my generation I received my education in Edinburgh (Melville College and Edinburgh University) and then emigrated. In my case as a Chartered Accountant to Canada in the 50’s.

    Both of my parents’ families had roots in Edinburgh and arrived there from Eastern Europe (Lomza and Grodno) in the 1890’s.

    My paternal grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz, served as a rabbi pre-Daiches and as head of Board of Shehita. He left Edinburgh for London in 1917. Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz was the descendent of a long line of rabbis (his genealogy is detailed in a book by Dr. Neil Rosenstein-The Unbroken Chain). He had nine children of which seven were born in Edinburgh. Two of his sons (Louis Isaac and Eliezer Simcha) became rabbis and served in England and South Africa. Louis Isaac also was Chief Rabbi of Transvaal and later served on the City Council of Jerusalem and was Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem. Two of Jacob Rabinowitz’ daughters married rabbis (Ida Newman and Anne Hillman). Three of his daughters (Fanny , Anne and Miriam) studied at Edinburgh University and qualified at as medical doctors (unusual for women in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The also left Edinburgh on graduating.

    Both Louis Rabinowitz and Fanny Rabinowitz were given the Freedom of the City of Jerusalem-a first for a brother and sister.
    The last of Rabbi Jacob’s children, Lily Lavotzkin, passed away in Phoenix (Arizona) a few months ago at the age of 105 . I used to visit her and was surprised that she still remembered her childhood in Edinburgh-she left at age 12. On her death the Jerusalem Post wrote an article about her family.

    My maternal grandfather was Nathan Marcus. He ran a scrap business and later a retail furniture store. I was brought up by mother’s family. My father died when I was 7 and my uncle, Israel Marcus, arranged for my education etc. My mother’s other brother, Michael,
    qualified as a lawyer in Edinburgh in the 1920’s and was elected to Edinburgh City Council and later as a Member of Parliament for Dundee before moving to London in the 1930’s. Both Israel and Michael were educated in Edinburgh but were born in Knyszyn, a shtetl (near Biaystok) in the Government of Grodno.

    Jacob Rabinowitz

  2. Dear Hannah

    I was prompted to look at the website after my wife received her copy of New College Bulletin in which there was an article about the exhibition. One of my connections with the Jewish community was that I used to go to Goll the hairdresser in Raeburn Place. In later years John Goll married a lady in our church.

    The other, more significant one, is that my mother, Agnes Cleghorn, was a tailoress who worked for Marks the tailor in Hanover Street above the Three Tuns pub. She was known as “the best buttonholer in Edinburgh”. She worked there in the Twenties and had jet black hair with fine facial features, so much so that customers thought she was Jewish and some even thought she was one of Louis Marks’ daughters. The family spoke Yiddish all the time amongst themselves and also with the customers. This meant that Mum picked up a lot of the language of the trade when working with the cutter, a man she called Hymie. After a while they realised she could follow their conversations so when they wanted to talk about private family matters they reverted to Polish, the language of their home country!

    I hope the foregoing may be of interest to you.

    Iain King

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