Bishops’ Close off the High Street / Royal Mile (in between The Mitre and Royal Mile Tavern)

This walking tour takes you on a journey across the past 200 years. We have chosen to begin our tour here on the High Street, as this landmark of Edinburgh’s geography already tells a story about the history of the city and helps us to locate Edinburgh’s Jewish residents within the larger story of Scotland’s capital.

We are starting our tour here in the Old Town, the heart of the medieval city, with its high tenements, known as ‘lands’ and its narrow alleys known as ‘closes’, like the one we are facing now. By the time the first synagogue was founded in 1817 the Old Town was becoming increasingly overcrowded and insanitary. A new suburb was established on the North side of the Castle, after the Nor Loch, now Princes Street Gardens, was drained. The aristocracy and the middle classes were abandoning the Old Town for the open spaces and large windows of this New Town.

From the founding of the first synagogue by 20 families in 1817, community growth was at first slow. In the 1841 census we can identify only 50 Jewish households in Edinburgh, amounting to 155 individuals. Of those, only 8 households lived in the fashionable New Town area, North of the castle. The others settled in the Old Town or in the district of St Leonards where the walk will take you shortly.

We can pick out one family who were recorded in Bishop’s Close just opposite here, in the 1841 Census, the Emmanuel Family, furriers Ezekiel, his wife Rachel and three sons. Their building probably no longer exists; it was either demolished, or it collapsed or it was destroyed in one of the fires that were all too common. The family had moved to Edinburgh from England, but like many others, they must soon have moved on elsewhere as there is no trace of them in later records. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as the economic and social conditions in Eastern Europe worsened, many others took their place as we can see on this graph:

Figure 1.png
Statistics prepared by Professor Gillian Raab.

Continue to the next stop down the High Street, to Cranston Street, just beyond the World’s End close and pub, where the old City wall used to run.

See also: