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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