The Jewish Traveler: Glasgow and Edinburgh
Jews have prospered in Scotland’s two largest cities for over 200 years, building a strong religious tradition while becoming devout Scots.
Scotland seems to prove the notion that Jews get to the heart of a place under any circumstances. Scottish Jewish history is remarkably short—several American cities have an older Jewish presence—and even after Jewish communities took root, their numbers were never large.
But look at Scotland’s landscape, history or contemporary life, and Jews seem to be everywhere, not just as artists, doctors or political leaders, but in fields that seem quintessentially Scottish, such as distilling whiskey and making kilts.
And Scotland has returned the favor by getting to the heart of Jewish matters. Jewish students studied at universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow at a time when they were effectively barred from Oxford and Cambridge by the requirement of taking Christian religious oaths. When English novelists were still turning up their noses at Jewish characters, Sir Walter Scott gave the English-speaking world its first Jewish heroine—Rebecca in Ivanhoe.
Then there was the British foreign minister, scion of Scottish nobility, who was instrumental in the greatest gift of all: Arthur James Balfour, who, in 1917, wrote the declaration committing Great Britain to a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Individual Jews came to live in Scotland in the late 1600s, and the first Jewish graduate of Glasgow University—Levi Myers from South Carolina—got his medical degree in 1787. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that there were enough Jews to form communities—Edinburgh in 1816, Glasgow in 1823. By midcentury, as trade and industry contributed to Glasgow’s explosive growth, it also attracted the large majority of Jewish immigrants.
In 1879, when Glasgow had a Jewish population of 700, the community inaugurated the Garnethill Synagogue, a landmark that is today the most historic Jewish building in Scotland. The congregation founders had moved up from England or come from Germany or Poland, many working as agents for textile and shipping companies based in Hamburg.
Two years after the opening of Garnethill, a new wave of immigration reached Scottish shores as a result of pogroms in Czarist Russia. Because Scotland’s main cities had close links with Baltic ports, a disproportionate number of Jews who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were from Lithuania.
Some of the immigrants became itinerant salesmen, riding the Dundee train and stopping at towns in Fife. In the Scots-Yiddish dialect they developed, they were called “trebblers” (possibly a contraction of traveling peddlers). Others became furriers and tailors.
There was a smaller wave of Jewish immigration before and after World War II. Scotland’s Jewish population eventually peaked, sometime around 1970, at 17,000, with 15,000 in Glasgow.
Though anti-Semitism was rare in Scotland, there was one case that had echoes of the Dreyfus Affair in France. In 1908, Oscar Slater was convicted of murdering a woman in Glasgow. Many came to the conclusion that Slater was innocent and had become a suspect because he was both German and Jewish; it took 18 years to free him, but there was a prominent Scot who played an Emile Zola-like role in promoting justice in the case: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
One of the ways Jews have integrated into Scottish culture has been through veneration of literary heroes. Though Scott is the center of the prose universe, perhaps closer to the heart is the national poet Robert Burns, whom everyone refers to as Robbie Burns. Every January 25 there are Burns birthday events held all over Scotland (and in Scottish communities abroad). Notable are the university Burns suppers. Jewish students in Glasgow and Edinburgh typically hold their Burns Ball at the synagogue. They dress in kilts, sing “Auld Lang Syne” and dine on vegetarian haggis. They also have a double meaning when they toast “Robbie” (pronounced like the Hebrew word for “my rabbi”) Burns.
Whenever they wore plaid, Scottish Jews traditionally used a generic pattern rather than one officially recognized as belonging to a specific clan. But earlier this year, the Scottish Tartans Authority approved a Jewish pattern of blue, white, gold, silver and red. The pattern was submitted by Mendel Jacobs, Glasgow’s Chabad rabbi.
Glasgow’s Jews have followed a familiar occupation track over the generations. The peddlers and tailors are part of history, and today the community profile shows large numbers in law, medicine, high technology and accounting. In Edinburgh, the situation is similar, with perhaps a larger proportion in banking and academia.
In the late 19th century, Glasgow’s Jewish newcomers headed for the Gorbals district, south of the city center. Though once a gilded ghetto of Victorian and Georgian buildings, by the 1920s it was a slum. Eventually, as part of an urban renewal project, Gorbals was razed. With increased affluence, the Jewish community moved further south; today, aside from the Garnethill Synagogue, virtually all communal life takes place in the suburbs of Giffnock and Newton Mearns, home to five synagogues as well as a variety of other Jewish institutions.
But affluence has been accompanied by exit. Glasgow’s Jewish community today numbers about 5,000. Part of the decline can be attributed to the strength of Zionism among Scottish Jews, many of whom now live in Israel. Closer magnets are Manchester and London. While Edinburgh has also bid farewell to many of its Jewish residents, it has also attracted a fair number because of the growth of its financial sector; its community remains stable at about 1,000.
As the representative body of Scottish Jewry, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (011-44-141-638-6411; www.scojec.org) is the best place for information on individual synagogues, community events and kashrut.
Central Glasgow is a beautifully revived city core, packed with landmarks, historic buildings and pedestrian malls. At the heart of it all is George Square, adjacent to the main train station and the point from which most bus tours begin.
The square also has a few points of Jewish interest. On the eastern end is City Chambers, an Italian Renaissance building noted for its interior décor of marble and mosaics. In the Upper Gallery are portraits of the city’s provosts (the equivalent of mayor), including Glasgow’s only Jewish provost, Myer Galpern, who served from 1958 to 1959.
George Square is also of interest from a literary point of view. The creation of a Jewish heroine (widely believed to be modeled on educator and philanthropist Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia) certainly didn’t alienate Scott’s people. Though Glasgow’s central square is named for King George III and has statues of political and industrial leaders, the statue at the center that towers above all others from atop a column is that of Scott himself.
The Garnethill Synagogue, at 125/7 Hill Street (44-141-332-4151), is a 15-minute walk from central Glasgow. An imposing stone structure with Moorish, Romanesque and Gothic features, its entry is through a small row of columns flanked by twin towers. The stunning sanctuary has a central bima and an ornate Ark in the form of a Jerusalem-style tower. Worshipers sit on wooden pews and the second-floor women’s gallery is fronted by a wrought-iron railing and topped by sweeping arches. Above is a vaulted blue ceiling.
Though few Jews live today near the city center, Garnethill has Shabbat and holiday services. Like most of Glasgow’s synagogues, it is Orthodox.
Also located in the synagogue building is the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre (44-141-332-4911; www.sjac.org.uk). Though largely a research facility, the archive also has an exhibit room with photographs and artifacts highlighting the history of Jews in Scotland. Among the items are photographs of Jews in kilts, especially the Jewish Lads and Lassie’s Brigade, a local youth group. The group still exists, but its bagpipe band is a thing of the past.
One of the most attractive sections of Glasgow is Kelvingrove where, on opposite banks of a narrow river, sit Glasgow University and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum—a red-sandstone structure built in Renaissance style. Glasgow’s premier art venue, the Kelvingrove has works by Rembrandt, Monet and Botticelli.
The Kelvingrove (44-141-276-9599; www.glasgowmuseums.com) is the best place to see works by Benno Schotz (1891-1984), a Jewish immigrant who came to be regarded as Scotland’s greatest sculptor. Among the pieces on display are his Self Portrait and Milky, a bust of his wife. Both are in terra cotta and date from 1953. Other Schotz works are the stone bust The Call and a bronze of the Glaswegian art dealer Alexander Reid. (Schotz was in good company; the museum also has a portrait of Reid by Vincent van Gogh.)
In the museum’s French Gallery are two paintings by Jewish artist Camille Pissarro: the Impressionist Tuileries Garden and the pre-Impressionist Banks of the Marne. The Dutch-Italian Gallery includes Jacob van Loo’s Susanna and the Elders.
The Kelvingrove has a collection of drawings and watercolors on Holocaust themes by the Prague-born artist Marianne Grant, who settled in Glasgow after World War II. Because the works are light sensitive, they are exhibited on a rotating basis.
Visitors can get a good sense of the contemporary Jewish community by heading to Glasgow’s southern fringe. The Giffnock and Newlands Hebrew Congregation (44-141-577-8250), on Maryville Avenue in Giffnock, is at the center of a communal complex that also includes the facilities of Jewish Care (a communal welfare service), senior housing, a mikve, burial society, Chabad, Maccabi and the weekly Jewish Telegraph.
The synagogue, with a membership of 800, has a modern sanctuary with light wooden pews, a central bima of black-and-white marble and modern lamps.
The most striking feature, however, is the set of stained-glass panes by the artist John K. Clark that hang from the ceiling above the Ark and in front of the room’s clear glass windows. The stained-glass pieces, with decorations of the Jewish year and the cycle of festivals, were removed from the Queens Park Synagogue, which closed in 2003.
Newton Mearns, near Giffnock, is home to the Glasgow Reform Synagogue (44-141-639-4083; www.grs.org.uk) at 147 Ayr Road. The 350-member temple sits, slightly below street level, behind an iron fence. Its white stucco building features a central gable bearing a Star of David.
Behind the Glasgow Reform Synagogue, on quiet Larchfield Court, is the Newton Mearns Hebrew Congregation (44-141-639-4000;www.nmhc.org.uk). A brown-brick building with a sloping roof, it is a 500-member Orthodox congregation.
If Glasgow is a city that rose up from urban decay, Edinburgh looks like it was lowered from the clouds. The New Town merely seduces the visitor with its orderly streets of Georgian houses. The Old Town, with its neoclassical grandeur, its spires and turrets, all perched on a hilltop, overwhelms. The heart of the Old Town is the Royal Mile, which begins at Edinburgh Castle and slopes down to the Palace of Holyrood, the queen’s residence in the Scottish capital. Across the street from Holyrood House is the dramatically modern Scottish parliament.
In the middle of the Royal Mile is John Knox’s House (45 High Street), which dates back to 1450 and is, by some accounts, the oldest building in Edinburgh. The house is a museum devoted to Knox, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, and offers a good look at Old Town life in the 16th century. A prominent feature of the building exterior is a relief sculpture, at second-story level, of Moses. The figure appears to be simultaneously bowing before God and pointing up to a sculpted sun, which has God written in Greek, Latin and English on its face.
But the most fascinating aspect of Moses’ position—however coincidental—is that he also faces the shop Geoffrey (Tailor) Kiltmaker a few feet away at 57-61 High Street (www.geoffreykilts.co.uk). Geoffrey is owned by the Nicholsby family, the only Jewish kiltmakers in Edinburgh.
Owners Geoffrey and Lorna Nicholsby helped revive kilt fashion in the 1970s. Their son, Howie, has pioneered the kilt as a piece of clothing not just for ceremonial occasions but for everyday use by hip urban youth; his line is called 21st Century Kilts (www.21stcenturykilts.com).
A 10-minute walk down the southward slope from the Royal Mile leads to the Newington section and the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation at 4 Salisbury Road. Though the red-brick, Byzantine-style building dates from 1932, it traces its lineage to the community founded in 1816, making it Scotland’s oldest congregation. The sanctuary is a large square room with wooden pews and a centralbima, topped by a dome.
The congregation is officially Orthodox, though “traditional” in practice. In addition to Shabbat and holiday services, it hosts Jewish and local events, ranging from the annual Burns supper of Jewish students to meetings of the Edinburgh Literary Society, the Masons and the Edinburgh Friends of Israel. For information on services, events and kashrut, go to www.eh cong.com or call 44-131-667-3144.
Edinburgh also has a Liberal Jewish congregation, Sukkat Shalom (44-131-777-8024; www.eljc.org), which holds services on the first Friday of each month and a Shabbat morning service in the middle of each month.
Scotland has been either the birthplace or home of prominent Jewish figures since the 19th century. Hannah Primrose, of the London Rothschilds, entered the nobility when she married Archibald Primrose, fifth Earl of Rosebery, who became Britain’s prime minister. Their son Harry, the sixth Earl of Rosebery, served as secretary of state for Scotland.
More recent figures include the late author and journalist Chaim Bermant, whose family immigrated to Glasgow when he was a young boy; artist and sculptor Hannah Frank, a native of Glasgow’s Gorbals district; cellist Richard Markson; and Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg, who was born in London but raised in Glasgow. Sir Jeremy Isaacs, leading television broadcaster and producer who became director of the Royal Opera in London, was born in Glasgow. David and Mark Knopfler, founders of the rock group Dire Straits, are the sons of a Hungarian Jewish refugee who settled in Glasgow.
Edinburgh is home to Malcolm Rivkind, the longtime Conservative member of parliament who, as minister of transport under Margaret Thatcher, bore a large responsibility for the Channel Tunnel between England and France.
Hazel Cosgrove was the first woman to serve as a judge on the Scottish Supreme Court.
Reading and Recommendations
Most of Chaim Bermant’s books are out of print, though they are available in secondhand stores and on the Web. According to The List, a leading magazine of Scottish culture, Bermant’s novelJericho Sleep Alone is one of the 100 best Scottish books of all time and the best on the Scots-Jewish experience.
Second City Jewry (Scottish Jewish Archives) by Kenneth E. Collins is a comprehensive history of the Glasgow community from its beginnings through World War I.
Garnethill Synagogue is within walking distance from hotels in central Glasgow. One place that is extremely comfortable and in the moderate price range is Fraser Suites, at 1-19 Albion Street (www.frasersuitesglasgow.co.uk).
In Edinburgh, the closest major hotel to the main synagogue is the Radisson SAS Hotel at 80 High Street (www.edinburgh.radissonsas.com). A small, charming alternative located amid the Georgian splendor of Edinburgh’s New Town is the Hudson Hotel, 9-11 Hope Street (www.hudsonhoteledinburgh.co.uk).
While Glasgow and Edinburgh can take days to explore, visitors should see the countryside as well. Loch Lomond is within half an hour of Glasgow, and Stirling Castle is less than an hour from Edinburgh. The Highlands and the islands are farther, but the scenery is spectacular.
Glasgow and Edinburgh both have lively entertainment scenes for all tastes, from theater to classical music to rock. One popular fixture is the Scottish klezmer group Moishe’s Bagel (www.moishesbagel.co.uk).
Like the Jewish community itself, Jewish music seems to have found its way to Scotland’s heart.