Although Scotland is not brimming with Jewish sites, there are pockets of Jewish communities across the country, which have contributed to its legendary history.
The first reference to a Jewish settler in Edinburgh can be traced back to 1691, with the recorded application of David Brown, a professing Jew, who wished to reside and trade in the city.
By 1914 there were about ten thousand Jews in Glasgow and about 1,500 in Edinburgh, with smaller communities in Dundee and Aberdeen, as well as scattered groups throughout Scotland.
The numbers peaked in the 1930s, and after World War II. The community has since decreased, mainly due to intermarriage and emigration to England and Israel.
Since travel between Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, is less than an hour, there’s enough time to explore both cities in a day.
However, as the Jewish population across Scotland has always been relatively small, the Jewish sites are really only synagogues. Nevertheless, you can get a real feel for the community, and Edinburgh has a plethora of world renowned sites to keep any traveler enchanted.
To begin the morning in Glasgow, head to the Garnethill Synagogue at 129 Hill Street. This is the oldest synagogue in Scotland, founded in 1879. Stepping inside there are beautiful ornate features with a gold and blue pulpit made of marble and rosewood. The ornate Ark is of a Byzantine design. Conveniently, the synagogue is also home to the Scottish Jewish Archive Center. Here there a many artifacts and photographs that give a good overview of the history of Judaism as well as the Scotland Historical Database of Scottish Jewry with records on nearly 35,000 Jews in the country to research. Well worth a visit if you are already at the synagogue.
Next there is the Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Scotland. There are a couple of reasons to highlight visiting this synagogue; one is for its glass painted windows and one is for the synagogue’s close proximity to a couple of kosher delis. The synagogue is home to beautiful stained glass windows designed by John Clark and originally commissioned by Queens Park Hebrew Congregation (now closed) as part of the Jewish community’s contribution to Glasgow European City of Culture 1990. Each window depicts a Jewish festival or event such as, “The Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai” and “Pesach Seder”.
In order to see John Clark’s windows, and visit the synagogue you’ll need to make a prior arrangement to visit. Giffnock synagogue is a fifteen-minute drive from Garnethill Synagogue.
After a morning of delving into Glasgow’s Jewish life and history, there are a couple of kosher food options close by. Hello Deli on 200 Fenwick Road, offers some “in house” kosher products as well as providing a selection of reasonably priced sandwiches to take away. A second option, and Scotland’s only kosher restaurant, is L’Chaims on 222 Fenwick road. They serve up traditional Jewish food, and the average cost for lunch is £20 per person.
For the afternoon Edinburgh, which is home to the second largest Jewish community in Scotland and iconic World Heritage sites, awaits.
To begin the afternoon, head to the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation on 4 Salisbury Road. The synagogue premises are also home to the community center, a mikveh, resource center, and the Cosgrove Library. The synagogue hosts a regular Friday night, Shabbat and festival morning services.
Difficult to miss, and arguably Scotland’s most famous landmark, is Edinburgh Castle. Although holding no particular Jewish history, the Castle has superb architecture, and views across the city and beyond. The Castle is home to the Scottish Crown Jewels and The Stone of Destiny, upon which ancient Scottish kings were crowned. This is also where the One O'clock Gun is fired at 1p.m. almost daily and has been since 1861.
The Castle sits at the top of the Royal Mile – one of the most famous streets full of shops, restaurants, pubs and other historic buildings. It also towers over the Princess Street Gardens where some of Scotland’s most famous monuments stand, the most dominant being the Scot Monument, 1846.
Edinburgh is also home to other famous landmarks such as Carton Hill and The Firth of Forth Bridge.
To wrap up the day there are, unfortunately no specific kosher restaurants in Edinburgh for the kosher foodie. However, there is the vegetarian Kalpha restaurant, on 2/3 St Patrick’s Square. This restaurant has been checked by the Edinburgh Rabbi and deemed permissible to eat in. The average cost is £20 per person for dinner.
The Jewish Virtual Library contributed to this report.
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