In Braid Place, immediately in the rear of what was once Sciennes Hill House (where Burns and Scott met for the only time) may be seen a small Jewish burial place, for long the only one in Scotland. Formerly it was reached from Causewayside through a short lane lined with quaint gable-fronted houses. This passage was known, appropriately enough, as "Jew's Close," not because a Jewish community dwelt there, but because it led to the little God's acre consecrated a century and a quarter ago for the burial of members of this religious persuasion.
The neighbourhood of the Jews' cemetery was wholly transformed some forty years ago. "Jew's Close" disappeared, and in its place was reared a tall block of buildings which shut off the burial ground from the Causewayside. Indeed, the cemetery was so closely surrounded by buildings of one kind or another that it was only with the making of Braid Place that most people became conscious of its existence. There was then erected on the south side of that thoroughfare a low wall with iron railing through which one looks on greensward and serried ranks of tombstones, most of them in the last stages of decay.
Remains of nearly four generations of Jews rest from their labours in the cemetery in Braid Place. In spite of the fact that this place of sepulture was made use of not only by Jews in Edinburgh but farther afield (there being for some years no other in Scotland) sixty years elapsed before the ground was entirely filled. During most of this period the custodian as well as grave-digger was one Joseph Duncan, familiarly called "Priest Duncan."
The cemetery, which was owned by a body known as the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation, was opened in 1816. Only a few of the inscriptions on the tombstones can now be read. Most of them, naturally, are in Hebraic characters, and one at least is in English as well as in Hebrew. In the cemetery are buried members of the family of Lewis Ashenheim, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University, and in 1836 published a book entitled, "Premature Burial Among the Jews."
After the closing of the ground in Causewayside the Hebrew community acquired a portion of Newington Cemetery; but it, too, is full. Consequently there has been another migration, this time to Piershill Cemetery, which is likely to be in use for many years.
Before the year 1816 the Jews in Edinburgh were not sufficiently numerous to possess a burial place of their own. It is interesting, however, to recall that there was a solitary Machoelah built into a' rocky cavern on the Calton Hill. Near the end of the eighteenth century Herman Lyon, a Jewish dentist, residing, according to the Directory of 1794-96, ' opposite Linen Hall, Canongate;" acquired from the Town Council a piece of ground as a burial place for himself and his family, the sum paid being £17 sterling. This Jewish tomb, the first in Edinburgh, existed till almost within living memory, but all trace of it is now gone. It was situated on the slope to the northwest of the old Observatory. The area enclosed measured fourteen feet by eleven. The actual date and burial of Herman Lyon or any member of his family is not known, but some of his descendants are interred in the Jewish cemetery in Causewayside.
Newington is the district of Edinburgh where the Hebrew population is strongest. Ever since the year 1816, when the Jews resident in the city formed themselves into a body known as the 'Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation" and purchased a burial ground in Causewayside, they have made their presence specially felt in the South Side. Originally most of them were foreigners hailing from Germany and the Low Countries. They showed business aptitude and were diligent in making money, principally by trading in articles of clothing, furs and jewellery. For many years they remained a comparatively small community, but industry and thrift carried them forward, and they were welded together by their devotion to the religion of the synagogue.
The first Jewish place of worship in Edinburgh was a humble apartment in a lane behind Nicolson Street. From there the worshippers removed to a small hall in Richmond Court (now gone) which was the meeting-place of the congregation for fifty-two years. In 1868 removal was made to an old mansion in the vicinity of Bristo Street, variously known as Ross House, then as Lockhart House, and finally as Bristo House. In the eighteenth century the building was the town house of the Lords Ross and subsequently of the Lockharts of Carnwath. It was now converted into a synagogue, and here the Hebrew community worshipped for more than a quarter of a century.
In 1896 Bristo House was bought by the University and pulled down. Its site is now covered partly by the Music Class Room and partly by' the Students' Union. So the Jews had to find another synagogue-this time in Graham Street, Lauriston, in the building formerly occupied by Greyfriars Free Church.
The Jewish population had now grown considerably, so much so that one place of worship was not adequate to their needs. Accordingly other synagogues were opened, and the old partiality for the South Side was again evinced, one congregation holding its services in Richmond Street and another in South Clerk Street.* Then, a few years ago, a climax was reached when the Jews built a handsome synagogue in Salisbury Road, capable of seating about two thousand - an earnest of the strength of the community, particularly in Newington.
* Now numbers 50 and 54 South Clerk Street.