Finding Your Jewish Roots in Scotland, by Harvey L. Kaplann

Scotland is one of the few countries in Europe with no noticeable record of anti-Semitism, unlike its neighbour England, which expelled its Jews in 1290. There is no firm evidence of Jewish settlement in Scotland until the late 1600s. From that point on, small numbers of Jews came to Scotland from England, continental Europe, and the Americas—primarily as academics (teaching Hebrew at the universities), medical students and traders. Early converts from Judaism in Scotland were Julius Conradus Otto from Vienna, Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at Edinburgh University in 1641, and Paulus Scialitti Rabin in 1665.

The first professing Jew to settle in Scotland was David Brown in 1691. Jews were often barred from studying at universities elsewhere because of religious restrictions, so they were attracted to the more tolerant universities in Scotland, such as Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Joseph de Castro Sarmento—originally from Portugal—graduated in medicine at Marischal College, Aberdeen in 1739. Levi Myers of South Carolina was the first Jew to graduate from the University of Glasgow in 1787, when he received the MD degree. Jews in Scotland have generally lived in an atmosphere of tolerance, respected by the Presbyterian Scots as the “People of the Book”.

The first Jewish communities in Scotland were established in the 19th Century—late by European standards. Communities sprang up in Edinburgh (where the first synagogue in Scotland opened in 1816), Glasgow (1823), Dundee (c1878) and Aberdeen (1893). At one time there were also small communities in Ayr, Dunfermline, Falkirk, Greenock and Inverness, but these are no longer in existence. There have also been isolated Jewish families living elsewhere around Scotland, from Shetland to Dumfries. In recent years, a Jewish network has developed in the Highlands and Islands area. During the period of large-scale emigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century, thousands of Jews passed through Scotland, catching a ship from Glasgow to North America or further. The existing communities expanded rapidly, and new settlements were established. At its peak in the 1930s, the Scottish Jewish community of around 18,000 supported a network of synagogues and religious institutions, as well as social, cultural, educational, political, Zionist and philanthropic activities, and a variety of Jewish shops and businesses. Today, due to factors such as emigration and assimilation, there are much smaller communities in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and only tiny communities remaining in Dundee and Aberdeen.

A wide range of sources, repositories and websites is available to those researching Scottish Jewish roots. Scotland has one of the best civil records systems in the world. Compulsory civil registration in Scotland dates from 1855, and records of births, marriages and deaths are available:

  • Online at <> a pay-per-view site, offering access for around eleven dollars (US) 11 to 30 page credits over a seven day period (one credit provides a page of indexes, five credits provides sight of an actual document): births 1855 1905, marriages 1855-1930, and deaths 1855-1955.
  • In person, at New Register House in Edinburgh (advance booking recommended), pounds search fee allows access to all birth, marriage and death certificates in Scotland from 1855 to the present, in the form of scanned images on an assigned computer. The fee also allows access to pre-1855 Old Parish Registers (these are of little Jewish interest), as well as census records, 1841-1901. Indexes are computerised.
  • In person, at Strathclyde Area Genealogy Centre, 22 Park Circus, Glasgow (with more limited seating and shorter hours, but only fourteen pounds), offering similar access to New Register House.
  • By post, to New Register House, Edinburgh, EH1 3YT – with documents costing thirteen pounds each.

Scottish birth certificates provide names of parents plus, crucially, the date and place of the parents’ marriage— often the only clue to where the family came from. Marriage certificates give the names and occupations of both parents of bride and groom, as well as details of officiating clergy and witnesses. Death certificates state the names of the deceased’s parents and spouse. Records of ten-yearly censuses are often available for a local area in a local library or archive. For instance, the Mitchell Library in Glasgow (North Street, Glasgow, G3 7DN, tel: 0141 287 2901; also housing Glasgow City Archives) and the Central Library in Edinburgh (George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EG. Telephone: 0131 242 8030) allow free access to census records (up to 1901) for these cities. The Scottish Jewish Archives Centre has information on Jews in Glasgow extracted from the 1891 and 1901 censuses, as well as on Jews in Scotland in the 1881 census (which is also available on CD from the FHL). Wills 1500-1901 are available at <>, and high quality digital images of documents can be purchased for five pounds ($8).

Naturalization records for Jews in Scotland are held at the National Archives in Kew, London (Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU; Tel: 020 8876 3444), and are indexed online at <>. Other public records available in main reference libraries include Valuation Rolls (property registers), Electoral Rolls, school admission registers and log books, city directories and Poor Relief records.

The main source for Scottish Jewish records is the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, Garnethill Synagogue, 129 Hill Street, Glasgow G3 6UB; tel: 0141 332 4911 (open only by arrangement); website: ; email:. Based in Scotland’s oldest synagogue (opened 1879), the centre contains a treasure trove of material, including:

  • records and correspondence relating to Jewish organisations, businesses and individuals
  • synagogue and circumcision registers
  • copies of the records of fifteen of the sixteen Jewish cemeteries in Scotland
  • a large collection of photographs; an oral history collection; brochures, annual reports, minute books and membership lists
  • back issues of Scottish Jewish magazines and newspapers (such as the Jewish Echo 1928-1992).

The centre’s Historical Database of Scottish Jewry collates and cross-references over seventy lists and sources, with records on over 28,000 Jews who lived in Scotland. This computer database, available only at the centre, is the best starting point for Scottish Jewish research.