Thursday, 19 August 2021

The Scottish Jewish Heritage Centre: A Visit


Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow

If you're in the Glasgow area, and have an interest in history (family, local, or international), in architecture or Judaism, this is THE place to visit.

Having recently undergone extensive refurbishment, the building, which houses the historic Garnethill Synagogue and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, now also includes a Holocaust-era studies centre, all part of the newly-launched Scottish Jewish Heritage Centre

This, the oldest purpose-built synagogue in Scotland, was designed by John McLeod of Dumbarton and opened in 1879, although the earliest recorded Jewish community in Glasgow dates from about 1821.  Tours of the synagogue itself have long been a regular feature of the annual Doors Open Day programme, but today I was honoured to join the first public tour of the revamped and modernised Heritage Centre.

The synagogue or shul was built for an Orthodox congregation which it still serves, so the layout of the prayer hall is quite traditional.  The Holy Ark at the east end is mightily impressive, as are the stained glass windows throughout the entire building.  Our guides explained the different features, traditions, and significance of each element of the space.  It is a beautiful place with a long and important heritage in both the Jewish and the wider community.

Holy Ark, Garnethill Synagogue

Interior, Garnethill Synagogue

You can read more about the synagogue’s history and architecture on its website

Moving downstairs to the newer parts of the Centre, our guides showed us a fascinating timeline display of Jewish history in Scotland, starting from the 18th century, illustrated with documents and photographs up until the present day.  We then got to look at the new Archives Centre, which tantalisingly also had a small bookshop that I had come totally unprepared for – fortunately it also has a website, which will likely be inflicting some damage on my credit card shortly.

Scottish Jewish Archives Centre

Scottish Jewish Archives Centre

This is an area where members of the public are welcome to use the specialist record collections and databases to trace the history of their Jewish families, many of whom will have been immigrants and, indeed, refugees from European nations during times of persecution and conflict.  Included is a complete set of the Glasgow-published Jewish Echo newspaper, a valuable source for family historians.  The Archives room also features a display highlighting prominent events and people in the city's Jewish community.

Postcard sent by Jewish refugee

Our final stop for the tour was the newly-created Holocaust-era studies centre. This houses a small library and study/meeting room for groups of young people learning important lessons from history about prejudice, displacement, and inclusion.  Using copies of immigration records, identity cards, letters, and so on, they can see life-changing events through the eyes of refugees.  Especially in the context of the current upheaval in Afghanistan, it's all the more relevant for students to focus on and understand the causes of the Holocaust and how to prevent it from happening again.

Holocaust Timeline Display, Succah

This part of the Centre has been created in the Succah, the area of the synagogue traditionally used to celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot.  It has been transformed into a simple but powerful exhibition area, showing in detail the timeline of the Holocaust, its effects on various groups, and the experiences of those who escaped to safety in different parts of Scotland. Other displays highlight those who made this country their home, raised families, and made significant contributions to society.

Glasgow & Ayrshire Jewish Communities Display

I really appreciated the warm welcome extended by the tour guides, the breadth and depth of their knowledge of the building and its history, and their enthusiasm in explaining their tradition to visitors.  I can wholeheartedly recommend the tours which take place weekly and may be booked online.  School groups can also book time to visit the Centre as part of topic studies on religion or history.

Scottish Jewish Archives Centre


  1. Great mini tour Alison - thanks for posting it & for the information it contains

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.