Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl

Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl

Katharine Ramsay, the eldest daughter of Sir James Ramsay, was born in Edinburgh on 6th November 1874. She was educated at Wimbledon High School and the Royal College of Music. In 1890 she married John Stewart-Murray, the eldest son of the 7th Duke of Atholl to whose title he succeeded in 1917.

A member of the Conservative Party, the Duchess of Atholl was elected to the House of Commons to represent Kinross and West Perthshire in 1923. She therefore became the first woman in Scotland to be elected to Parliament. In 1924 Stanley Baldwin appointed Atholl as parliamentary secretary to the Board of Education.

After losing office in 1929 Atholl concentrated on campaigning against oppression in the Soviet Union and published The Conscription of a People in 1930. This was followed by Women and Politics (1931). Along with Eleanor Rathbone she campaigned against female circumcision in Africa.

Atholl also took a keen interest in foreign policy and was a strong opponent of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Non-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. In April 1937, Atholl, Eleanor Rathbone and Ellen Wilkinson travelled to Spain on a fact-finding mission. The party visited Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia and observed the havoc being caused by the Luftwaffe.

In May 1937 Atholl joined with Charlotte Haldane, Eleanor Rathbone, Ellen Wilkinson and J. B. Priestley to establish the Dependents Aid Committee, an organization which raised money for the families of men who were members of the International Brigades. Later she became chairman of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. Atholl also wrote the book, Searchlight on Spain (1938).

Atholl grew increasingly concerned about Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany. She totally opposed the British government's policy of appeasement and in 1938 resigned her seat and sought re-election on this issue. Freida Stewart was one of those who helped her during the campaign: "Her Grace was very calm and dignified under the strain, which must have been considerable; she had never been seriously opposed before in the feudal area, and the challenge was for her as much personal as political. In fact it was not. The challenge was one of principle against a whole party-political machine; and the Tories were determined that they were not going to be put in their place by one dissident individual, whatever her title. The Perthshire Conservatives rallied as never before to the true blue flag, and made sure their labourers and employers did the same. their cars were everywhere, taking farm workers to the polls, with the hidden implication that they must vote the conformist ticket or else." It was therefore not surprising that Atholl lost by 1,313 votes to the official Conservative Party candidate.

In 1945 Atholl became chairman of the British League for European Freedom. In this post she campaigned against the Soviet control of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Her autobiography, Working Partnership, was published in 1958.

Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, died in Edinburgh on 21st October 1960.

Primary Sources

(1) Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, wrote about the Spanish Civil War in her autobiography, Working Partnership (1958)

Ellen Wilkinson, who was keenly interested in Spain, asked me if I would consider a short visit there to see what was going on. She was going herself, as were Eleanor Rathbone and Dame Rachel Crowdie, whom I had met on a Red Cross Committee. We went by train to Toulouse, whence I took my first trip by plane to Barcelona, and in Barcelona we were warmly received at the beautiful old Generalitat by Senor Companys, President of Catalonia.

The seat of the Spanish government had by then been moved and our Minister there, Mr Ogilvie Forbes, was a former officer in the Scottish Horse. We found him both friendly and on good terms with the Spanish authorities, and we were soon presented to the President, Senor Azana. Azana was apparently friendly, but rather annoyed at some recent interference by British ships with ships bringing supplies to Spanish ports.

At Valencia the first thing we saw was one of the schools for refugee children, which showed clearly the interest in education taken by the Republican government. Next came a visit to a prison for political prisoners, until lately occupied by the present President and Prime Minister.

The prison consisted of a large well-lit building with a central hall from which radiated staircases to various galleries. Outside these there was a good-sized gravelled recreation ground in which some fifty men were standing about, looking well clothed and fed. We were allowed to call out for men who could speak French or English, and any who could do so were hastily pushed forward. In reply to our questions they said that little was wrong with the food, and that letters and gifts from friends were received regularly. The only complaint made to us was that no visitors had been allowed for a month.

In another prison we visited, two hundred Italian prisoners-of-war, Mussolini's so-called 'volunteers', were confined. We were allowed to talk to them freely and we asked them how they came to be here. Several replied that they had thought they were being taken to one of the Italian colonies. Others had come with their own officers, as a regiment. When we asked them how they were being treated, several ran off to fetch samples of the bread they were getting, which they obviously found satisfactory. They looked well cared for, and happy to be out of the fighting.

The Prime Minister, Senor Caballero, found time to see us, and in reply to a question I put to him, assured me that, in the event of a Republican victory, there would be full religious liberty. But by far the most interesting personality I met was the woman member of the Cortes, Dolores Ibarruri, commonly known as La Pasionaria. I had been reluctant to see her, as her nickname had suggested to me a rather over-emotional young person, but on Ellen Wilkinson's pressure I agreed to meet her.

I have never ceased to be glad that I did so, for the only person with whom I felt La Pasionaria could be compared was the woman I had always regarded as the greatest actress I had seen, Eleonora Duse. She had Duse's wonderful grace and voice, but she was much more beautiful, with rich colouring, large dark eyes, and black wavy hair. She swept into the room like a queen, yet she was a miner's daughter married to a miner - a woman who had had the sorrow of losing six out of eight children. I could understand nothing that she said, and she talked with great rapidity, but to look and to listen was pleasure enough for me.

(2) Freida Stewart, British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2002)

Her Grace was very calm and dignified under the strain, which must have been considerable; she had never been seriously opposed before in the feudal area, and the challenge was for her as much personal as political. In fact it was not. The challenge was one of principle against a whole party-political machine; and the Tories were determined that they were not going to be put in their place by one dissident individual, whatever her title. The Perthshire Conservatives rallied as never before to the true blue flag, and made sure their labourers and employers did the same. their cars were everywhere, taking farm workers to the polls, with the hidden implication that they must vote the conformist ticket or else.