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. (1)
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. Later that year she was the only female MP to oppose women’s suffrage at 21. Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take their seat in Westminster, derided her as “Canute trying to keep the waves back.” (2)
Atholl strongly disliked Joseph Stalin and campaigned against oppression in the Soviet Union and she published The Conscription of a People in 1930. This was followed by Women and Politics (1931), a book intended "to provide 'the facts' that women needed to exercise properly their duties as citizens". Along with Eleanor Rathbone she campaigned against female circumcision in Africa. (3)
Atholl moved sharply to the left as a result of her close friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst. She 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. (4)
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) which made her extremely unpopular with the Conservative Party. (5)
Atholl grew increasingly concerned about Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany. She totally opposed the British government's policy of appeasement and joined a group of rebel Tory MPs that included Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, Harold Nicolson, Ronald Cartland, Robert Boothby, Jack Macnamara and Jim Thomas. Major Joseph George Ball, who worked for Neville Chamberlain as his political adviser, made attempts to persuade local constituency associations to de-select rebel Conservative Party MPs. (6)
James Stuart, deputy chief whip, and the MP for Moray and Nairn, was placed in charge of the plot to oust Athol and organised a vote of no confidence in her by her local party. She responded by resigning and prompted a by-election. Athol stood as an Independent against the Conservative Party candidate, William McNair Snadden. She asked Winston Churchill to speak for her but he refused as he feared being deselected by his local party. Robert Boothby responded in the same way. (7)
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." (8)
According to Duncan Sutherland: "Fifty Conservative MPs travelled north to warn that a vote for the duchess was a vote for war, and in a more sinister twist local landowners were alleged to have offered their tenants bonuses - or threats - on the understanding that they vote against her. These various factors contributed to her narrow defeat by a Conservative opponent in a two-way contest. Subsequent events in Europe vindicated her position, and would have saved her political career had she remained in parliament a few months longer, but after Churchill assumed the Conservative leadership in 1940 she abandoned plans to return as an independent MP for the Scottish Universities." (9)
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.
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.
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.
She was the Perthshire aristocrat who became Scotland’s first female MP and shook up parliament with her high principles and disregard for old school tribal politics. Katherine “Kitty” Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, joined the House of Commons in 1923 after winning the seat of Kinross and West Perthshire for the Conservatives.
Thought of as honest, incisive and serious, Atholl was to embark on a political journey that left her frequently at odds with her own party given her views on the Spanish Civil War and her opposition to the policy of appeasement against Nazi Germany.
Her career was also to be defined by humanitarian work, particularly during the military revolt against the Republican government in Spain.
Despite her dislike of the “Communist menace”, she was herself to become known as the Red Duchess by those superstitious of her support for both the families of those fighting in the International Brigades and victims of the conflict.
While casting aside the politics of left and right, Atholl believed in the right for the Republicans to legitimately govern and defend themselves. She had toured Spain in 1937 as part of an all-woman delegation that visited Barcelona, Catalonia, Valencia and Madrid. Later she became chairman of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief and wrote the book, Searchlight on Spain, in 1938.
The MPs interests were widespread and she was to become one of the first campaigners against female circumcision in Africa. The Duchess, who was also an accomplished pianist and composer, proved to be a heavy weight and fearless operator - but her profile today remains relatively obscure.
According to author Sheila Hetherington, Atholl had been encouraged to enter frontline politics by a number of high profile figures but faced reservations from King George V who was concerned about her ability to host her husband’s guests at Blair Castle should she win her seat. Hetherington, who earlier wrote a biography of the Duchess, said: “She did not herself seek to stand for Westminster, but was invited and encouraged by some prominent individuals: Lloyd George, Lord Haldane, the chairman of the Unionists association in her constituency, and her husband, the Duke of Atholl.
“She won the vote by a narrow margin. A local newspaper attributed her success to her own personal popularity.” By the time she had taken her seat in Westminster, the Duchess had already reported on the dire state of health provision in the Highlands and Islands as part of the influential Dewar Committee, whose findings became the blueprint for the NHS in Scotland..
But despite her interest in women’s and children’s issues, she was a lone wolf among her female peers on one particular subject - votes for women.
In 1924, she was only female MP to oppose women’s suffrage at 21, arguing there was no widespread desire for the bill and that the suffragette movement had become too militant. Lady Astor, the first female MP to take their seat in Westminster, derided her as “Canute trying to keep the waves back.”
Later, her position changed and the Duchess would befriend Sylvia Pankhurst who was to publicly endorse her as an independent candidate in the 1938 by-election which she triggered after losing the support of her local party over her views on Nazi Germany. Amid a policy of appeasement against Hitler, the Duchess argued intensely that action was required after reading Mein Kampf in German. She later distributed accurate English translations in order to raise awareness of its true contents and the danger posed by the regime.
Such was her belief that she resigned her seat and stood as an independent, fighting almost entirely on this single issue.
A telegram from Stalin supporting the Duchess' campaign inflicted further damage to a campaign that was set against the vast resources of the Conservative Party. She lost the election by just 1,305 votes.
Her friend and campaign organiser Frieda Stewart said: “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.” Murray, who authored several books, largely stepped away from the fray of public and political life following her defeat.
(1) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)
(2) The Scotsman (20th June 2017)
(3) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)
(4) The Scotsman (20th June 2017)
(5) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (2003) page 591
(6) Chris Bryant, The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler (2020) pages 265-266
(7) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)
(8) Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2020) pages 175-176
(9) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)