Katharine Stewart-Murray

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at on 7 December 2023.

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Donald Cameron’s timely intervention brings me to the event last night that I hosted in the Parliament, to which we welcomed some of the children of the children who were brought out of the turmoil of the Spanish civil war to the safety of the United Kingdom by the Duchess of Atholl. They told the stories of their parents’ survival and wanted to say one thing to the family members of the Duchess of Atholl, who were present last night. They wanted to express their thanks for her actions, because, quite simply, without them, those children would not be here today. Those lessons are vital for us as we wrestle with the current challenges in our society.

The Duchess of Atholl’s acute interest in the rise of fascism led her to closely study the contents of Hitler’s words in “Mein Kampf”. She read the original text in German—she was a German speaker—and felt that the English translation that was originally on offer did not properly convey the contents of Hitler’s full plan. Therefore, she arranged for a full English translation and agitated to get the United Kingdom Government of the time to take the emerging threat seriously.

She became increasingly frustrated that she could not convince the British Government to act, so she tried to force its hand. To address the issue, she triggered a by-election in Kinross and West Perthshire, which took place on 21 December 1938—a very cold winter’s night, apparently. The huge might of the Conservative Party was deployed against her and she lost the by-election, but only narrowly. She might have lost the by-election, but events proved that her concerns were valid and legitimate.

I suspect that, if people were asked in the street, few would know who the first female MP to be elected in Scotland was. I think that it would surprise them to find that that individual was married to an aristocrat, was opposed to suffrage for women, was a Conservative and Unionist who campaigned for educational opportunities for all, helped refugee children to safety from the Spanish civil war and ended her political career to press the alarm about the rise of fascism. That, however, was the enigmatic life of the Duchess of Atholl, the MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, Katharine Murray, the red duchess.