Katharine Stewart-Murray

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

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Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I congratulate John Swinney on securing today’s debate and thank him for his overview of the life of the Duchess of Atholl. I am sorry that I am not able to be there in person in the chamber today and that I was not able to join last night’s event, for which we must blame black ice on the Edinburgh pavements.

We should also recognise the efforts of Jane Anderson, the former archivist at Blair Castle; Paul Ramsay of Bamff—[


.]—for keeping the duchess’s memory alive; and, of course, Elizabeth Quigley, who presented a very good BBC report on the duchess’s life.

This is an important date to mark, both in the context of Perthshire and Scottish politics as a whole. Today, we commemorate the life of a true pioneer in Scottish politics—the first female MP in Scotland. Elected to the Kinross and Western Perthshire seat in 1923 as a member of the Unionist Party, Katharine Stewart-Murray retained her seat until the 1938 general election. As we have heard, she was a complex and controversial character in her time. She was a rare independent thinker at a period when the existing order of the international system was both turbulent and volatile. Her views were often out of step with the consensus of the day, not least in her party.

Katharine Marjory Ramsay was born in 1874 and, in 1899, married John Stewart-Murray, who was the Marquess of Tullibardine and, later, the 8th Duke of Atholl. At that point, he was the Unionist MP for West Perthshire but had to surrender his seat in 1917 on inheriting the dukedom. At that point, the seat was won by the Liberals, but Katharine won the seat in 1923. She went on to serve in Government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education and was the first woman, other than a mistress of the robes, to serve in a British Conservative Government as a minister.

As John Swinney has reminded us, the duchess had been a vigorous opponent of female suffrage—in fact, one of the leading campaigners against it in Scotland—but that did not stop her standing for Parliament when the opportunity arose. That was one of a number of controversial positions that she held. Famously, she aligned herself with a number of causes that did not endear her to the Conservative leadership of the time. She was an active supporter of the republicans in the Spanish civil war, which earned her the nickname “the red duchess”. She was closely involved in humanitarian efforts and became chairwoman of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. In that capacity, she was successful in persuading the British Government to admit child refugees from Spain.

The duchess was also very concerned about the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. Her willingness to go against the prevailing view adopted by the appeasement wing of her party in relation to recognising the threat posed by Nazi Germany proved not only commendable but right. However, it was the decision to side with the likes of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden that would later cost her her seat in the House of Commons. She faced a deselection process, orchestrated from the top of her party, and subsequently stood as an independent candidate. She faced an exceptionally nasty campaign, in which her former party threw everything at ensuring that she was defeated.

Despite numerous accounts of irregularities, including threatening behaviour within the constituency, she was only narrowly defeated by 5.8 percentage points. Some have argued that, had the election been held just a few weeks later, or had the confirmation of Hitler’s intent in Europe been projected to the world earlier, that would very likely have resulted in the opposite outcome. What the duchess had long argued then became indisputable—that Nazi Germany presented an existential threat to Britain, to stability in Europe and to the existing world order. Like Churchill, she was proven right.

As Scotland’s first female MP, she was certainly a trailblazer. However, the duchess was not someone who was loved by party managers; she was someone who knew her own mind and was prepared to be outspoken for the causes that she believed in. We could do with a few more cast in her mould today.

She was a woman with a remarkable story, and it is right that we remember the anniversary of her first election, and join to pay tribute to her legacy.