Katherine Marjory Murray (Kitty) later Duchess of Atholl was the first Scottish female to become a Member of Parliament, and, the first Conservative and the second British woman to gain the office of government minister. Born in Bamff, Alyth in Perthshire in 1874, Katherine Ramsay was the daughter of the historian and 10th Baronet of Bamff, Sir James Ramsay. Her family had a long history within Scotland; with a 13th century Ramsay being physician to Alexander II of Scotland. From this position came the granting of the baronial lands in 1232. Educated firstly at home by tutors and then at Wimbledon High School, Katherine Ramsay preceded to study at the Royal College of Music. In 1899 she married the Marquis of Tullibardine, John George Murray (1871-1942) who in 1917 became the 8th Duke of Atholl. The duke was quite a philanderer and peppered Perthshire with his illegitimate offspring, some of which Kitty befriended.
When the Duke was dispatched to South Africa during the Boer War, Katherine Murray went with as a nurse. This role she repeated during the First World War in Egypt and then later at home as Commandant of the Blair Castle Auxiliary Hospital. For her war work she was awarded a DBE in 1918. After the war she was involved with Nursing Associations throughout Perthshire and the Highlands & Islands.
Between 1903, when the Pankhursts formed the Women’s Social and Political Union and the start of the war in 1914, Britain saw increasing political militancy from the suffragette movement. Katherine Murray however, despite her later parliamentary achievements and high profile role during her husband’s Unionist Party candidature for the West Perthshire seat during the 1907 and 1910 election. was an opponent of women’s suffrage. In 1912 with Lord Curzon, she spoke out in opposition to women’s suffrage at a public meeting in Glasgow, and even after her election as an MP, when Parliament voted on the reduction of the enfranchisement age from 30 to 21, she voted against. And again, in the 1930s she opposed equality of pay for women in the Civil Service. The Duchess of Atholl entered Parliament as a member of the opposition to Labour and Ramsay MacDonald, by a margin of only 150 votes in the 1923 election. She made her maiden speech in the debate on the King’s Speech and was judged the sensation of the debate. When the October 1924 election was called, the Liberals failed to put up a candidate and the Duchess of Atholl achieved a large majority against the Socialist candidate J. MacDiarmid. She was to hold the seat of Kinross and West Perthshire for 15 years. By the end of 1924 she had become a parliamentary secretary at the Board of Education.
Towards the end of this decade the Duchess of Atholl began to make a political journey that would see her dumped by her own party, called a communist and, in 1938, fight Chamberlain and the Conservative Central office as an independent in a by-election. Some of the milestones on the journey saw her meet Sylvia Pankhurst and other Suffragettes on a sisterly basis, campaign against poverty, oppose appeasement of Hitler and the abandonment of Czechoslovakia, and become a supporter of the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. She was one of very few Conservatives to oppose the government policy of non-intervention in relation to Spain.
Her relationship with Spain and the Republic is well documented and put her in touch with many people from who she would politically be expected to be distant. Jack Jones the Trade Unionist and TUC leader talks fondly in his memoirs of meeting her in Spain, where she also came across Ernest Hemingway, the Scottish Communist MP Willie Gallacher and members of the International Brigades. With Eleanor Rathbone as her deputy, she became Chair of a National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief in 1936. Her tour of Spain in 1937 was part of an all woman delegation (suggested by Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) the Labour MP and later first female minister of Education) which took in Barcelona, Catalonia, Valencia and Madrid. Just two weeks after the trip, the German air force committed the bombing massacre at Guernica. Katherine Murray wrote up these events and the trip in a book, ‘Searchlight on Spain’ which sold 30,000 copies. At the end of 1935, Katherine Murray read Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ and was moved to ensure that a proper translation was produced to highlight the dangers of fascism and anti-Semitism.
Her stance on Spain and the work she did upon returning to Britain to help Spanish children, led to Katherine being accused of being a communist and an anarchist. The West Perthshire Constituency Party eventually removed her as its candidate and Katherine triggered a by-election by applying for the Chiltern Hundreds. Chamberlain being determined to win, threw all the resources of the Conservative Research Department and the Whips office into the fight, flooding the constituency with big named politicians. As for Kitty she got messages of support from Winston Churchill and Sylvia Pankhurst. On a 67% turnout the 21 December 1938 by-election vote was 11,800 to Sir William McNair Snadden and 10,495 to Katherine Murray. Despite losing she was later adopted as an Independent candidate for the Scottish Universities, which position she released upon the election of Winston Churchill in 1940.
Her memoirs appeared in 1958 with the title Working Partnership.
Katherine Murray died in Edinburgh in 1960 as a consequence of a fall whilst climbing a wall, eighteen years after the death of her husband; many of her last years were defined by dementia. She was buried at Old Blair in a family plot with some 300 mourners in attendance. Amongst the roles and titles held during her lifetime are included Honorary Colonel of the Scottish Horse Regiment, President of the Perthshire Branch of the Red Cross Society and Chairman of the British League for European Freedom.
“Defy the Fascist hordes
With challenge strong and clear
Though loud their drums and bright their swords
they’re sick at heart with fear.
Scorn Hitler’s blatant nose
And Mussolini’s fray
And when they hear a manly voice
The cads will slink away.
They listen on the air
in Berlin, London, Rome;
Then tell the rogues these mountains bare
Are still the freeman’s home.
The world is on the rack
O Scottish hearts be true
And send the noble lady back
Or – endless shame on you!”
Letter to the press during the 1938 by-election
John Dick of Glasgow
“To Socrates they gave hemlock. Gracoleus they killed with sticks and stones. The greatest and best they crucified. Katherine Atholl can hold up her head in good company. Let the victors when they come, when the forts of folly fall, find the body by the wall.”
Josiah Wedgwood from his sick bed on the result of the 1938 by-election