Stewart-Murray, Katharine (1874–1960)

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Stewart-Murray, Katharine (1874–1960)

Duchess of Atholl and public servant. Name variations: Katharine Ramsay. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1874; died in 1960; daughter of James Ramsay, 10th baronet of Bamff (East Perthshire), and Charlotte (Stewart) Fanning Ramsay; half-sister of Agnata Frances Ramsay; educated at Wimbledon High School and Royal College of Music; married John George Stewart-Murray, marquess of Tullibardine, later the duke of Atholl, in 1899 (died 1942); no children.

Katharine Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl, was born in 1874 into a scholarly aristocratic family, the daughter of Sir James Ramsay, 10th baronet of Bamff, and Charlotte Stewart Ramsay . Her father excelled in both classics and history at Oxford, and her half-sister, Agnata Frances Ramsay , followed in his footsteps as an honors student at Girton in classical studies (in the classics examination of 1887, she was the only first-class candidate). A scholar and musician herself, Katharine originally seemed more inclined toward her mother's musical interest and studied piano at the Royal College of Music, but her career path changed after her marriage in 1899 to John George Stewart-Murray, marquess of Tullibardine, who inherited the title of duke of Atholl upon his father's death.

Sharing her husband's interests in public service, the military, and politics, Stewart-Murray became involved in local government and Scottish social service, for which she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918. She became the first Scottish woman elected to the House of Commons in 1923, and quickly advanced to a ministerial position as parliamentary secretary for the Board of Education a year later. While her contemporaries considered her humorless and conventional, Stewart-Murray proved a passionate and uncompromising opponent of injustice wherever she found it. As a crusader against international cruelty and oppression, she ignored party loyalties and prejudices, thereby alienating her peers.

In 1929, together with leftist independent politician Eleanor Rathbone , Stewart-Murray battled against the practice of genital mutilation of women in Africa, the same year she concluded her duties with the Board of Education. Two years later, she published the books Women in Politics and The Conscription of a People, the latter written in response to labor conditions in Soviet Russia. She temporarily surrendered the party whip when she spoke against the government's plan for a new constitution for India, and lost it permanently after she questioned Francisco Franco's role in the Spanish Civil War. Teaming with Rathbone again on this issue, she conducted her research in Spain, which resulted in her support of Spanish republican refugees, her criticism of the Conservative government's tolerance of fascism in Spain, and the book Searchlight on Spain in 1938. Her positions on these issues caused her to be termed the "Red Duchess."

Perpetually at odds with other members of the House, Stewart-Murray broke away from that political body completely as part of a passionate objection to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler. She resigned her seat in Parliament in 1938, but sought re-election as a supporter of Winston Churchill's resistance to Nazi aggression. The loss of her seat and the death of her husband in 1942 did little to diminish her fervor. She became known as the "fascist beast" in the 1950s because of her alignment with right-wing forces against Stalinism and Communist oppression of refugees, as well as her apprehension over the plight of several Eastern European countries. From 1944 to 1960, she served as chair of the British League for European Freedom, and published her autobiography, Working Partnership, in 1958.


The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Williams, E.T., and Helen M. Palmer, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography, 1951–1960. Oxford University Press, 1971.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan