Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart (1845–1932) was a wealthy heiress who played a leading role in the Highland Clearances. A controversial figure, she inherited swathes of land on the Scottish mainland as well as some Scottish Islands together with a large fortune from her first husband. She perpetuated the harsh regime adopted by his father of evicting tenants and crofters, advocating emigration.
Vehemently against Catholicism, her attempts to enforce emigration were considered a means to eradicate Catholics from her lands.
Baptised Emily Eliza Steele, her parents were John Robert Pringle and his wife, Hester Ellen McNeill.[a]The pair were married on 2 August 1844 in Madras Cathedral. The couple were living in India, where Emily, their only daughter, was born in 1845, as her father was in the Madras civil service although she was brought up in Roxburghshire.
Emily married Captain John Gordon, who was twenty-five years her senior, on 19 December 1865 in Edinburgh. The natural son of Colonel John Gordon “the richest commoner in the northern kingdom” he had inherited his father’s extensive assets, valued at £2–3 million in 1858, on the lower estimate equivalent to about £200 million as at 2019.[b]Using the retail price index. The estate included Cluny Castle Cluny Castle was originally built in about 1604 as a Z-plan castle replacing either a house or small peel tower. Sited in the parish of Cluny, it is south of Monymusk and north of Sauchen in Aberdeenshire, north-east Scotland. , North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra.
When Captain Gordon died without legitimate issue in 1878, Emily inherited the estates. Her second husband was Sir Reginald Archibald Edward Cathcart (1838–1916) whom she married on 5 December 1880 at St George’s Hanover Square, London. He was the sixth baronet of Cathcart, succeeding to the title in 1878. The Cathcart family seat was Killochan Castle near Girvan in Ayrshire, but the couple lived mainly in Titness Park, Sunninghill, Berkshire.
Known for her stance against Catholicism, she played a leading role in the Highland Clearances as she continued the clearances initiated by her father-in-law. She held shares in the Canadian Pacific Railway and, like her contemporary the folklorist and author Jessie SaxbyJessie Margaret Saxby was an author and folklorist from Unst, one of the Shetland Islands of Scotland. She also had political interests and was a suffragette. , encouraged immigration to Canada; many crofters on Cathcart lands were re-settled to the North West territories of Regina and Wapella.
In 1891 Lady Cathcart commissioned Old Tom Morris to design a golf course at Askernish on South Uist. She included a clause in the crofters tenancy agreements retaining the right to allow golf to be played on the land.
Lady Cathcart never lived in the highlands and is thought to have visited only once; she took ten Vatersay crofters to court in 1908 after they refused to vacate their cottages. They were sentenced to serve two months imprisonment but released two weeks early.
Death and legacy
She died on 8 August 1932 at Margate in Kent. Her will included instructions that a Long Island, United States emigration fund should be set up, but the trustees were fearful of possible repercussions, so it never materialised.