Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart lived from 1845 to 8 August 1932. She owned large parts of the southern end of the Western Isles and achieved a degree of infamy for her outdated attitude to her tenants and her belief in the long-discredited policy of emigration. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Born Emily Pringle, Emily was the daughter of John Robert Pringle. Her first marriage was to John Gordon, the son of Colonel John Gordon of Cluny. In the first half of the 1800s, Colonel Gordon had purchased much of the southern end of the Western Isles, including Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay. He proceeded to institute a series of brutal land reforms which saw extensive clearance of the islands, large scale emigration to the new world, and severe deprivation for islanders who remained. To say he was one of the most hated men in Scottish history is probably no great exaggeration. On his death, ownership of the islands passed to his son John.
When John Gordon died in 1878, the family estates including the islands passed to Emily. Two years later she married Sir Reginald Cathcart in London, and as Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart she continued to govern her island properties from afar, continuing to implement policies which were not so very far removed from those of her late father in law, and which were increasingly being seen as oppressive and unacceptable elsewhere across the Highlands and Islands.
Lady Gordon Cathcart was particularly criticised for her support for emigration, but she continued to encourage tenants to leave for Canada. To make the choice easier she refused to release suitable land for farming, and many believed that her policy of emigration was a move to clear Catholic tenants from her lands. Others believed that it was a means of increasing the value of stock she held in the Hudson's Bay Company and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Her efforts to force her tenants to emigrate to Canada continued until 1920.
Meanwhile, some tenants began to take direct action, launching "land raids", especially on Barra and Vatersay, in an effort to establish their right to settle on and farm land that was otherwise standing idle. Some Vatersay Raiders were imprisoned, but Government frustration with Lady Gordon Cathcart's policies led to the compulsory purchase of parts of the islands for development as crofting land. One such scheme in 1909 resulted in the creation of 58 crofts on Vatersay. Lady Gordon Cathcart died in Maidstone in Kent in 1932. During the 54 year period during which she owned large parts of the Western Isles, she had visited just once.