Born: May 5, 1943;

Died: January 4, 2021.

KAY Ullrich – lifelong nationalist and former SNP MSP, who has died aged 77 – revelled in her reputation as a glamorous raconteur who would hold court with a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Innately flamboyant, she loved to recall how she walked down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with Sean Connery at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

But no-one who knew her ever mistook her conviviality for frivolousness, or her penchant for stylish clothes for a lack of substance.

Ullrich was a woman whose political convictions were at her core; a woman who, having escaped an abusive marriage, went on to forge a career as a social worker, specialising in child protection.

She also understood the challenges faced by women in politics. In her 20s, her choices were constricted by looking after small children, in middle age by looking after her ailing mother. Her proudest achievement was her work on the Health and Community Care Committee, pushing free personal care – a policy she benefited from in her final weeks.

Ullrich was born in Prestwick in 1943. An early interest in her appearance was inculcated by her parents, Jack and Charlotte Morrison. Jack, who worked in a tailor’s shop, was a dapper man, rarely seen without his fedora or a handkerchief in his suit pocket, while Charlotte tried to turn her straight-haired daughter into a Scottish Shirley Temple. Having worn metal curlers at night from the age of five, Ullrich developed an attachment to perms and tongs that well-meaning hairdressers failed to sever.

As a late baby and only child, Ullrich was indulged. At Ayr Academy, she took part in synchronised swimming and was an enthusiastic member of the literary and debating society. But she was also a rebel, chastised for wearing a flouncy red rockabilly petticoat under her uniform.

Even then, though, she was political. Friends remember her trying to engage them on Scottish independence when all they wanted to talk about was boys.

She said the catalyst for her nationalism was the USS Proteus sailing into Holy Loch to service the nuclear submarines in 1961. She protested on the pier and joined the SNP four years later after it became clear that Harold Wilson’s government was not going to embrace unilateral disarmament.

After school, Ullrich worked as a Butlin’s Redcoat and then as a lifeguard, before securing a post with the Military Airlift Command at Prestwick Airport, where there was a steady flow of handsome American servicemen. By the time she was 21, she had married one: Andrew Jofre.

Ullrich gave birth to John, now a senior executive for an engineering company in the Philippines, and then Shelley, now a BBC journalist. They moved to Illinois in 1974, but the union was already toxic. She hatched a plan and one night, when her husband was out, she took the children and fled home to Scotland.

Later, she met and married Grady Ullrich, who was in the US Navy, and the family settled in Dreghorn, North Ayrshire. For the remainder of the 1970s, she worked as a part-time swimming instructor. But when Shelley moved to secondary school, she retrained as a social worker, a job she did from 1984 until she was elected to Holyrood in 1999.

Ullrich campaigned relentlessly for the SNP at a time when it wasn’t fashionable, standing for Cunninghame South (1983 and 1987) and Motherwell South (1992) though there was no prospect of winning. “I always describe my childhood as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, except with politics instead of religion,” Shelley jokes. “We were always being dragged around to adoption meetings or to the annual party weekend in Arran; there was always SNP paraphernalia around the house.”

During the 1987 general election campaign, Nicola Sturgeon, then only 16, famously knocked on the door of Ullrich’s bungalow and offered to leaflet. Ullrich saw past her shyness to her potential, touting her early on as the party’s first female leader. Sturgeon regarded Ullrich as an inspiration and the pair remained close as Sturgeon fulfilled the prophecy.

Ullrich’s toughest political battle came in 1994 when she was selected to stand in the highly-charged Monklands East by-election, triggered by the death of Labour leader John Smith. The campaign was dominated by claims of corruption in the local council, and there were frequent flare-ups. At the “bear-pit” of a count, Ullrich was hit by a flying fish supper.

The by-election was also remarkable for having three female candidates: Ullrich, Labour’s Helen Liddell and the Conservatives’ Susan Bell. Much to Ullrich’s irritation, the coverage focused on eyeshadow and earrings, with one newspaper tagging them “Bananarama”. Liddell won but the SNP cut Labour’s majority from 15,712 to just 1,640.

Ullrich sat out the 1997 election to care for her mother. But by the time of the 1999 Holyrood elections, Charlotte was in a nursing home, and this freed her daughter to pursue her political ambitions. She was runner-up in Cunninghame South, but became a list MSP. After two years as shadow health secretary, she was appointed chief whip, a role that suited her, not only because she was a born enforcer, but also because she was kind and supportive.

At the end of the parliamentary term, she stepped down, but she did not stop working, choosing instead to take on a role as a safeguarder with the Children’s Panel. She also continued to attend SNP events and to nurture long-standing friendships with the “Golden Girls” – Ayr Academy alumnae – and the “Holyrood Harpies” – politicians, including fellow Dreghorn resident and former MSP for Cunninghame South, Margaret Burgess.

Ullrich was as committed a smoker as David Hockney; even as shadow health secretary she was forever nipping out for a sly fag. She took ill last year and was diagnosed with lung cancer in September.

Though disappointed by the 2014 referendum defeat, she had remained optimistic that she would see an independent Scotland within her lifetime. That was not to be, but she trusted others to deliver. “One of the last messages she sent me read: ‘Make it happen,’” Burgess says.

Ullrich leaves Grady, John, Shelley and her beloved grand-children: Orla, Joe, Jack and Charlotte. Her funeral will be a tribute to her abiding hope. In accordance with her wishes, the Declaration of Arbroath will be read and her coffin will be bedecked with the little white rose of Scotland.