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Maureen Jelks - 1941 - 2018

Maureen died at her home in Kirriemuir on 20th December 2018. Blessed with a modest unassuming demeanour, crystal clear voice, unassailable optimism and an unforgettable laugh, Maureen made countless friends in her 77 years.

Born Maureen Dailly in Dundee, her family soon moved to one of the crumbling tenements in the Old Overgate, built circa 1800, where they spent nine happy years. The amenities were not good. There was no hot water, but the rent was cheap, and it was a bustling, thriving place. In an old notebook found by the family she says: “Living in the Old Overgate as a child was, to me, the greatest place in the world. There was always so much going on. There were housewives hingin' oot the windie, or over the plettie, gossiping: the coalman and the rag and bone man going about their business.” Maureen often reminisced that every Saturday, for the princely sum of thruppence, they would have a buster (mushy peas and chips cooked over an open fire) from one of the canvas stalls in the Overgate. It was the treat of the week.

Music featured often in her young life as she harmonised naturally with her mother’s constant singing. Her talents were spotted early on at school, but her shyness and anxiety prevented her from performing in front of others, reducing her to tears. The teachers allowed her to sing from behind the blackboard, but were unable to persuade her to enter the local ‘Leng Medal’ singing competition or stand with the choir.

Maureen’s family moved to London when she was 15. There she experienced burgeoning music scenes – rock and roll, trad jazz, blues and finally the folk clubs of the Sixties. Still a reluctant performer, she was occasionally persuaded to “get through” two or three songs while playing her autoharp.

Married to Nigel in 1968, Maureen longed to return to the Scotland she had missed for 13 years. In 1969 an inheritance allowed them to move to Letham, Angus, where she concentrated on raising her three sons. She was a powerhouse of energy. She took the kids out every day – her children, and all their pals. She was never short of destinations or friends. Her son Alistair recalls: “Mum's love was limitless. God help the girlfriend that upset one of her boys!” Maureen absolutely loved children and went on to work with the Kirriemuir Out-of-School Club. Her grandson Stefan muses: “Maureen was one of the best grans you could hope for. Her personality was amazing. Always the life and soul wherever she went. Her iconic red hair and her colourful outfits were easily recognisable.”

Around the age of 40 Maureen made a life-changing gambit. At the folk festival in Auchtermuchty she decided to enter the singing competition – and of course, she won. She considered this her long-awaited ‘Leng Medal’. Alistair remembers: “I was a bit shocked to hear the beauty in her voice! Told her she had won by miles. It's crazy how long she kept her voice a secret.”

Winning got her known. Maureen found herself on folk club and festival invitation lists and she was paid the ultimate compliment by the travelling family, the Stewarts of Blair, who told her that she had “the coynach” – the elusive, mystical and powerful force given off by a performer to move and draw in the audience. Fellow Dundonian Sheena Wellington described her voice: “clear and pure as a choirboy’s, it has all the power and passion of a mature woman.”

Maureen never looked back. She guested in festivals all over the UK and Ireland. She sang solo at Celtic Women’s Festivals in New Orleans and Milwaukee and joined groups such as Taplsalteerie, Palaver and the Dundee Rep Women’s Singing Group. In the 1990s she featured in the BBC2 television series The Jean Redpath Song Masterclass and played a traditional singer in the Newcastle-based Northern Stage production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, which she was proud to do in her native Dundonian. She also appeared in a stage production of Yellow On The Broom, as well as on numerous radio programmes.

She contributed to various compilation albums such as Greentrax’s Scots Women, recorded live at Celtic Connections in 2001, but also made two albums of her own. She recorded First Time Ever at Dougie Maclean’s studio at Butterstone, Dunkeld, and later made Eence Upon A Time for Living Tradition magazine’s Tradition Bearers series.

She took on the teaching of traditional Scottish song in schools all over Fife, Dundee and Angus, in Carer Support Groups, and in the Dundee Wighton Centre, encouraging others to sing and stimulating interest in the “muckle sangs”. This earned her an “Angus Ambassador Award”. She was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2015.

Independently minded, but never one to push herself forward as a singer, Maureen perhaps missed some performance opportunities as time passed, but her abiding interest in all things musical took her to the Blues Bar in Dundee every Saturday afternoon for many years – alone and by bus. She also travelled fortnightly to Fife to visit the family of her son Simon, and these trips by a woman in her 70s with a stick and no sense of direction caused the family a little anxiety. Directions were never Maureen’s strong point, as anyone who accompanied her on her travels over the years will attest. Ever the optimist, she always ended up where she needed to be – eventually.

Alistair mentions: “Towards her later years, the memory problems stopped her singing solo, but she could still join in and accompany when someone else was singing.” She regularly attended the local Tuesday session in Kirriemuir, and did so just a few days before her demise.

The world, and Scottish traditional music, will be a less colourful place without her.

Barbara Dymock