EVER SINCE British Red Cross volunteer Bessie Johnston accepted the very first Scotswoman of the Year rosebowl in 1963, the Evening Times has been delighted to honour the women who change country for the better.

Our winners have saved lives and changed lives; they have opened eyes and minds and overcome personal tragedy; they have entertained, educated, informed and inspired.

As the 53rd Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year takes her place on the roll of honour, ANN FOTHERINGHAM takes a look back through the decades of dedicated, daring and delightful women.

It is doubtful that the 100 women who gathered for a celebratory lunch at the Gay Gordon Restaurant in Glasgow on June 12, 1963 could have imagined the event would still be going strong 53 years later.

The first winner, tireless charity worker Bessie Johnston, received a silver rosebowl from Alexander Gibson, then musical director of the Scottish National Orchestra, who said: “We are all delighted that you are the first of many women whose work and achievements will be recognised annually by this award and lunch."

The rosebowl has been replaced by a beautiful bronze trophy, the luncheon is now a gala dinner, and the grand surroundings of Glasgow City Chambers have replaced the Gay Gordon – but the spirit of SWOTY remains unchanged.

This is an annual celebration of women’s achievements, of the contribution they make to society, and the part they play in making life better for all of us.

Bessie was indeed the first of many, and the roll of honour makes astonishing reading – from charity campaigners to housewives and doctors; church workers and community activists to teachers and lawyers; politicians and mothers to entertainers and missionaries, they have all had an impact on Scottish society.

The winners include our youngest ever SWOTY, burns survivor and beauty queen Erin McNeill, who was just 22 when awarded the trophy for her inspirational fundraising efforts; Isobel Murdoch, who set up Hansel Village in Ayrshire, changing the way people with learning disabilities were supported and viewed forever; and the formidable Margaret Herbison, who became Britain’s first Minister for Social Security and the first woman to be appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Actress and broadcaster Molly Weir, a household name thanks to her long-running TV show Dr Finlay's Casebook and Agnes Hoey, who founded the Glasgow Youth Choir, shared the title in 1977, while Dr Anna Murphy, who founded and developed the country's first renal unit at Yorkhill Hospital, won in 1999.

Hundreds of speakers, entertainers and guests of honour have attended SWOTY, from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and HRH the Princess Royal, to famous Scots comedy duo of the 60s Grace Clark and Colin Murray and TV presenter Esther Rantzen.

In 1980, heart-throb newsreader Reginald Bosanquet and actress Kate O'Mara presented the trophy to Jean McLeod, who supported people with MS, despite her own disability and the late Charles Kennedy MP, who went on to lead the Liberal Democrats, presented the 1991 trophy to cancer research fundraiser Annette Turner.

Scottish women who have made an impact overseas have also been honoured by SWOTY. Susan Wighton, a healthworker who looked after the sick and injured in Palestine refugee camps, risking her own life, won the title in 1987.

Closer to home, inspirational Dr Anne Gilmore, who founded the internationally-respected Prince and Princess of Wales Hospice in Glasgow, won the title in 1992 and Peggy O’Donnell, who worked all hours to ensure the wellbeing of 800 pensioners as part of a street warden scheme in Govanhill, claimed the title in 1993.

In the Noughties, an awe-inspiring list of winners included Sandra Brown in 2005 and this year’s guest speaker Margo Whiteford in 2009.

The former, who believed her own father was responsible for the death of a young Coatbridge girl who disappeared in 1957, set up the Moira Anderson Foundation to help sexually abused children and their families.

The latter, a consultant geneticist who has spina bifida, has helped to raise hundreds of thousands for Scottish Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (formerly the Scottish Spina Bifida Association).

The Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year is believed to be the longest –running female achievement award in the UK. Here’s to the next 53 years…..