WINNIE Ewing, the woman who became known as Madame Ecosse and who has recorded personal political coups in three different parliaments, yesterday signalled her intention to retire.

Mrs Ewing, who celebrated her 72nd birthday earlier this month, said she hoped to spend more time with her two grandchildren, Ciara, three, and one-year-old Jamie, once she stands down as a list MSP for the Highlands and Islands at the 2003 elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Described last night as a ''great heroine of the national movement'', she said she also hoped to be able to visit friends made throughout her long career, during which she also served in the Westminster and European parliaments.

In Europe, Mrs Ewing became known as Madame Ecosse and was given the additional title of ''Mother of the European Parliament'' when she served as an MEP from 1975 to 1999.

Speaking from her home in Milton Duff, near Elgin, Moray, Mrs Ewing, who sensationally won the Hamilton by-election to Westminster for the Scottish National Party in 1967 - until then the constituency had been a 50-year Labour stronghold - said her most treasured memory was the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

She said: ''I've always been planning to stand down in 2003 - this is my third parliament, after all. I don't see my grandchildren as often as I would like and so I plan to see a lot more of them.

''Also, I'm writing a book and, if I haven't finished it by 2003, I'll be able to work on it then. I have had very little leisure time and I've missed that. I have a nice little car and I'll have the opportunity to see friends in Argyll, Caithness and in England, as well as those I met on the continent.''

Mrs Ewing, who joined the SNP in 1946, heads a family political dynasty with her son Fergus and daughter-in-law Margaret being MSPs in Edinburgh, and daughter Annabelle now Westminster MP for Perth.

Asked what her favourite memory was, she said: ''The opening of the Scottish Parliament was a wonderful moment and presiding over that as the oldest member was great.

''I was sitting where all the members swore the oath and they came down from either side of the chamber and did it in pairs. My son and daughter-in-law came down at the same time to swear the oath in front of me and that was a great moment, as was the speech I made immediately after that.''

She told the opening session of the parliament: ''I want to begin with the words that I have always wanted either to say, or hear someone else say - the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened.''

John Swinney, SNP leader, last night paid tribute to Mrs Ewing, saying she would forever be regarded as ''one of the great heroines of the national movement in Scotland''.

He said: ''Winnie Ewing has had a career of enormous significance to the campaign for Scottish independence. She provided the inspiration that was instrumental in the resurgence of the demand for Scottish self-government when she famously won the Hamilton by-election in 1967.

''It was so appropriate that Winnie was the member who reconvened the Scottish Parliament after its many years of adjournment.''

Mr Swinney added: ''Winnie has championed Scotland's cause in three parliaments, and has been the mother of both the Scottish and European Parliament - a tremendous achievement. She has achieved a great deal and will always be regarded as one of the great heroines of the national movement in Scotland.''

Tam Dalyell, the veteran Labour MP for Linlithgow and father of the House of Commons, described Mrs Ewing as a formidable campaigner, adding: ''She was always perfectly agreeable.''