A FATAL accident inquiry into the death of the eighth woman to be found hanged at Scotland's only female jail begins today.

Single mother Mary Cowan, died in hospital 18 hours after warders found her hanging by the neck and unconscious in her cell in Cornton Vale Prison's remand block last year.

The prison service said she appeared to have hanged herself using the plastic cord of a portable radio. Doctors at Stirling Royal Infirmary pronounced her brain-dead, and at 8.57am, on July 4 last year, her relatives gave permission to turn off her ventilator.

Miss Cowan, 27, of Govan in Glasgow, had been admitted to the jail 18 days earlier, and was awaiting sentencing for shoplifting.

Miss Cowan, who left a son of 10, had planned to marry her boyfriend Chris MacGregor, 23, this year.

At the time of her death, MacGregor was also in prison, having been remanded to another jail on the same shoplifting charge.

Relatives claimed that prison staff had ignored warnings that Miss Cowan was grief-stricken over the death of a childhood friend.

Gavin Hester, 28, from Paisley, whom Miss Cowan regarded as her cousin, had been found hanged in Greenock Prison a week earlier.

Miss Cowan's brother-in-law, John Potts, said she had been refused permission to go to Mr Hester's funeral.

It will be the first inquiry before the new Sheriff Principal of Central, Tayside and Fife John Wheatley, QC.

Sheriff Principal Wheatley was recently appointed, following the retiral of Sheriff Principal John Maguire QC.

Sheriff Principal Maguire presided over four earlier FAIs into Cornton Vale suicides and in 1997, he declared that the suicide prevention system at Cornton Vale was ''flawed'' and that training for staff was inadequate.

Seven other women have been found hanged in their cells there since 1995: Kelly Holland, 17, of Hamilton; Arlene Elliot, 17, of Glasgow; Joanna Reilly, 26, of Glasgow; Angela Bollan, 19, from Renton; Yvonne Gilmour, 22, from Glasgow; Denise Devine, 26, from Edinburgh; and Sandra Brown, 27, of Edinburgh.

Sheriff Maguire's findings promoted a reform of the way women prisoners were treated in Scotland. But earlier this year Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland, Clive Fairweather, voiced renewed concerns about unnecessary remands for minor offences.

His report also said, however, that there had been ''a remarkable transformation of an austere and impoverished regime,'' at Cornton Vale.

Miss Bollan's father, former Labour councillor Jim Bollan, accused the then Scottish Prisons Minister, Henry McLeish, of breaking a promise to cut the number of petty remands.

He was backed by Eddie Holland, whose daughter Kelly - the first of the Vale's ''tragic eight - was found hanged in her cell on June 23 1995.