I HAVE always associated Paisley with strong, determined, principled women. How could I not? As a wee girl growing up in Paisley in the Seventies, it was my mum in our home (as it was in households across Scotland’s largest town) who kept the bread on the table using her “pin money” from her twilight shift as a doffer in Ferguslie Mill, whilst my dad endured repeated periods of being out on strike from Chryslers in Linwood. The town that thread built was powered by a formidable female workforce.

But it was only more recently, in my role as project director for Paisley’s bid to be UK City of Culture, that my eyes were opened more widely to the incredible women who are woven through the social fabric of the town’s history.

And significantly, it is (in the main) women today that are shining a light on these yet untold Paisley “herstorys”. These are women from a range of disciplines, including Paisley-based historian Dr Valerie Wright from the Women’s History Scotland network who opened my eyes to the night that Adela Pankhurst addressed the local branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union suffragettes in Paisley Town Hall.

Women like film-maker Lil Brookes, whose project with Paisley Disability Resource Centre on Renfrewshire’s own Jane Arthur, Mary Barbour and the ladies of the Coats thread dynasty was launched this year and is held by the National Library of Scotland’s Archive of Moving Images.

And now a visual artist, Mandy McIntosh, who like me has her roots in the town, will next week unveil a new public artwork inspired by May Donoghue in Paisley and, in doing so, will pay honour to the woman who until now has been practically invisible in the landmark world-renowned legal case The Paisley Snail and The Bottle, or Stevenson v Donoghue, from which the modern law of negligence was born.

For those not familiar with the case, back in August 1928 May Donaghue, a shop assistant from the Calton area of Glasgow, met up with a friend at the Wellmeadow Café in Paisley to enjoy a ginger beer float. However, she got a bit more than she bargained for when out from the bottle slithered the decomposing remains of a snail! She fell ill, and Glasgow solicitor Walter Leechman offered his services for nothing to raise an action for damages against the ginger beer manufacturer, Mr Stevenson. The matter was not easily settled. May was not by any means a wealthy woman and in fact had to declare as a pauper during the proceedings. She was ridiculed publicly for pursuing the case “just for the money”. But, she persevered.

It was in May 1932 (almost four years after that snail slinked out from the bottle) that the legal system found in favour of May Donoghue, and Lord Atkin of Aberdovey gave the leading judgment in the case. The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law “You must not injure your neighbour”. The House of Lords held that the manufacturer owed a duty of care to her, which was breached, because it was reasonably foreseeable that failure to ensure the product’s safety would lead to harm to consumers.

Artist Mandy McIntosh first discovered the story of The Paisley Snail whilst working in the town as an artist within the NHS. She was employed specifically in the mental health area in both acute and community settings. Because she was working in that context, the whole concept of the duty of care and its relationship to the Mental Health Act really struck a chord with what she and her colleagues were adhering to in their work.

With the NHS’s 70th birthday to celebrate, it felt pertinent for Mandy to trace the frameworks and legislation around the origins and principles of the duty of care. She told me about her inspiration for the artwork: “Whilst researching the snail as a symbol, I started to think about May Donoghue as the woman who had achieved so much through her willingness to stand her ground and face down the legal obstacles which stood in her way.

‘‘I was moved by the fact that May had to declare herself a pauper to avoid court costs and by knowing that if Walter Leechman hadn’t worked pro bono, she would never have been able to afford representation. So many of the things she had faced back then are being faced by people who I work with in Paisley today, women facing benefit appeals or trying to cope as a single parent or being stressed as a working mum on a low income. Coping and caring at the same time.”

McIntosh has a highly regarded track record as an artist working in creative collaboration with groups throughout Scotland. Her work in Paisley includes partenrships with the amazing STAR Project in Glenburn, with the SWIFT group (Strong Women in Ferguslie Together) and the Feegie Needlers sewing group, both based at the Tannahill Centre in Paisley, with whom she worked to create one of the hundred specially commissioned centenary banners for the mass participation artwork Processions, which saw thousands of women take to the streets of Edinburgh this summer to commemorate 100 years of votes for (some) women in the UK.

BUT it is not only the general public who have been unaware about the woman behind The Snail and The Bottle case, May Donoghue’s own family until recently knew nothing of her significance in legal history. Abbie Burgess, May’s great granddaughter, is currently undertaking a Masters of Radio at the University of Sunderland and has just finished making a radio documentary to track the journey that she has gone on to find out about May. She told me: “I can’t quite believe that we’re related! It’s so important to me that people know who she was, and this statue is a massive part of that.” The campaign to celebrate war medic hero Elsie Inglis with a statue in Edinburgh has drawn to public attention the bizarre fact that Scotland’s capital currently has more statues of animals than it does of women. Given this context, historian Karen Mailey-Watt of the dynamic duo The History Girls Scotland welcomes this new sculptural work in Paisley.

“We have so many amazing Scottish female trailblazers, yet we don’t celebrate them as publicly in the same manner as their male counterparts,’’ she said. ‘‘This is one step forward in recognising, acknowledging and publicly honouring the women who have helped to shape society.”

As well as its support for artist Mandy McIntosh to realise this new artwork, Renfrewshire Council through a forthcoming talk programmed by the council’s heritage activity officer Colin Begg will be drawing attention to the work of another woman artist who has a permanent artwork in the town – Alice Meredith Williams, who designed the iconic statue that sits aloft the Paisley cenotaph.

So next week is a big week in Renfrewshire for celebrating inspirational women through the launch of Mandy’s sculptural tribute to May Donoghue. Renfrewshire’s Provost Lorraine Cameron told me: “It’s great to see more women being represented in our public art, especially ones with such incredible stories as May Donoghue. She was from a humble background and far from a position of power, but the tenacity she showed is remarkable.

‘‘I hope the statue created by Mandy McIntosh will encourage more people to visit Paisley and be inspired by her story.”

But we are not only looking back – we are looking to the future too. So, as a Paisley girl myself, I am delighted to be speaking alongside Mhairi Black MP, Cllr Lorraine Cameron Provost of Renfrewshire and Corinne Hutton, founder of the charity Finding Your Feet, at an event organised by Active Communities in Johnstone Town Hall next Friday to celebrate 100 stories of local Renfrewshire women who are inspiring to others in our communities in 2018.

The event will see nearly 200 women come together to draw strength and solidarity from each other and to be creative and to have fun. Just like all the best girls’ nights out...