Three ministers were today sacked by Alex Salmond in his first reshuffle since the 2007 election.

Stewart Maxwell, Linda Fabiani and Maureen Watt were "invited to resign" from their respective posts, said a spokesman.

Mr Maxwell was minister for communities and sport, Ms Fabiani was the minister for culture, Europe and external affairs, and Ms Watt was the schools minister.

They were axed in a shake-up that brings promotion for three backbenchers - Alex Neil, Roseanna Cunningham, and Keith Brown.

The reshuffle also gives a more powerful role to environment minister Mike Russell.

He will move into Alex Salmond's office and be given responsibility for constitutional matters - a critical role in the run-up to the SNP's promised independence referendum.

Announcing the changes, Mr Salmond paid tribute to the "work and dedication" of the sacked trio, saying they had been part of an "extraordinarily successful team".

"There have been no failures in the ministerial team but I have asked them to make way to give colleagues an opportunity to show what they can contribute," he said.

The shake-up does not involve cabinet ministers and a spokesman said no changes were planned for them.