The final run was made on five Highland postbus routes yesterday as Scotland prepares to be left with just 14 postbuses by midsummer, down 85% since 2005.

The new total will be reached at the end of July, compared to the 90 that existed in 2005.

The decline has prompted claims that operator Royal Mail is putting higher profits ahead of its service to rural communities.

Royal Mail posted operating profits of £177m in the first half of the year, aided by cost cuts and greater efficiency.

Most postbuses will now go, not least on mainland Scotland where only six will be left. Dr Michael Foxley, the leader of Highland Council, and Alan Reid, Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute, said it was evidence of how rural areas are having to pay the price for the commercialisation of the Post Office.

Dr Foxley said: "I find it hard to believe that we cannot make these postbus services work. The true extra costs must be absolutely minimal. These routes are important to so many small communities and to lose 76 in just four years is really quite appalling. It is a system which should be radically expanded, not reduced."

He added that postbuses formalised the way in which people always helped each other in small communities, not least the local postman and woman.

The last run was made on five routes in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire yesterday, leaving two in the Highland Council area, where four years ago there were 23. The council will introduce interim measures until it decides how best to fill the gap left by the most recent withdrawals.

Meanwhile the Argyll islands will also suffer losses in the next few months, with Colonsay losing its postbus on May 6 and Lismore on July 22.

Mr Reid said: "It is small communities across rural Scotland who are paying. On the likes of Lismore the loss of the service could hit visitor numbers badly as many arrive by foot on the passenger- only ferry at the north end of the island. Colonsay will also suffer."

There used to be six postbuses in Grampian, now there will be none, while the six in Lothian and the Borders will be reduced to a single bus.

Postbuses were introduced more than 40 years ago. In 1967, in the aftermath of major cuts to rural rail services across many parts of the UK, Royal Mail suggested that post vehicles which criss-crossed remote rural areas could help ease public transport problems, while covering some of the costs in collecting and delivering the mail at the same time.

Postbuses are not unique to the UK and are also found in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. But now Royal Mail insists they make less and less financial sense here.

A Royal Mail spokesman said: "All the routes being withdrawn have very low passenger numbers and the subsidies available do not make them financially viable.

"These decisions are not taken lightly and are done only after lengthy discussion with local authorities. Royal Mail is operating in an intensely competitive open market, mail volumes are falling and we have to ensure we run as efficiently as possible, with our first priority the collection and delivery of mail.

"Among those services being withdrawn include one in Scotland which carried an average of just one passenger every 50 journeys, costing the business nearly £1800 per passenger to run the service."

Royal Mail points to the larger vehicles needed, as well as the increased costs of maintaining, licensing and fuelling them besides training drivers.