A NEWSPAPER's managing director has admitted that the title deserved much of "a tidal wave of criticism" following the departure of three of its columnists in a row over free speech.

Former Labour energy minister Brian Wilson was sacked by the newspaper he co-founded, the West Highland Free Press, after defending fellow columnist Professor Donald Macleod, who wrote a piece about the spread of Islam in the UK.

After the paper said the pair would no longer write for the Free Press, Maggie Cunningham withdraw her column.

Now managing director Paul Wood has apologised to readers following last week's row. In a statement he said the Free Press has had to "endure a tidal wave of criticism, much of it valid and deserved."

Mr Wood added: "The Free Press has always been unique, more so now that it is the only employee-owned newspaper in the United Kingdom.

"There is no manual on how to run a newspaper, there is certainly no precedent for how our employee-ownership fits with the enormously challenging nature of running a newspaper.

"We have made mistakes and if every business and newspaper could be run with the benefit of hindsight, we'd have nothing to learn from."

Mr Wood added: "We can only apologise to our readers, our community and our friends. If the result of making mistakes seriously damages all the good the Free Press does, this would be a terrible pity."

The newspaper's editor is to make a further statement in this week's print edition.

Mr Wilson, the founding editor of the Free Press, and whose association stretches more than 40 years was a long-established columnist for the Skye-based publication.

In his last column on May 22, Prof Macleod, a Free Church professor of theology, wrote: "All minorities prefer to keep a low profile and avoid trouble.

"Generations of British Muslims have done exactly that, many have made an invaluable contribution to British society, and many are perfectly prepared to listen quietly while Christians 'witness' to them.

"But when minorities become majorities, things change... in the event of Islamic dominance in Britain our friendly Muslim shopkeepers will have little option but to march behind the radicals."

In response, Mr Wilson wrote in his column last week that Mr Macleod's piece was "leading on to wider questions about Islamic influence within Europe, including implications for democracy and freedom".

In last week statement, the Free press said: "We note there has been some speculation around Professor Donald Macleod and founding editor Brian Wilson no longer writing columns for the West Highland Free Press and confirm they will both be no longer writing for us.

"We thank both Brian Wilson and Professor Macleod for their immense contribution to the paper over many years.

"They have rightly earned their reputation as erudite, passionate and respected writers and their regular offerings in the West Highland Free Press will be missed by some readers. Further than this, we have no comment to make."

Mr Wilson declined to comment on the statement, but confirmed that he had not been offered his column back.