PLANS to introduce a controversial heraldic flag branded "ugly" and "communist" for Sutherland have been put on hold amid huge opposition.

The registration of the design, which critics said belonged to an "outer Mongolian third division football team", has been frozen by the Lord Lieutenancy for the time being.

The move follows widespread condemnation of the standard which features a swooping eagle with three stars – known as mullets – on a bright yellow and orange background.

More than 850 people signed an online petition calling for it to be changed amid criticism Sutherland residents had been denied a vote on it.

The design was chosen by a selection panel following a competition run by the Lord Lieutenancy.

The row has hit the headlines internationally, with critics vilifying the design as a "budgie with a smirk" but at first the Lord Lieutenancy insisted there would be no re-run of the competition.

She said the selection process had been open, transparent and democratic.

Supporters of the design,which had been approved by the Lord Lyon, say that the petition signatories represented fewer than five per cent of the county's population.

It also said there had not been the funding available to ballot households in Sutherland.

However, it now appears the strength of the hostility to the chosen design has shaken the group and there has been a re-think.

Vice Lieutenant Colin Gilmour, Rosehall said: "As the secretary of the Sutherland Flag Selection committee, I can say on its behalf that, at this stage, it is felt that a period of reflection is indeed in the best interest of all parties – both those for and those against the flag."

He added: "A further statement will be made in due course."

Lord Lieutenant Dr Monica Main, a retired GP, has written to MSPs who have contacted her about the issue.

In a letter to Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron, she explained: "It is unfortunate that an exercise which we thought would unite the county, has in fact done the opposite."