SIX former health board directors at NHS Highland were among those pushing for an independent inquiry into allegations of a "culture of fear and intimidation".

The former directors, who include a consultant surgeon, two GPs and a former NHS manager, wrote to health Secretary Jeane Freeman to express their "unmitigated support" for such an investigation.

They sent the letter on November 1, days before Ms Freeman confirmed that the bullying allegations engulfing NHS Highland must be subject to an independent, external inquiry. Campaigners want a QC-led probe, entirely separate from NHS leadership.

The signatories include Andrew Evennett, a former GP who once chaired the area clinical forum and served as a non-executive director on the board between 2014 and January this year, and Myra Duncan, who served on NHS Highland board for five years.

It was also signed by consultant Quentin Cox, who served on the board between 2007-2011, Sarah Wedgwood, who served until March 2017, Dr Michael Foxley, a non-executive director from 2003-2007 and 2012-2018 and Michael Evans, non-executive director until April 2017.

Allegations of a bullying culture and the suppression of criticism in NHS Highland first surfaced in a letter to the Herald in September, signed by four NHS Highland clinicians who are also staff representatives. They said that the health board had been blighted by a "culture of fear and intimidation" for the past decade which emanated "from the very top" of the organisation and had silenced criticism, including in relation to issues affecting patient care.

Dr Evennett said: "Whilst I was on the board I raised issues both informally and formally around the culture of our organisation, a part of which related to bullying. The response of the board in the media [when other people's concerns about similar issues were made public] did not give me any degree of confidence that those issues have been dealt with in the objective manner which they deserve."

NHS Highland said: "Since the allegations were brought to the attention of the board, despite significant effort, we have been unable to fully understand the nature, extent and causes of the concerns being raised. What is clear, however, is there are a growing number of staff feeling distressed and concerned about their work environment.

"We are therefore very pleased that the Cabinet Secretary has publicly accepted our request for external support into allegations of a systematic culture of bullying across NHS Highland."

It comes as Edward Mountain, the Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, secured a debate in the Scottish Parliament to set out the scope and timeframe of an independent inquiry into an NHS Highland bullying scandal.

The debate will take place on November 29.

Mr Mountain said: "The inquiry must be efficient, effective and leave no stone unturned. What no-one wants is an inquiry that suffers from long delays and means staff are left waiting too long for answers."