By Seumas MacNeill

Seumas MacNeill
Seumas MacNeill

What wonderful titles people have given to piobaireachd. Apart from the long lists of laments and salutes, we have such gems as My Dearest on Earth Give me Your Kiss, and All the Men Paid Rent but Rory, as well as this Red Hand tune, and many others.

There are several variations on the story of this particular piece, most of them agree that it refers to a peculiar incident involving the three sons of the great Somerled, king of the Western Islands. His three sons Dugald, Reginald, and Duncan were in dispute regarding the ownership of the lands of Sleat in Skye and it was decided that they would make a race out of it. Each one in his own birlinn* was to set out and whoever placed his hand first on the disputed territory was to become the owner of it.

Now, a birlinn was a very fast ship, purposely built for speed, with 16 oars and three men on each oar, two pulling and one pushing. When fitted out for war they carried a complement of 48 men plus officers that made for a very formidable display.

The Arms of MacDonald: Clan Donald’s heraldic crest: 1st quarter, silver, a lion rearing red, tongue, claws and teeth bright blue; 2nd quarter, gold, a hand in armour horizontal holding a small burning cross red; 3rd quarter, Gold a one-masted galley sails furled and oars in action black, flag red; 4th quarter, green a salmon swimming horizontal in its natural state; placed over all quarters on a shield, Gold an eagle with wings spread red overlaid by a one-masted galley sails furled, oars in action black (as Chief of the Name and Arms MacDonald).

The ships, of course, were based on the Viking model and ensured a very quick race, even if not a close one.

Incidentally Somerled is a variation of Sumarlidi which means ‘summer rover’ and was a name given to the Vikings who came across the North Sea in the early summer of the year. The prevailing wind at that time is usually from the east, which suited fine, and they tended to return to Scandinavia when the prevailing wind changed and blew from the south west.

But to our tale. As the story goes, Dugald was very quickly left far behind. Duncan was leading but the plug in his boat began to leak so he withdrew it and inserted his thumb in its place. Reginald who was close behind knew that he was still going to lose the race and so, according to tradition, placed his left hand on the gunwale of his boat and cut it off with a blow with his claymore. He then threw the severed hand ashore, and as the red hand was first to touch the disputed land he was declared the winner. [According to another tradition, the scene of this grisly episode was the Trotternish peninsula, with Donald launching his hand onto the shore near Bornesketaig – Editor].

This may to us sound a very unlikely tale – almost what Alex Haddow called a “shieling story.” But it may be in these days when men were exceedingly bloodthirsty and life was short and cheap, that any man would be prepared to take such drastic action. This must surely be the extreme example of the land hunger of Scots.

More from the Bagpipe.News editor: “Other than the above history of this tune – Làmh Dhearg Chlann Dòmhnaill in Gaelic – there is a strong traditon that connects it with a dispute between two Irish bards in the late 17th century. Diarmuid Mac an Bard claimed the red hand for the crest of the Magennis clan in response to the claim from a bard known simply as Cormac. At some stage another bard intervened and claimed the red hand for the O’Neills. One of the famous Hebridean MacMhuirich bards then composed two poems castigating all of them and pointing out that the red hand in fact belonged to MacDonald of the Isles.

The tune has always been rarely heard tune although it was set for the Senior Competitions in 2018. Musically, there are a few similarities with it and The MacGregor’s Salute and The Cameron’s Gathering. There are settings of it in Angus MacKay’s Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd, General Thomason’s Ceol Mor, the Piobaireachd Society’s Book 10 and an attractive setting in David Glen’s collection. Here is Glen’s ùrlar:

• Listen to Pipe Major Donald MacLeod run through the tune:

* From the March 1996 Piping Times.