The ruined remains of Invergarry Castle, once the stronghold of the MacDonalds/MacDonells of Glengarry.

The subject of this attractive little tune was the eldest son of Donald MacDonald of Glengarry (‘Donald of Laggan’, the seventh chief of this powerful branch of Clan Donald) and Margaret MacDonald of Clan Ranald.

Donald was aged 16 when Alasdair was born, in 1559 on Lewis. Alasdair’s epithet of ‘dearg’ (pr. jerruck, meaning ‘red’) possibly stems from him either having red hair or a quick temper, most likely the latter. He married Cameron of Lochiel’s daughter, Jean, in 1611 and the couple had eight children. However, Alasdair died around 1630, some years before his father died, so his eldest son, Angus (sometimes called Aeneas), then became the eighth chief.

For generations, the MacDonalds – or MacDonells, as they became known – of Glengarry were major players in war, politics and land ownership in Scotland’s central highlands. It is not clear how Alasdair died. During the period, the family was in dispute with the MacKenzies of Kintail over land. This lament would appear to be Alasdair’s memorial.

By the time of the 1638-1652 civil wars in Scotland, England, Donald was too old for active campaigning. Leadership, therefore, passed to his grandson, Angus.

The tune has long been considered a MacCrimmon composition, due to, the story goes, Alasdair having a sister who was married to Sir Roderick MacLeod (1562-1626) of Dunvegan. However, this is not the case. Alasdair’s seven siblings appear to have been all male. He did have four aunts, though, one of whom – Isabelle – married Sir Roderick MacLeod 15th Chief of Macleod in the 1580s. This is probably where the legend comes from that the tune could be a MacCrimmon composition.

The ground of ‘Alasdair Dearg’ as laid out by Angus MacKay.

This is also the reason why Alasdair’s father’s lament – Lament for Donald of Laggan – is considered to be a MacCrimmon composition. There is, however, no hard evidence for either tune being a MacCrimmon composition.

Despite the fairly unusual pattern construction, most pipers will have no difficulty in playing this tune. As Seumas MacNeill wrote it in his piobaireachd tutor book, in the first line the piper is, “starting to tell the sad story, one elaborating and finishing the statement, and then the third is an unexpected afterthought which adds extra detail to the story.

“In line two, the first phrase is a fresh start to the story. Then comes a ‘keening’ or a wailing which runs through the other two phrases in the line and continues on into the third line with hardly a break.

“Line three, second phrase, is the climax of the grief. Then in the last phrases, we reach the conclusion to what has gone before.”

The variations are fairly standard – dithis, dithis doubling, a taorluath and a crunluath – but the earliest manuscript versions of the tune contain an attractive thumb variation. Allan MacDonald includes the thumb variation (and a crunluath a-mach) in his superb recording of the tune on his CD from 2007, Dastirum.

• Listen to Bob Brown’s playing of the tune: