The heir to one of Scotland's oldest earldoms has died in an avalanche on a skiing holiday in the Swiss Alps.

David Balgonie, 53, the eldest son of the earl of Leven, was skiing off piste near the resort of Bruson with his friend Patrick Baillie when the accident happened on Wednesday.

Both men were very experienced, but appear to have triggered an avalanche in an area renowned among advanced skiers as one of the premiere off-piste resorts in the world.

Lord Balgonie is the eldest son of Alexander Leslie-Melville, the 14th earl of Leven and 13th earl of Melville, who lives with his wife Susan at the family seat in Grantown-on-Spey in the Highlands.

Lord Leven, 82, who was president of the British Ski Federation for four years from 1981 and honorary president of the Scottish National Ski Council, said last night: "It is very sad news. It came through this morning Thursday to my daughter-in-law, his wife. We have very few details. I do know for sure that it was an avalanche, but not much else. He was with a friend called Patrick Baillie, they were both very good and experienced skiers, but apparently they set off an avalanche."

Lord Balgonie lived at Glenferness House in Glenferness, near Nairn, with his wife Julia, the daughter of a Black Watch colonel. The couple, who married in 1981, have two children - Alexander, 22, and Louisa, 20.

His son was at home with Lady Balgonie when the accident happened, but his daughter had just arrived in Italy where she had enrolled on an art course. She is due to fly home to Scotland today to be with her mother, brother and grandparents.

A family friend, speaking from Glenferness House, last night said: "We don't know very much about how it all happened, the details of the accident haven't yet got back to us. We hope to hear more from the Foreign Office in the morning."

Bruson is in the Swiss canton of Valais and is part of the exclusive Four Valleys ski area, which consists of various resorts including Verbier. As well as attracting top skiers, Verbier is a popular holiday destination for many celebrities - including Sarah Ferguson and Diana Ross.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said she had no details of the accident.

Lord Balgonie, who like his father was educated at Eton, was a director with a wood importing firm in Hertfordshire before he moved back to the Highlands about seven years ago to take over the running of the estate from his elderly parents. He was keen on fishing and shooting and other outdoor pursuits, including skiing and canoeing. A resident in Glenferness village said: "Everyone is devastated by the news. He was a lovely man who had a good word to say about everybody.

"He was liked by all the people who worked on the estate and lived life to the full. Both he and his wife really lived for the estate and put their heart and soul into running it."

The title earl of Leven was created in the Peerage of Scotland in 1641 for Alexander Leslie, a Scottish soldier who served in the Swedish army for 33 years and rose to the rank of Field Marshal. He was knighted by King Gustavus Adolphus.

He returned to Scotland in 1638, aged 58, to lead the army of the Covenanters in the Bishops' Wars; conflicts between Scotland and England caused by Charles I's attempts to reform the Scottish church.

The third earl of Leven, David Melville, was one of the appointed commissioners who negotiated the Union of Scotland and England.