AFEW months ago, a text arrived from London. ‘Darling,’ it read, ‘just met King of Rwanda. Asked him to stay. He’s divine. xx.’ The message was followed by a photograph showing said King, immaculate in Court dress with a blue sash and twinkling orders. Beside him sat my wife, tricked out head to toe in leopardskin and twirling a gin and tonic. They seemed to be getting on famously in what might have been a well-known St James’s club. A quick Google search confirmed that Rwanda was a republic. A king in exile then, a focus for rebellion.
‘This visit by Yuhi VI was the first by a king since George VI’
I reached for the Rennies—that sort of news just before bed is no help to the digestion. Since the mid 18th century, we’ve been used to quiet lives in the North, far from the concerns of uneasily crowned heads. Our most exotic visitors are migratory birds blown off course, our most exciting anticipation the unveiling of the annual Fàilte Gu Inverness civic flower display beneath the industrialestate flyover. My wife, I concluded, had overdone the Welsh rarebit.
Next morning, however, brought an official text from our friend Henrietta, newly appointed dame d’honneur. The King was coming, plus the Great Chamberlain, Commander of the Royal Guard, the Grand Falconer and a chevalier doubling as chauffeur to the Rwandan Court in exile. Do they think we live in Balmoral, I replied, a little testily.
We arranged to rendezvous at Culloden, at the annual commemoration service for the battle. This is a sombre, moving affair and felt an appropriate place to meet one’s first monarch in exile. After all, on that bleak moor, the son of another castaway king had made his last ill-fated attempt to restore his father’s throne. As on the day of the battle, a fierce easterly drove hail into the faces of those assembled. The wild banshee lilt of Gaelic psalms rose on the wind, the pipes lamented and murderous-looking clansmen frowned beneath scrugged-downbonnets.
I found the King wisely taking shelter in the cafe behind a sign on the door that read: ‘No weapons allowed.’ He was wearing a smart royal-blue velvet cloak with embroidered lions at the collar. Backing him into a corner was the Grand Falconer, who sported a tweed jacket over pyjama bottoms and more rings than Liberace and carried a knobkerrie with woollen pom-poms swinging. There was no sign of a falcon on his arm, however; on it instead rested the delicate hand of a wifelet of Bath, a glamorous Mauritian bird.
Among the melee of Outlander extras and leather-clad Royal British Legion Scotland Riders Branch bikers, no one batted an eyelid at this bizarre assembly. And that, mysteriously, was the last we saw of the Grand Falconer or his companion, although muffled, slightly disjointed messages, which may have been from them, reached us from a Holiday Inn in Inverness.
That evening, we broke out the largest haunch and saddle of venison we could find and basted, seasoned and roasted it. Epaulettes and orders shimmered in the candlelight, claret flowed into glass goblets and toast followed incoherent toast. Piped into dinner, flanked by our daughters, the King beamed happily. Scion of an 800year-old royal house, exiled from Rwanda since infancy, he told us the story of a peripatetic life in Kenya, Uganda and Britain.
He was a quiet man of considerable charm; his manner was at once noble, kind and humorous. In fact, he needed no regalia to proclaim that he was a prince of men. To the King’s occasional regret, however, his Great Chamberlain felt otherwise. Quite a stickler for protocol, each time he thumped his wand of office on the floor to proclaim His Majesty’s arrival into a room, we jumped out of our skins.
Thinking the King would like to see some local colour, I sug- gested the pub one night. I was surprised to see the royal party assembling in the hall in full ceremonials. The Inverness pub scene is not noted for snappy dressers, but the denizens of the Black Isle Bar took the royal procession in their stride.
The Inverness Ladies Rugby Team at the next table had been partying for some time before our arrival. When their passes at the chevalier began to cause concern —I feared we might lose him in the ruck—we withdrew for the evening.
According to the Great Chamberlain, this visit by Yuhi VI to Scotland was the first by a king since George VI. (I forbore to mention Elvis Presley’s two-hour stopover at Prestwick Airport in 1960.) However, in Rwandan culture, the king is also a god. This was certainly the first visit to Scotland by a god—if you don’t count Alex Salmond. And my wife was right: the King is indeed divine.
Joe Gibbs lives at Belladrum in the Highlands and is the founder of the Tartan Heart Festival (August 3–5, www. tartanheartfestival.co.uk)
Next week: Ysenda Maxtone Graham