Major Iain Grahame, Idi Amin’s old commander and friend, later sent by the British to negotiate with him – obituary

Major Iain Grahame, centre, with Lieutenant-General Sir Chandos Blair, left, presenting the Queen's letter to Idi Amin, asking for the release of Dennis Hill, 1975
Major Iain Grahame, centre, with Lieutenant-General Sir Chandos Blair, left, presenting the Queen's letter to Idi Amin, asking for the release of Dennis Hill, 1975

Major Iain Grahame of Claverhouse, who has died aged 91, was a soldier, naturalist, author and a commanding officer of Idi Amin, the former president of Uganda.

In 1951 he was commissioned into the 60th Rifles (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) for his National Service and, having volunteered for secondment to the King’s African Rifles, was posted to the 4th (Uganda) Battalion (4 KAR).

For seven years Idi Amin, the future President of Uganda, was Grahame’s subordinate in the KAR and a friend. On many occasions, Amin shared Grahame’s tent, his food and his confidence. Together, they had taken part in peacetime training, arduous operations against the Mau Mau and the turbulent period leading up to Uganda’s independence in 1962.

Amin commanded the Uganda Army in 1965. In 1971, aware that he was about to be arrested for misappropriating army funds, he launched a coup and declared himself president.

He proved a ruthless despot, his rule characterised by corruption and repression, persecution of ethnic and political groups and extra-judicial killing. His response to international criticism was to threaten to close the British High Commission in Kampala and evict Britons working in Uganda.

Idi Amin in 1975
Idi Amin in 1975 - EPA

Grahame spoke Swahili fluently and was sent to Uganda by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on several occasions in the hope that he could exert some influence on his former subordinate.

These meetings invariably followed the same pattern, as he recounted: “Amin would dismiss his staff, stand smartly to attention while I gave him a good rollicking, all the while addressing me as effendi. He would then profess undying love for the Queen and Britain, and behave even more monstrously as soon as I was out of the country.”

In 1975, Denis Hills, a British lecturer at Makerere University, Kampala, in a draft of a then-unpublished book, referred to Amin as a “village tyrant”. Hills was arrested on Amin’s order, tried by a military tribunal on charges of sedition and espionage and sentenced to be shot by firing squad. Pleas for clemency were made by Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister, and many heads of state. They were unavailing. Amin knew that he held a valuable political pawn in his hands.

Grahame, who had retired from the Army in 1963 and was now running a wildfowl farm and nature reserve in East Anglia, received an urgent call from the FCO. He was to be one of two envoys to deliver a personal letter from the Queen to Amin. He and Lieutenant-General Sir Chandos Blair, who had commanded 4 KAR some 15 years earlier, were to fly from Heathrow that evening in a final bid to save Hills from execution.

Iain Grahame on his wildfowl farm, Suffolk, early 1970s
Iain Grahame on his wildfowl farm, Suffolk, early 1970s

Having arrived at Entebbe airport, they were told that Amin was on official business in northern Uganda. The two men spent the night in Kampala. Grahame was unable to lock the door of his hotel bedroom and, after toying with the idea of concealing the precious letter in a leg of his pyjamas, hid it in his briefcase, which he used as an extra pillow.

The following morning, a Saturday, the newspapers confirmed that Hills would be executed on the Monday. At midday, Grahame and Blair were flown by helicopter to Arua, north-west Uganda.

The reception committee on landing consisted of a solitary African on a bicycle. The Queen’s envoys followed him in single file down a dusty path. After about 200 yards, they came to a cluster of mud huts. One of them was a little larger than the others and the thatched roof came down to within a few feet of the ground.

Crouching down low, the two men went inside. “Jambo!” Amin cried in greeting. Blair had to disentangle his cap from the low thatch before he could respond with a salute. Close to the opening was a two-man TV crew.

Amin was sitting on an enormous, carved wooden throne, flanked by minions. He was wearing a vast Mexican sombrero, a Dior scarf, a blue pinstripe bush jacket and a pair of size 14 brown shoes.

Greetings were exchanged. Assorted bows, arrows and musical instruments were handed to Amin, who bestowed them on the two visiters. The letter from the Queen was presented. Amin read it and, after a bitter tirade against Hills, said he would think about it.

Iain Grahame as an officer in the KAR
Iain Grahame as an officer in the KAR

At that moment, a blue peacock appeared in the opening of the hut. Amin was aware that Grahame kept and bred many unusual and beautiful birds, and on previous occasions, Amin had complained: “Kenyatta has white peacocks in Kenya, Mobutu has white peacocks in Zaire, but I’ve only got ordinary blue peacocks.”

Amin, clearly angling for some white peacocks of his own, looked hopefully at Grahame. “I will be only too happy to present you with a pair,” said Grahame, “on condition that you release Mr Hills.”

Amin accompanied the two men by helicopter to Bombo, 20 miles north of Kampala, where Hills was incarcerated in the barracks. Hills was brought into the officers’ mess under guard. He was very shaken to discover that he had been condemned to death. It was the first he had heard about it, but he was moved by the intervention of the Queen.

After several days of cat-and-mouse prevarication, Amin announced that Hills would be granted a seven-day reprieve to allow time for the British Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan, to fly to the country to discuss Anglo-Ugandan relations.

In response, Grahame wrote a strong letter to Amin, stressing that the Foreign Secretary would not come unless Hills’s life was spared. The letter, written in Swahili, ended, “If you do not agree, you will ruin and destroy your own name and that of your country.”

Shortly after landing back at Heathrow, Grahame and Blair met Callaghan. Grahame advised him that Hills had written to Amin to apologise and he was convinced that the man’s life was no longer in danger. In his opinion, the Government should stand firm.

In Parliament that afternoon, Callaghan praised the conduct of his two envoys. Later that day, Grahame had an audience with the Queen. Amin finally announced that Hills would be reprieved. Callaghan flew to Uganda and Hills was handed over to him.

Iain Grahame in 2009
Iain Grahame in 2009

Iain Grahame was born in London on July 1 1932. His father, Lewis Gretton Grahame-Wigan, was, variously, an Olympic equestrian, painter, poet and an officer in the 13th/18th Hussars. Such was his antipathy to travelling in a tank that he opted to go into battle armed only with a bow and arrow.

Having transfixed the first German that he saw, Grahame-Wigan was summoned to see the GOC. His hopes of being given a medal for gallantry were swiftly dashed when he was given a severe dressing-down and the choice of either conforming to normal warfare or being discharged from his regiment. He chose the latter and spent the rest of the war as a police constable on the Piccadilly beat in London, so that he could lunch daily at the Cavalry Club.

During young Iain’s first term at preparatory school, his mother was killed by a bomb, and he and his sister were brought up by guardians, an uncle and aunt who lived at Loudham Hall, Pettistree, Suffolk. He formed a lifelong bond with the gamekeeper, with whom he would spend many hours during the school holidays.

Another person who influenced him at this time was Alec Douglas-Home, a close friend of his uncle, Denis Wigan. On summer days, the future prime minister and a small boy could be seen in alfalfa fields chasing yellow butterflies. They would then concoct an artificial nectar for attracting moths after dark. From an early age, he was passionately interested in natural history, and particularly ornithology and entomology.

Iain was educated at Eton, where he played racquets for the school. During his first secondment to 4 KAR, the Mau Mau insurgency was at its height. On the night of his 21st birthday, he was with a platoon of askaris in a small fortified police post on the eastern slopes of the Aberdare Range, Kenya.

Iain Grahame in 2006
Iain Grahame in 2006

Close to midnight, they were attacked by a determined Mau Mau force. Grahame’s small detachment put up a stiff resistance and suffered no losses but first light revealed a large number of dead rebels. The following year, he was leading a patrol through the bamboo forest when they were ambushed by a party of Mau Mau in their jungle hideout.

Grahame gave a good account of himself in the action but declined the recommendation of an MC on the grounds that, while his patrol had been fully armed, the enemy only had between them an elephant gun and an assortment of pangas and poisoned arrows.

During various home postings, he longed to return to East Africa and, in 1958, he rejoined 4 KAR. He was able to combine soldiering with shooting for the pot, playing polo and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Another absorbing interest was making a study of what was then a little-known branch of nymphalidae butterflies, the Charaxes. He carried his butterfly net, traps and bait consisting of fermented banana or leopard dung to whatever remote part of Uganda his company was sent. He also employed a full-time African collector and between them they identified one species new to science, subsequently named charaxes grahamei, and five distinct subspecies of Charaxes.

During Grahame’s last five years in East Africa, Amin served successively as one of his platoon commanders, his company second-in-command and, finally, commander of Grahame’s company.

In 1961, the commanding officer sent for his company commanders and told them that the “wind of change” had arrived and the British government had decided that Uganda would be granted full independence the following year. Furthermore, 4 KAR would have about a dozen African officers by then and, within two years, there would be full Africanisation.

Idi Amin in 1978
Idi Amin in 1978 - HULTON ARCHIVE

Grahame described Amin as a superb athlete, a first-rate NCO and a fine leader of men, but a person whose innate tribalism and almost total illiteracy should have been a bar to his progressing beyond the rank of sergeant-major. Amin and others were swiftly granted commissioned rank. In Grahame’s view, they were in no way fit for such promotion, but there was simply no alternative.

Grahame was posted back to his regiment for his last year in the Army and served as adjutant. During this time, the family was recognised by the Lord Lyon in the name of Grahame of Claverhouse, being descended on his paternal grandmother’s side from John Grahame of Claverhouse, first Viscount Dundee and victor of the Battle of Killiecrankie.

After he retired from the Army in 1963, Grahame and his first wife, d’Esterre, bought a house on the Suffolk-Essex border with a few acres of land. They established Daws Hall nature reserve and, over the years, the collection of exotic wildfowl was extended to include pheasants.

At the time, one third of the known species of pheasant was endangered. One of these, the Himalayan blood pheasant, had never been successfully kept or bred in captivity and, in 1970, Grahame set out for Nepal to try to rectify this. After two hazardous trips to the slopes of Everest and Kangchenjunga, the collection was made and the breakthrough achieved. He and his second wife, Didy, co-founded The World Pheasant Association in 1975.

Early in 1977, he and Didy flew to Uganda with a pair of white peafowl crated for the long journey. They delivered the birds to the aviary at Entebbe zoo. Amin put them up in considerable style and treated Didy with great courtesy. Every morning the three of them would meet and reminisce. When Amin appeared one day wearing the VC, she told him to remove it.

In 1988, Iain and Didy Grahame formed the Daws Hall Trust, with a well-equipped schoolroom to teach young students about the natural world.

Grahame wrote a total of six books, including Jambo Effendi: Seven Years with the King’s African Rifles (1966), Amin and Uganda: A Personal Memoir (1980) and Birds, Bees & Butterflies (2019), an account of Daws Hall and how it became a charitable trust. He was also a water diviner, an amateur hypnotist and healer. On his father’s death, he became the 20th Chieftain of Claverhouse.

Iain Grahame married first, in 1960, (Susan) d’Esterre Curteis, and secondly, in 1972, Diana “Didy” Colville (née Mansfield); both marriages were dissolved. He married thirdly, in 2000, Carolyn “Bunny” Campione (née Fisher), who survives him with a son and daughter from his first marriage.

Major Iain Grahame, born July 1 1932, died September 4 2023