There is in Britain today a man who was born in a house called Mon Repos on Corfu, who is worshipped as a god by the islanders of Tanna in the South Pacific, and who is a Freeman of not only Glasgow and Edinburgh but also of Acapulco and Los Angeles.

This is a man has made over 5000 public speeches, who is a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, who was head boy at Gordonstoun, who once asked Tom Jones if he gargled with pebbles and who, as if to prove the point, invented the word dontopedalogy, which means opening your mouth and putting your foot in it.

Yes, this is the Duke of Edinburgh, infamous for gaffes and a supposed tendency to offend people. Or at least that is the pastiche. I reckon the stereotype provides only part of the picture. He is a substantial figure, someone who has worked assiduously at his demanding role as a royal consort without totally subsuming his own forceful personality, To write like this is to invite charges of toadyism; for some reason it is not fashionable to write complimentary pieces about the royal family, and the Duke in particular.

It was an incident more than 30 years ago that persuaded me that this man is far warmer and more agreeable than the stock notion of him allows. Along with one or two other education journalists, I had to my surprise been invited to a reception for educationists at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It was hosted by the Queen, Princess Anne and the Duke. We formed a long line, shuffled past them and went into a large anteroom, into which the royal trio duly entered.

Most of the guests headed immediately for the Queen and surrounded her. A few hovered around Princess Anne. The Duke was left almost alone, so we press men wandered over to him, not knowing what to expect. "And what one thing would you chaps do to improve Scottish education?" he asked. To which my good friend, the late, great John Pirie of the Daily Record (who like the rest of us had earlier enjoyed a few sharpeners) replied: "Well Duke, I'd burn down Gordonstoun".

Here we go, I thought, but the Duke laughed uproariously, with every appearance of sincerity. He put us at our ease and we enjoyed some banter with him. By the end of the reception, there were far more people in his group than with the Queen or the Princess.

Another story I heard about the Duke's response to backchat was when he was giving Britain's Olympic squad a pep talk before the Games in Mexico in 1968. He told them it was nonsense to worry about altitude. He had taken part in equestrian events in Mexico and there had been no problems. One of the boxing team piped up: "That's all very well, Duke, but did you ask the horses?" At which the duke apparently laughed loudly. So: he can take a quip, as well as deliver one.

I suspect that he is genuinely good with people. As a veteran of many thousands of visits to factories, building sites, embassies, schools, universities, shipyards and goodness knows what else, he has worked out a classic open-ended question to let people talk naturally and freely: "And what keeps you busy?"

I confess to being marginally worried when he was hospitalised a few days ago with a chest infection. This is not a man who would go to hospital willingly; he is diplomatically described as "not the best of patients." It transpired that the Queen's personal doctor had to "order" him to go to hospital. I was delighted when he recovered and resumed his remarkably diligent attention to his duties His legacy will probably be the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, which have undoubtedly helped many teenagers at a difficult stage in their lives. These awards are designed to promote self-reliance and self-confidence, and they often succeed. The Duke remains very committed to the awards he founded over 50 years ago. He makes every effort to present the gold awards personally.

There is a lesser legacy, and that is simply that he has made us laugh, whether as a deliverer of quips or a recipient of them. Some of his gaffes have undoubtedly been insensitive as when, in Brazil, he was asked what he thought was the main problem facing the country. "Brazilians live there," he replied. But, as I have suggested, he can take it as well as dish it out. Again, in Brazil, he inquired of an admiral with much gold on his chest if he had won this vast array of medals on the artificial lake at Brasilia. "Yes sir," replied the admiral. "Not by marriage".