Monday , 21 October 2019

Rev Donald Caskie – “a gay abroad”


The Rev Donald Caskie is largely remembered for his incredible efforts to enable over 2,000 Allied military personnel to escape from Occupied France during World War II, but he was a more complex figure than the popular heroic image in which he has often been cast.

Born in Bowmore on the Isle of Islay in 1902, Caskie never appeared to be cut out for a conventional life. From an early age, he decided that he wished to be a Church of Scotland minister and effectively rejected the crofting heritage of his family. Islay was too small for him, even if as a Gaelic-speaking Ileach the island would always hold a place in his heart.

He left Islay, first to go to High School in Dunoon, and later to Edinburgh where he graduated in divinity. As a new minister, it appears he found the mundane aspects of his role frustrating and even limiting. He was also at this point either struggling with his sexuality or had accepted his homosexuality but resolved to keep it secret. Either way, he was unhappy and unfulfilled carrying out the duties of a regular parish minister – but his life changed dramatically when he was posted to the Scots Kirk in Paris in 1935.

The posting proved the making of Caskie. The new Minister-in-Charge was determined to make the most of the opportunity he believed God had given him. Writing in his autobiography, The Tartan Pimpernel, he explains: “I had been called to Paris from my quiet country parish in Gretna, and I learned to love the beautiful city to which I had come. I remember the last sermon I had preached in Gretna…on the Great Call that came to the Apostle Paul. ‘Arise, go into the city, and it shall be told to you what you must do’.” Caskie certainly had a sense of destiny when he exchanged rural Scotland for Paris.

At home, Caskie had – at least publicly – not embraced his sexual orientation. All this, however, changed in Paris according to Gaelic broadcaster Angus Peter Campbell who made a documentary on Caskie’s life in 2001: Caskie was “straight at home and gay abroad”. Certainly, he developed a social life that would have aroused interest at home – hosting extravagant parties and ceilidhs in the manse and mixing with Parisian high society. The contrast with his early life on Islay couldn’t have been more stark.

Campbell accuses Caskie of “playing a double game – against a Scotland he found bleak and uncongenial, against the Kirk, of whom he was a minister – and, most dangerously, against the Nazis.” Some criticism may be justified, but Scotland was hardly gay-friendly in the 1930s and to be an “out” Kirk minister at the time would have been unthinkable.  For Campbell, Caskie’s double life represents something of a problem but in fairness was probably typical of most other gay people of his era.

Rev Donald Caskie OBE

While Caskie certainly found Paris liberating in several respects, we don’t know if he had any relationships. We can be sure, however, that he was “flamboyant”, sociable and more than a little unconventional. The crofter’s son from Islay didn’t just flirt with the French upper classes – he was besotted with them and their exuberant, vibrant lifestyle.  He also was prone to making illicit arangements to help people. As a friend a former minister, the Rev John Cameron, said many years later, “if you’d lost your passport, he’d fix it for you. He was networking long before the term had been invented.”

In relation to his sexuality, it is clear Caskie was more comfortable with himself in Paris where he found greater freedom to express himself away from the stifling conformity of the conventional Scottish parish. Caskie should not be judged for leading a double-life; his Parisian “awakening” and willingness to be “out” where it was safe show a man who had arguably come to accept himself when others could not. He also had to reconcile his orientation with his undoubtedly strong personal faith – something that would have been intensely difficult for him.

After the occupation of Paris, Caskie turned down the opportunity to leave France. He explains in his biography this was primarily due to a sense of calling, but there can also be no doubting his sense of responsibility for suffering humanity and his self-identification with Parisian society. A French policeman told him: “we know you are the only member of your calling now at liberty in France. We can arrange for you to go home if you wish”. Caskie responded: “There’s nothing I’d like better, but that is impossible. I cannot desert my own people in such a dreadful hour of need. I am a minister. How could I leave them?”

Caskie established a “congregation” in Marseilles for Allied servicement, which doubled up as a refuge for those fleeing the Nazis. Caskie helped many to leave France, largely via Spain and often working closely with British intelligence services. He also took a job as a university lecturer, again using the university church as a hiding place for Allied military personnel and assorted resistance fighters.

Donald Caskie meets Queen Elizabeth II as the foundation stone of the new Scots Kirk is laid, 1957
Donald Caskie meets Queen Elizabeth II as the foundation stone of the new Scots Kirk is laid, 1957

Caskie was eventually arested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death. Astonishingly, a Lutheran pastor pleased for clemency and Caskie survived – being moved to an internment camp. Following the war, he continued to serve in Paris, rebuilding the Scots kirk in the late 50s, before returning to Scotland in 1961 when he became the minister at Wemyss Bay.

After the war, Caskie became something of a celebrity – his book, The Tartan Pimpernel, proved hugely popular. What neither the detailed biography, nor the various commentaries on his life, deal with are Caskie’s sexuality, his struggles with depressive illness and the lack of support from the church he served so effectively.

It is certainly possible that some within the Church of Scotland were aware of Caskie’s sexuality but were of the view that it wouldn’t represent much of a problem in Paris. It is difficult to say with certainty, but his orientation may have had some bearing on the Kirk’s later distancing himself from him. As Campbell explained, back in 2001, once Caskie had ceased to be useful to the Church he was effectively forgotten about, left to live in cheap B&Bs in Edinburgh.

Kilarrow Parish Church, where Caskie was buried.
Kilarrow Parish Church, where Caskie was buried.

“I think he fulfilled the two prime commandments,” says Campbell, “which are to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. All the rest are very much on the margins of any judgment anyone makes on anyone else.”

Caskie was unquestionably a hero, but he deserves to be remembered for more than his remarkable wartime exploits. Donald Caskie the man is far more interesting than Donald Caskie the myth, and to view his life solely through his wartime experience risks dehumanising this most human of men.

Growing up on Islay, where there is a street named after Donald Caskie, I was aware of his heroism but knew nothing of his complex character. Perhaps if I’d been aware of our local hero’s sexual orientation during my teens, it might have given me the confidence to accept myself and be more comfortable opening up about my then developing sexuality.

Donald Caskie was awarded the OBE for his military service, and also appeared on “This is Your Life”. He died in Greenock in 1983, and was buried in Bowmore near to where he was born. His wartime medals and other personal possessions are on display in Kilarrow Parish Church.


About Andrew Page

Andrew Page
Andrew is KaleidoScot's sports editor and photographer. An experienced blogger, Andrew was raised in the Hebrides and currently lives in Renfrewshire. Andrew became an active equality campaigner at the time of the Section 28 debate, and has particular interests in faith issues and promoting LGBTI equality in sport. Andrew was shortlisted for the Icon Award's 2015 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. This has always been a compelling, intelligent, and not easy story. I think this is Alan Cummings’ Oscar, if he takes it on with all of its complications.

  2. How sad that such a great man, his memories and legacy have to be tarnished by another man’s warped sense to justify himself. How can you call yourself a writer, showing no truth or evidence in such starke accusations against a man of God. You have to stand before a very real God who has written clearly in His word. Padre Caskie understood His word very well and was comfortable ministering to the grandest and poorest of society. He lived Gods word and exemplified it. He knew his calling before God and pleased God. He didnt do it so you can use him as an excuse for your sin.

  3. I’ve just seen Genie’s comment above, and while I wouldn’t usually write a comment addressing something I wrote three years ago (and two years after KaleidoScot discontinued) it contains an accusation that I feel has to be refuted.

    That accusation is that I have rejected evidence and created falsehoods about someone in order to justify myself.

    Firstly, there is nothing in what I wrote that is new. I happen to know people who knew Donald Caskie, so it was very important to me to be accurate and sensitive to his memory. The TV documentary on BBC 2 was aired in 2001 and brought this into the public domain – Angus Peter Campbell’s observations were widely reported, including in the Scotsman. There were no objections from Donald Caskie’s family and friends, some of whom apparently were grateful for the sympathetic depiction of a complex man. The documentary was not salacious, and if it was critical of anyone it was the Church of Scotland for its treatment of their minister in his later years. People contributing to the documentary included Caskie’s friends, including colleague Rev John Cameron. Why would they fabricate this?

    If Campbell’s perspectives are acceptable to those who knew Donald Caskie well, then they’re acceptable to me. Campbell’s work was well researched and I have no reason to doubt that his evidence was good. I think it’s safe to assume the BBC would have found itself in a bit of trouble if the substance of Campbell’s documentary had been shown to be false.

    The idea that I would also “out” someone is as repugnant as the idea I would create falsehoods about someone’s sexuality. Everything I’ve said above has come from articles and interviews that are now over 15 years old. If any of it is mistaken there has been a long time in which to challenge it, but so far no-one has. I am simply stating what others have said in the public domain.

    I agree with your high opinions of Dr Caskie. What accusations do I make against him? None: I am simply taking evidence already widely circulated and using it to explain how a heroic figure was also a deeply complicated man with a more interesting life than many imagine. As I say, he was one of my heroes in my youth. Sexual orientation is about being, not doing – and there is no suggestion Caskie had any sexual relationships (I don’t know either way, but it seems reasonable to assume he didn’t). However, he did seem able to accept his identity even if he remained celibate. That in itself is quite remarkable in a time when most gay Christians would have struggled to accept themselves. Even the most conservative of Christians would not usually accept that simply being gay, and living a celibate life, is sinful. Indeed, they might even argue that his apparent lifelong celibacy is evidence of commitment to God.

    Finally, I do not have to justify myself. Justify what? What “sin” is it you refer to? As for pointing at others’ sin, may I suggest we take Jesus’ advice and both refrain from judging those we do not know, and whose circumstances we are not familiar with? What the Bible has to say about homosexuality (and I’m not convinced it is as clear as you suggest) pales into insignificance in comparison to what it tells us about how we judge others.

  4. What a brilliant book and someone who is so contemporary to our times and the way we are betraying our responsibilities to immigrants and refugees in his country.Lets all join together and find Safe Houses for all those threatened with deportation for no reason at all….and who is leading this ridiculous legislation?…the Conservatives,the party of Winston Churchill during the war!…what a SHAMBLES AND A TERRIBLE SHAME!

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