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.
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.
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.
“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.