Below: The Rev. Donald (Mc)Caskie
The Tartan Pimpernel
by Alison MacRae
Have you heard about the Rev. Donald Caskie?
I read about him just recently and was surprised that I had not read anything about this man before, so I decided to do research and was even more amazed at what this man had done. That was all it took for me to decide this man's story should be told, so I have decided to put some flesh on his bones and bring Donald Caskie back to life for you to read about.
Donald was born in 1902, on the Isle of Islay, Scotland, which is known as "The Queen of the Hebrides". He had six brothers and one sister. His parents were Neil McCaskie and Margaret McCaskie, nee Currie. They were married in Greenock December 27th, 1897. Margaret was from Kildalton; Neil was born in Bowmore, both in Islay. Now it is a mystery why Donald went under the name Caskie when his birth certificate did show McCaskie.
I never did find out that reason.
His father was a farmer in the 1901 census. Later on, it was changed to a crofter.
What is a crofter?
Crofting is a form of land tenure and small-scale food production particular to the Scottish Highlands and the Islands of Scotland. Within the 19th-century townships, individual crofts were established on the better land and a large area of poorer-quality hill ground were shared by all the crofters of the township for grazing of their livestock.
Donald was educated at Bowmore school, then went to Dunoon Grammar School before studying arts and divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Donald was ordained as a Church of Scotland Minister in 1924. He got his first clergy position in the St. Andrews Parish Church in Gretna.
The government had given a grant for three churches to be built in Gretna in 1917. All three were completed in 1918, and St.Andrews celebrated its 100th Anniversary this year. The Rev.C. Bryan Haston, who is the present Minister provided this information.
Everything was very secretive about the war efforts and building of new villages/towns. There was an ammunition factory during 1914/18, so it was not easy finding out about the church from these war years.
I also wonder how many marriages Donald performed? Gretna was known for couples to elope and marry. The Scottish laws until 1929 were that boys had to be 14, and girls had to be 12 to marry without their parent's consent. After 1929 the age was brought up to 16 for both, still, no parents consent needed.
Donald was then appointed as the Minister at the Scots Kirk in Paris in 1935. France was still a liberated country.
On June 22, 1940, France was occupied by Germany. The Rev. Caskie started denouncing the evils of Nazism in his sermons from the pulpit each Sunday. This was leaked out and Donald had to flee from Paris.
The Church of Scotland had strongly advised him to return home. This he did not do; instead he fled south, He ended up in Marseilles. which was at that time part of Vichy France. He also refused a place on the last ship to Britain. He felt he could help the allied servicemen.
While in Marseilles he stayed at the British Seamen's Mission, which was near the Vieu-Port. Donald took over the Mission in July 1940. This was where he helped feed and clothe people. He then set up a refuge for stranded Britons. He sheltered hundreds of stranded British servicemen and escapees from Nazi persecution using the line that had been set up to escape. This was a difficult thing to do as it was always being changed to keep people from being captured and killed.
Donald then teamed up with Pastor Marcel Heuze, and with a Belgian whose name was Albert-Marie Edmond Guerisse, who took the alias name of a French Canadian friend. Lt.Cmdr Pat O'Leary, R.N. It was a great alias as he spoke English and French with an accent which fooled the Germans and disguised his Belgian accent. The number of escape routes that he helped to establish along with a network of safe houses was numerous.
This line was originally started up by an Ian Grant Garrow, who was a 2nd Lt. in the Highland Light Infantry. His regiment had surrendered on the Normandy coast, but he managed to escape. Then he was interned in Vichy where he started the escape route line. Ian was later captured and Albert-Marie Edmond Guerisse took over, thus it was named the "Pat Line."
After the war, Albert-Marie Edmond Guerisse was awarded the George Cross and Distinguished Service Order of the British Empire (honourary) – another great unsung hero during the Second World War.
The Vichy government was a puppet of the Germans. The then Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, and the Chief of The French State, Philippe Petain, after the war, were both charged with treason, and the Prime Minister was executed. The Chief of the French State got life in prison; he was already 89 and lived till he was 95.
France punished many Nazis collaborators after the war: 9,000 were executed during the liberation, 1,500 were executed after a trial, and 40,000 were given prison time.
Donald had been under suspicion for awhile and he knew the German authorities were watching him closely. This did not stop him from helping the allied servicemen. He was betrayed by a British person who must have been a German sympathizer to turn traitor on one of his own. Pastor Marcel Heuze was also captured and executed for his part in the movement.
Donald was luckier because of a lack of evidence he could not be charged. Part of that was his ability to speak Gaelic which confused the interrogators. He was ordered to leave Marseilles.
He left and went to Grenoble. He was employed by the University as a Chaplain for interned British soldiers and resident civilians. He still continued on with the resistance in helping to get the allied servicemen out of the country.
The Germans ordered all British civilians to be interned in Germany. Donald, with his charm, managed to talk an Italian commander into releasing many of them and they got to leave the country. Donald now was someone the Germans were watching very closely, so it was not long before he was arrested.
In 1943 he was put on trial and sentenced to death. He made a request to see a Pastor, which was granted and this saved his life. The Pastor, who was a German army padre, appealed to Berlin to spare the life of Rev. Donald Caskie. Donald spent the rest of the war years a P.O.W.
While in France he had successfully helped with over 2,000 allied servicemen to get out of France safely.
He was appointed an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) and also honoured by the French government for his wartime service.
The Church of Scotland mentions Donald this way: "He was engaged in church and patriotic duties in France."
He went back to the Scots Kirk in Paris. The church was in need of a lot of repairs as no maintenance had been done during the war years. Donald wrote a book about his wartime activities and the proceeds went to help with these renovations. The book is called The Tartan Pimpernel.
The Scots Kirk has been renovated three times, and twice Donald's book was used to help raise funds.
The Scots Kirk has had a lot of distinguished people worshipping there.
In 1924, Eric Liddell was a missionary teacher and a Scottish Olympian runner who refused to run on the sabbath day. He went to the Scots Kirk on the sabbath day and helped with the sermon from the pulpit to the congregation.
During the Treaty of Versailles, President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister worshipped at the Church.
In 1957, Queen Elizabeth laid the foundation stone; it has since been replaced during the last renovation to the Church.
Donald left the Scots Kirk in 1960 and returned to Scotland to be a Minister at different churches of the Church of Scotland. On his retirement, he moved to Edinburgh.
The last year of his life he moved to Greenock to be nearer his youngest brother, where he died in 1983.
Donald's remains are buried along with his parents. They are in the Kilarrow Parish church cemetery in Bowmore, Isle of Islay, which he had requested to be his resting place.
There are so many people like Rev. Donald Caskie that we have never read about. If it was not for these brave men, the outcome of the war certainly could have turned out much differently.
If it was not for his deep faith, and the love and loyalty to his country, with no regard for his own while life helping allied servicemen get out of France, he may have chosen a different path in life.
At left: Rev. Caskie's gravestone At right: Tributes to Rev. Caskie
Photos by Robin Morton